The election of Javier Milei and the challenges of an impoverished Argentina
In December 2001, Argentina experienced one of the most dramatic moments in its history. The collapse of convertibility – the monetary stabilisation plan that established parity between the dollar and the peso – brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets to protest against the government’s confiscation of their money, the “corralito”.
In an already historic moment, then-President Fernando de la Rúa fled the Casa Rosada in a helicopter after resigning, to the disbelief of the demonstrators occupying Plaza de Mayo.
Almost 22 years later, the Argentinian population seems to have finally found a figure who could effectively express the “let them all go” slogan that marked that December.
Javier Milei, a far-right economist and founder of the La Libertad Avanza (LLA) party, was elected president of Argentina by defeating Peronist Sergio Massa in the second round held last Sunday.
The more than ten-point lead between Milei and Massa once again called into question the credibility of the polling institutes, which had been predicting a tight race defined by narrow margins. However, there were signs this picture was wrong since the first round. In the first round of voting in October, the sum of the votes given to Milei and Patrícia Bullrich already exceeded Massa’s vote by around 15%.
Victory in 20 of the country’s 23 provinces
In the end, Milei managed to retain more than 80% of Bullrich’s votes and expanded his electoral base by more than 324,000 votes compared to the right-wing’s performance in the first round. The result was a resounding victory, with Milei beating Massa in 20 of the country’s 23 provinces, as well as the federal capital, Buenos Aires. In traditional anti-Peronist strongholds, such as Mendoza, the difference was over 40%, but Milei won in five of the eight provinces currently governed by Peronism.
Understanding the reasons behind this situation is an endeavour that will last for some years. In a preliminary analysis, the results can be read as the expected end of an atypical electoral cycle in which a society punished by a decade of economic stagnation and various failed stabilisation plans decided to punish the traditional political forces. In other words, faced with the rejection of known formulas, the unknown was embraced.
The striking fact is that this discontent has found its main representative in Javier Milei. Milei is an aggressive figure, visibly unprepared, without firm social foundations and who has become known more for idiosyncrasies than for the defence of a project or a track record in politics.
Extreme and rabid campaigning
Milei ran a campaign in his image and likeness: histrionic, extreme and angry, symbolised by the chainsaw with which he sought – metaphorically, one hopes – to destroy the “caste”, the expression by which he referred to the country’s politicians. To this, he added half a dozen slogans (“dollarisation”, “freedom”, “end the Central Bank”), about which little explanation was given, and built the successful campaign that took him to the Casa Rosada.
Understanding this phenomenon requires consideration of transformations underway in Argentine society, ranging from the changes wrought by communication in the internet age to the advance of job insecurity and the marginalisation of large parts of the population from markets and formal state protection networks.
In this sense, it must be recognised that Milei has shown a greater ability to read the current situation than his opponents. He understood that fatigue with the government would not be represented in gradual formulas, as proposed by the coalition Juntos por el Cambio, and made room for accepting a shock therapy proposal.
In this respect, the proposal to dollarise the economy proved a smart electoral move, as it won over younger voters, who have no memory of the collapse of the 1990s and feel the direct impact of a stagnant economy just as they enter the labour market.
Whilst it is necessary to broaden the effort to understand the roots of this result, it is also necessary to reflect on its implications moving forward.
‘Change needs to be drastic, with no middle ground’
Milei himself seems to be aware that his agenda is less feasible than he made it out to be during the campaign. During his victory speech, Milei made no reference to dollarisation or the abolition of the Central Bank, but he made it clear the path he intends to follow is one of shock therapy. He stated: “The changes we need are drastic. There is no room for gradualism, there is no room for middle ground.”
Implementing this shock agenda represents a politically very complex operation. Passing laws and projects that require a qualified majority will require agreements with sectors of Peronism, but the challenge doesn’t end there. The adoption of shock therapy tends to produce very costly effects in terms of employment and income, which could unleash waves of protests that could jeopardise the country’s already difficult governability.
In this context, Milei’s political sustainability will depend on building a network of support that goes beyond votes in the House and Senate and makes a name for itself on the streets.
Will Milei be restrained?
To what extent Milei will be able to make these articulations without losing his anti-system legitimacy is unknown.
Another open question, and a potentially more serious one, concerns the impact of Milei’s presidency on Argentina’s democratic institutions. At the moment, there seems to be an expectation in the country’s traditional circles that the president-elect will be moderate, restrained by the weight of the office, and that his virulent tone is more a candidate’s speech than an expression of temperament.
However, one of the lessons to be learned from the experiences of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is that expectations of moderation are frustrated by far-right politicians. The notion that the Republican Party or the armed forces would contain Trump and Bolsonaro, respectively, was not only wrong, but what we saw was a radicalisation of these actors, who mostly adhered to the authoritarian projects of their leaders.
To deny the authoritarian DNA of Milei’s project, as the traditional Argentinian right has done, is to close one’s eyes to the obvious in order to avoid facing one’s own contradictions. In the campaign committee, posters with Milei’s face were accompanied by the phrase “the only solution”.
Now, if a figure claims to be the only solution to the country’s problems, all those who oppose that solution automatically become part of the problem.
How the new Argentine president intends to deal with this scenario is something we’ll soon find out, but the clues offered by Milei and Argentine history suggest that the vibrant capacity for mobilisation that distinguishes Argentine society may be more necessary than ever.