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Argentina’s Javier Milei declares war on the opposition after his mega-bill to dismantle the state is rejected

‘We are not going to continue negotiating with those who demand to keep their privileges,’ the Argentine president warned Congress

Javier Milei Ley Ómnibus
A group of people celebrate the defeat of President Milei's bill at the gates of the Argentine Congress this Tuesday.MATIAS MARTIN CAMPAYA (EFE)

Javier Milei’s government suffered an unexpected and very harsh defeat this Tuesday in Argentina’s Chamber of Deputies. By rejecting numerous articles of Milei’s omnibus bill to scrap the state, the opposition infuriated the ruling party, which chose to adjourn the session and leave the bill frozen until further notice.

“The [provincial] governors made the decision to destroy [Milei’s controversial reform bill] article by article, hours after agreeing to support it,” the government wrote in an official statement. “We are not going to continue arguing with those who demand to keep their privileges,” it added.

After the legislative setback, Milei chose to turn the political heat up higher in an already polarized society and stressed that it is a fight of “the caste [the elites] against the people” in which he is not going to give in. “We are going to continue with our program with or without the support of the political leadership that destroyed our country,” he warned from Israel, where he is currently traveling before visiting Pope Francis at the Vatican.

Milei’s strategy is simple: blame opposition politicians, even those who were willing to support him, for not letting him govern. However, if he refuses to negotiate with Congress, it is not clear what his plan will be in order to develop the program that he wants to carry out.

Milei’s party, La Libertad Avanza (Liberty Advances), is in the minority in both parliamentary chambers: it has 38 of 257 deputies and seven of 72 senators. Its territorial power is even weaker, since it does not control any of the country’s 24 provinces. After renouncing almost half of the 644 articles of the omnibus bill, the ruling party had managed to get a general approval for it on Friday. The negotiations seemed on track for the approval of a large majority of the points that remained outstanding. However, it was not to be.

The president’s inflexiblity in recent days regarding the changes requested by some provincial governors led to the rejection of a much higher number of articles than expected, and the government backed down and decided to return the project to discussion by committees.

Although Oscar Zago, the head of La Libertad Avanza in Congress, has shown himself willing to resume the parliamentary debate before the end of the week, there are many who doubt that he will be able to get it done. Whether it was due to being caught up in moment or to political inexperience, the opposition deputies learned after support had been withdrawn, the return to the committee stages, as the rules stipulate, the return to a clean slate. In other words, the approval in general is annulled, and lawmakers have to start all over again.

Milei relies on the popular support he obtained in the second round of the presidential elections against the Peronist Sergio Massa to justify his refusal to give in on articles such as the delegation of legislative powers, the privatization of public companies, and increased funding for the provinces. “Our government program was voted for by 56% of Argentines and we are not willing to negotiate it with those who destroyed the country,” he warned on social media.

Surveys show that public opinion of this 53-year-old economist has worsened in his first two months in office, but it is still high. There are only three peripheral provinces in which the Argentine president is viewed negatively rather than positively, according to the survey by CB Consultora Opinión Pública and published by the Argentine newspaper Clarín.

The presidential slogan of “the caste against the people” quickly became a trend on social media this Tuesday, and attacks against opposition politicians have proliferated. The Kirchnerists, on the contrary, celebrated the — temporary — withdrawal of the law. The news also spread like wildfire through cell phones and reached the doors of Congress, where a group of protesters were protesting against the law. “And now you see, and now you see, this is for [the Minister of Security, Patricia] Bullrich who’s watching it on TV,” they began to sing when they found out that the ruling party had adjourned the session.

This Tuesday’s defeat has exposed Milei’s legislative fragility, but has also reaffirmed his willingness to clash with anyone who opposes his interests. One of the options being considered is that the president calls for a plebiscite to validate his legislative project, but this would be non-binding. “If people do not understand that the president is willing to transform reality, they are wrong. He will continue to do so. If he has to resort to a plebiscite, he will do that too,” said Minister of the Interior, Guillermo Francos. The warnings are accompanied by a threat: if the law is not approved, the fiscal adjustment will be greater than initially anticipated.

Internal crisis

Milei’s star legislative package began to be debated more than two weeks ago in extraordinary sessions called in the middle of the summer in the Southern Hemisphere. The government’s attack against the political class has frayed tempers even among its allies. This afternoon, the ten governors of the center-right coalition Juntos por el Cambio (Together for Change) were upset by the criticism and claimed to have worked “tirelessly” to achieve the consensus necessary to get the text approved. “Then it is not appropriate that they hold us all equally responsible or that they disrespect us by alleging a lack of desire for dialogue and inability [to find a consensus] on our part,” they said in a statement.

Since his inauguration speech on December 10, Milei insists that there is no alternative to his economic plan, which includes a very harsh fiscal adjustment of five points of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), equivalent to about $20 billion. “There is no money,” he reiterates in speeches and on social media when justifying successive spending cuts. The last of them was the increase in the price of public transportation, which during the government of Peronist Alberto Fernández was massively subsidized.

Between the beginning of January and now, the lowest bus fare in Buenos Aires has multiplied by five, from 52 to 270 pesos. Converted to dollars — equivalent to $0.31 at the official price — a ticket costs less than in neighboring countries, but it represents a new blow to the finances of hundreds of thousands of commuters who travel from the periphery into the Argentine capital every day, and who are seeing how the country’s galloping inflation — 211.4% in 2023 — is eating away at their earnings ever more rapidly. If there is no improvement in the short term, it is likely Milei will be fighting to save his popularity.

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