An Unexpected Win Upends Argentine Politics

An Unexpected Win Upends Argentine Politics

Libertarian economist and media personality Javier Milei’s surprising primary win highlights widespread frustration with a political and economic system that clearly is not working.

Ahead of the August 13 primary, it had been a given that Argentina was moving to the political Right as all of the major presidential candidates were more conservative than the leftist/populist Kirchners, Nestor and Cristina, and their followers, who had governed for the bulk of the last twenty years. However, this shift to the Right now appears to be more of a lurch, with libertarian economist and media personality Javier Milei gaining over 30 percent of the vote, more than 10 percent above what polls had predicted, making him the largest vote-getter among those running.

The Far Right Comes on Strong

Argentina’s primary system has two functions. When multiple candidates from different parties run under the same slate in a coalition it determines who will carry its banner into the general election (scheduled this year for October 22), and if necessary, the runoff between the top two candidates (scheduled for November 19). For those who, like Milei, run unopposed on their own slate, it is a measure of their popularity, and doing well in the primary can give a candidate a real boost ahead of the general election.

Milei ran under the rubric of his own “Freedom Advances” party, taking 30.04 percent of the total vote. The slate with the next highest total, 28.28 percent, was “Together for Change,” the principal opposition grouping which is an alliance of the old-line Radical Civic Union, the traditional party of Argentina’s middle class, and Republican Proposal, a newer formation which under Mauricio Macri had held the presidency from 2015 until 2019, when the Peronists returned to power.

Of the two leading figures running to head the “Together for Change” ticket, the more conservative figure, former Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, came in ahead, beating Buenos Aires mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, 16.98 to 11.30 percent—another indication of a rightward trend in the current political cycle.

The other slate, “Union for the Fatherland,” which groups the major factions among the Peronists together with some independents, came in third with 27.27 percent. The Peronists coalesced around Economy Minister Sergio Massa, a pragmatic figure, rather than anyone associated with the leftist/populist wing led by former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in the hope that this would put them closer to the electorate’s current views.

Massa had hoped to gain a boost by getting at least 30 percent of the votes and being the largest single vote-getter. But with the economy in an abysmal state, this was not to be. He only received 21.40 percent with 5.87 percent going to social activist Juan Grabois, who ran as a token representative of the left wing of Peronism but has pledged to support Massa in the general election.

Who is Javier Milei?

Milei’s background is decidedly different from that of his rivals, all career politicians. An economist with graduate degrees from local universities, his work includes acting as a consultant to one of Argentina’s magnates. However, he is best known as a television personality, espousing the libertarian gospel of a limited “watchman” state which eschews the spending on social welfare that has been a tenet of Argentine policy for the last century.

His flagship issue is the replacement of Argentine’s much-devalued peso with the U.S. dollar and the concomitant abolition of the central bank. He has called for a massive shrinkage of public employment, as well as the privatization of state-owned enterprises, and has shown an affinity for conservative recipes such as replacing public schools, medical services, etc., with vouchers and other market-oriented incentives.

Although his message is primarily economic he has taken some hard Right stances on other issues. These include opposing abortion, which was legalized in Argentina only recently, giving a free hand to the police, and loosening controls on private ownership of guns. He is a climate change skeptic. At the same time, he takes libertarian positions regarding gender and sexuality.

Milei’s allure, however, has been less his program’s specifics and more his persona and rhetoric. With an unruly mop of hair, thick sideburns, and a penchant for leather jackets, he projects a rock star image. He has derided Argentina’s political establishment, both Peronist and opposition, as a corrupt, intransigent “caste.”

Once considered a fringe figure, he has capitalized on frustration with a political and economic system that clearly is not working. His support seemingly comes from those in the middle class who want stronger medicine than then the traditional opposition has provided. This includes younger voters (Argentines can vote from age sixteen) and, more notably, elements of the working class that previously supported the leftist/populist approach and the now somewhat tattered cult of personality of the Kirchners.

