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Despite frequent protests over economic hardship in recent weeks, we assess that the elections will pass off peacefully

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 28 September 2023.

  • First-round presidential, legislative and gubernatorial elections are scheduled in Argentina on 22 October
  • Economic, rather than political, developments remain the most probable trigger for widespread violent unrest in the coming months, but this scenario remains unlikely

We assess that any major security incidents or social upheaval are unlikely around the national elections scheduled in Argentina next month. First-round presidential and legislative elections are due on 22 October. Near-daily protests in recent weeks have caused movement disruption, particularly in Buenos Aires. But most of these have been over economic hardship, rather than the polls themselves. None of the leading presidential candidates has raised serious questions about the legitimacy of the upcoming polls, and recent elections in Argentina have been peaceful. We doubt this will change over the next month.

Downbeat public sentiment

The public mood in Argentina ahead of the elections has been one of helplessness. This is mainly due to the state of the economy: the annual rate of inflation reached 124% in August, according to official statistics. Other state figures suggest that the proportion of Argentines living in poverty rose to just over 40% during the first half of the year, 3.6 percentage points higher than during the same period in 2022. With inflation accelerating since June, the poverty rate is probably higher now.

There seems to be a perception among part of the public that the economic situation is likely to remain ‘grim’ for a long time. Victory for Javier Milei at an open primary election on 13 August is partly feeding this mood, particularly among left-wing activists and people who depend on government support in our analysis. He is a right-wing libertarian economist and a relative outsider whose proposals include significantly cutting public spending, dollarising the economy and closing the Central Bank. Even so, his radical plans are clearly resonating with parts of the Argentine public.

The result of the primary election last month, as well as voter intention polling since, suggests that Milei will probably become the next president. Many Argentines see the other leading candidates (Sergio Massa of the centre-left governing coalition, and Patricia Bullrich from the conservative Juntos por el Cambio coalition) as representing the policies that have resulted in the current economic turmoil, in our analysis; swaths of voters seem to think that a radical overhaul of Argentina’s economy is necessary. Even so, press reports suggest that Milei’s proposals have prompted concern among activists and economists alike as to their feasibility and what social impact they would have.

Frequent protests until elections

Left-wing activists and trade unions are highly likely to hold frequent demonstrations until the elections. Several hundred anti-poverty activists have joined peaceful protests several times a week this month in central Buenos Aires and other cities, a pattern that we anticipate to continue over the next month. Larger, albeit infrequent, rallies are also probable. The CGT (Argentina’s largest union confederation) has announced plans to hold a rally outside Congress in Buenos Aires at 1400hrs on 29 September to back a government proposal to temporarily suspend several taxes. Several constituent unions have reportedly committed to join this, so at least several thousand people will probably turn out.

We anticipate that some left-wing activists will protest after the results of the first-round presidential election are announced next month (typically within hours of the polls closing). This would also be the case after a run-off election on 19 November, which appears probable. This is because most voter intention polls suggest that while Milei will fall short of winning the election outright next month, he is best placed to come first in both rounds.

Some of Milei’s campaign proposals – such as that to privatise certain public institutes and to hold a referendum on criminalising abortion – have prompted hundreds of activists to demonstrate in recent weeks. While these have been peaceful, in a sign of the strength of opposition to his ideas, some anti-poverty activists have alluded to Milei’s promises as being ‘fascist’.

Major unrest unlikely over the coming months

A period of violent unrest around or following the elections is unlikely, in our assessment. Campaigning so far has been peaceful, and there have been very few allegations among activists or the candidates that the elections will be anything other than free or fair. Milei claimed after the primary election that ‘fraud’ had prevented him from gaining more votes. But he has not raised any doubts about the electoral process since. Several Western governments have advised their citizens to expect protests around the polls, but none has issued any specific security warnings concerning the elections.

Rather than political events, we continue to assess that a severe and sudden deterioration of living standards is the most probable trigger for widespread violent unrest in Argentina. Based on current indications, and Argentine history, the most probable ways this could occur include:

  • Hyperinflation takes hold, preventing people from buying basic goods
  • The IMF decides not to release the next tranche of funding to Argentina (this is scheduled for November)
  • The government announces immediate and significant cuts to social spending
  • The government prevents people from withdrawing their money from banks

For now, none of these appear likely to occur before the elections. The economy minister, and government presidential candidate, Sergio Massa has recently announced tax breaks, bonuses for low-income workers and a rise in the minimum wage, suggesting that the government is highly unlikely to cut social support. Recent public comments from IMF officials also suggest that the Fund is still willing to work with the government, despite the latter largely failing to meet its targets and commitments for this year.

Image: Argentina’s Economy Minister and presidential candidate for the Union por la Patria party, Sergio Massa, speaks to his supporters during a campaign rally in Buenos Aires on 29 September 2023, ahead of Argentina’s presidential elections on 22 October. Photo by Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images.