🔮 Tired Argentinian politics give victory to far-right libertarian Milei

On 13 August 2023, Argentinians voted in primary elections to choose candidates for positions including the presidency. All established candidates have now dropped out of the presidential race, granting success to the far-right libertarian economist Javier Milei. Massimo D’Angelo examines the key election results

In 2023, Argentina celebrated 40 years of uninterrupted democracy. It is the longest such period in the country's history since the last military regime fell, after the disastrous war in the Falklands/Malvinas. Democracy persisted even through the devastating 2001 economic crisis, which saw five Presidents of the Republic in just 11 days. Surely good reason to celebrate!

However, these latest elections arrived at a time when Argentina’s inflation had surpassed 100%. In February 2023, Argentinian inflation hit a high of 102.5%, and many consumer goods have doubled in price since 2022. As the government capped food prices to control inflation, economic woes, and poverty, grew. A 20% surge in meat prices has also contributed to recent food sector inflation.

The most prominent political leaders in Argentina decided not to run for president

In March, highlighting ongoing economic challenges, the IMF approved a $6bn bailout for Argentina, part of a $44bn package. Political division persists in the country, one of the world's most polarised nations. Given Argentina's challenging economic environment, it is striking that none of the country's most prominent political leaders were willing to run for president.

Political leaders drop out

The first to go was current president Alberto Fernández, from the Peronist coalition. Fernández withdrew amid a failing economy, dwindling approval ratings, and coalition conflicts. Other lingering challenges plaguing his presidency included soaring inflation and rising poverty.

Fernández’s tenure was marred by profound discord with his vice president, former President (2007–2015) Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Kirchner, widely acknowledged as the true coalition leader, received a six-year prison sentence on corruption charges. She too opted not to vie for office, avoiding involvement in what she dubbed a ‘twisted game’ and a ‘democratic façade’ that could lead to her judicial disqualification.

Lastly, the ex-president of the 2015–2019 conservative coalition, Mauricio Macri, also declared his non-participation. Instead, he vowed to work to ease the coalition’s expansion efforts.

And as the top figures from both coalitions stepped aside, this allowed lesser-known political figures to cast about for support. The resignations of Fernández and Kirchner suggested they were trying to distance themselves from their earlier, unsuccessful, policies. But, despite the shock resignations, the primary results for November’s official candidate are pretty clear.

Who is Javier Milei?

Javier Milei is a 52-year-old economist who previously worked for the World Economic Forum. He has emerged as a political outsider whose far-right libertarian outlook is making significant inroads into Argentina’s political landscape. In 2019, Milei established his own party, La Libertad Avanza (Freedom Advances). Surpassing all predictions, he secured 30% of the vote in the primaries. Milei positioned himself politically in-between the centre-right coalition led by Patricia Bullrich, which gained 28.27% of the vote, and Sergio Massa's Peronist party, which gained 27.27%.

Milei advocates for abolishing the central bank, for dollarisation, and for contentious policies like legalising organ sales. Crucially, he is also against abortion. Analysts identify his unorthodox charisma and promise of change as reason for his resonance with embattled, cash-strapped voters.

A populist leader, but different nonetheless

Despite his elite academic and professional background, Milei presents himself as an underdog in Argentine politics. And he does share some traits typical of populist leaders, including an anti-establishment rhetoric. 'We’ve had 40 years of failures, don’t tell me this time will be different,' he declared. 'The central problem is that the solution to the problem is in the hands of the same problem, which is the politicians.'

Comparisons with Trump or Bolsonaro abound. But Milei's closest parallel is, in fact, with US Republican candidate Ron De Santis, who, like Milei, studied at prestigious American universities and steered his political trajectory using an anti-establishment narrative. Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti note correctly that contemporary populists often maintain mainstream positions, yet deem it crucial to project an image distinct from 'the establishment’.

Analysts should avoid jumping to hasty conclusions when comparing Javier Milei with other regional leaders, such as Trump or Bolsonaro

Sebastián Mazzuca of Johns Hopkins University agrees that analysts should avoid jumping to hasty conclusions when comparing Javier Milei with other regional leaders. While it is true that Milei follows the well-established path of many populist leaders around the world, there are notable distinctions.

Firstly, Milei founded his own personalised party. Secondly, unlike (say) Trump, Milei is a knowledgeable economist. Indeed, while Milei understands, '[p]erhaps too much' about economics, he should quickly learn how to translate this theoretical knowledge into practical political programmes. Finally, and most importantly, Mazzuca notes that Trump’s madness clashed with independent institutions which had a longstanding tradition: civil and military bureaucracies, whistleblowers of all kinds and colours, and, above all, justice. Argentina, by contrast, is dominated by a patrimonial State. Thus, institutional resistance to Trumpian irrationality would be less robust – and that could indeed lead to alarming consequences.

Role in the forthcoming elections

Milei’s unexpected ascent has jolted Argentina's political landscape. It has the potential for significant influence on the forthcoming October presidential election. However, Orçun Selçuk observes that the slender margin between the top three factions makes it challenging to predict a victor. A runoff vote appears likely.

Amid economic struggles and heightened polarisation, the Argentine electorate has sounded a warning to the ruling elite

Most notable is the failure of a weary two-coalition model to revitalise Argentina's political landscape. Peronism remains entwined with Cristina Kirchner, while the right-wing coalition has lacked effective leadership since Macri. Amid economic struggles and heightened polarisation, the Argentine electorate has sounded a warning to the ruling elite. The decision of the principal leadership not to contest the presidency has smoothed the way for Milei.

36 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Author

photograph of Massimo D'Angelo
Massimo D'Angelo
PhD Candidate, Diplomacy and International Governance, Loughborough University London

Massimo's interests are Turkey and the international dimension of authoritarianism.

His research is on the consequences of the Turkish regime's European Union accession negotiations.

He tweets @maxioffida

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