Milei has major weaknesses, of course. His genuine political experience consists of only a term as a deputy in Argentina’s congress. He has spoken publicly of his conflicts with his father, his experience with psychotherapy, and his sexual history. His inner circle is small and his chief advisor is his sister, who is distrusted by many who otherwise support him. His temper can flare up when pressed.

While his “throw the bums out” rhetoric rather than his program or his skill set has seemingly driven him to become a serious contender, he himself rejects the assertion that he is just a protest candidate benefiting from the “voto bronca” (the vote of anger). He argues that if voters just wanted to register their unhappiness they could just as easily have voted for candidates on the far Left (which exists both within and outside of Peronism) and that his libertarian message is in fact getting through to voters.

But Can He Win?

As one of three top candidates each commanding a bit less than a third of the vote, and with the wind of his primary success at his back, a Milei victory is perfectly plausible; if he repeats his primary results, he will be one of the two candidates to emerge from the first round of the general election, leaving the outcome of a second round as anyone’s guess.

Of course, he may stumble. Argentine politics is volatile and large swings in voter support are not unknown. His fitness for high office will come under scrutiny as well as his extreme positions, such as a recent statement that he would break relations with China “because it is communist” and that MERCOSUR, a regional trade bloc, should be “eliminated.” The “Together for Change” coalition’s Patricia Bullrich may come across to many as a safer, though still extremely conservative candidate. However, she has gone through a bruising primary, which may in fact have driven many opposition-minded voters into Milei’s arms, and it is not clear how unified her coalition is at this point.

As for Sergio Massa, though burdened with defending Argentina’s dismal economic state, his coalition came in only slightly behind Bullrich’s. We can expect that he will run against Milei’s plans to brutally dismantle Argentina’s welfare state. Still, with the economy powdering away, it is by no means impossible that Peronism, once dominant, even hegemonic, might not even make it to a second round.

Contemplating a Milei Presidency

Given that Milei’s election must be viewed as a distinct possibility, the question arises as to what his administration would look like. In the aftermath of his primary success, he is not backing away from his signature issue of dollarization and abolition of the central bank. (His chief economic advisor, has, however, said that dollarization would be a gradual, multi-step process.) And he has recently stated that he would be even tougher in implementing an adjustment than the IMF is demanding.

For this and his other big plans, he would need legislative approval. Even if a relatively conservative Congress is elected, he would likely need the votes of members of the “Together for Change” coalition, many of whom may not be disposed to go as far as he proposes. He has suggested that if necessary he would resort to provisions in Argentina’s constitution that allow for referenda. However, the circumstances under which these are permitted are limited, and any referendum which he would call might be non-binding, useful only as a tool of persuasion.

The one Argentine president for whom Milei has expressed admiration is Carlos Menem, whose policies when in office (1989–1999) included a fixed exchange rate, with the peso linked to the dollar, and a privatization policy that was aggressive though flawed by corruption. Former President Macri has also reached out to Milei following the primary (though he still is supporting Bullrich). We thus could conceivably see a Milei administration staffed at least in part by former Macri officials and perhaps even a few from the more distant Menem administration such as the University of Chicago-educated former economy minister Roque Fernández, a Milei adviser.

Rough Sailing Ahead

Uncertainty has long characterized Argentina in the eyes of investors and the outcome of the primary has only increased it. This has become manifested in the country’s volatile foreign exchange rate, which was jolted by the unexpected primary result. In the face of pressure on the peso, Economy Minister and presidential candidate Massa announced on August 14 a general devaluation from 287 to 350 per dollar—something he had hoped to avoid until after the general election, at least, while the Central Bank raised the benchmark interest rate by 21 percent to 118 percent. The devaluation came as the informal or “blue” rate, 420 pesos per dollar only four months ago, but steadily rising since then, skyrocketed to 790 per dollar, before settling somewhat lower.