On 10 December, the far-right libertarian economist Javier Milei takes office as Argentina’s president. To say that his victory in November’s elections was a shock would be an understatement. A few months ago, people who thought that Milei might become the next occupant of the Casa Rosada were largely dismissed as delusional. Widely known by the nickname ‘El Loco’ – the Madman – Milei became a TV personality in the mid-2010s, earning renown for his unhinged tirades against everything from feminism to climate change. He wants to legalise the carrying of guns, recriminalise abortion and abolish Argentina’s central bank. A former sex guru and front man of a Rolling Stones cover band, the mop-haired Milei has many well-known eccentricities. He claims to commune with his deceased dog through a spirit medium, and that four of the dogs he expensively cloned from the original pet offer him expert political and economic advice.
But behind all this, there is a hard ideological core. Milei styles himself an ‘anarcho-capitalist’, and once appeared on TV in a superhero costume as ‘General AnCap’. At political rallies he brandished a chainsaw to signify his coming assault on the Argentine state. In 2020 he became one of the loudest critics of the government’s Covid lockdowns, which he saw as emblematic of the state’s tyrannical overreach. But what resonated most with viewers, gaining him a massive social media following that has been key to his political rise, were his attacks on Argentina’s political class, which he calls the ‘caste’. Riding a wave of anti-establishment discontent, felt especially by younger people, he entered politics in 2021, winning election to the country’s lower house as a representative of the fringe Libertarian Party.
At the time, few expected him to mount a serious bid for power. But in August Milei stunned the country by finishing first in the nationwide open primaries, with 30 per cent of the vote. Sergio Massa, Argentina’s current minister of the economy and the candidate of the ruling Peronist coalition, finished second, with Patricia Bullrich of the centre-right Juntos por el Cambio (Together for Change) coalition coming third. When the first round of the presidential election was held in October, Milei came second as Massa staged a recovery, and Bullrich again finished third; it was Massa and Milei who advanced to the November run-off. At this point, many observers wondered whether Milei’s momentum had stalled. Would he be able to woo Bullrich’s voters, or would they tilt towards Massa? Polls over the following weeks pointed to a tight contest, and while a Milei victory certainly seemed possible, it seemed just as likely that the Peronists’ political machinery would give Massa the edge.
In the end, it wasn’t even close. The scale of Milei’s victory was startling. He won by 12 points, pulling in 56 per cent of the vote to Massa’s 44 and earning nearly three million more votes. Milei swept the map: he took 21 out of Argentina’s 24 provinces, in some cases winning by double digits. Even in Buenos Aires province, Peronism’s traditional stronghold and home to around two-fifths of the country’s population, he ran Massa a very close second, trailing by only 2 per cent. In the run-up to the election, Milei’s camp had questioned the integrity of the coming vote, no doubt hoping to spark protests à la Bolsonaro or 6 January if the count was close. But on the day, they pronounced themselves fully satisfied – their confidence as good an indication of the outcome as any exit poll. Massa saw the writing on the wall early, conceding before the results were even announced.
One doesn’t have to look far to find reasons for his defeat. As minister of the economy Massa presided over an upward spiral of inflation, now at 143 per cent, which has wreaked havoc on most people’s capacity to make ends meet. Forty per cent of the population are below the official poverty line; among those aged sixteen and under the figure is 57 per cent. The country’s finances are in disarray: external debt has risen to almost $300 billion, and the central bank’s foreign reserves are technically below zero, leaving no room for manoeuvre to defend the value of the peso. The need to hoover up foreign currency has led to a complex system of dollar-peso exchange rates, which vary depending on the type of transaction. Milei’s plan to ditch the peso and adopt the dollar as national currency is intended as a drastic solution to this turmoil. In October, Massa arranged a $6.5 billion credit line with China to keep the economy afloat and cover IMF loan payments that were about to fall due, but it didn’t do much to diminish the pervasive sense of crisis.
Milei’s victory marks the end of a political era in Argentina. The result is a damning verdict on the Peronist party, officially known as the Partido Justicialista, which has been in power for sixteen of the last twenty years and the dominant force in Argentinian politics since the country’s return to democracy in 1983. Its longevity stems in part from its constant ideological shape-shifting: emerging in the 1940s as a corporatist movement rooted in the urban working classes, in the 1990s under Carlos Menem it became a proponent of neoliberal structural reforms and sweeping privatisations, before morphing in the 2000s into a representative of the progressive Pink Tide under Néstor Kirchner.
It was Peronism’s protean character that enabled it to pick up the pieces in the wake of Argentina’s last major financial crisis, in 2001-02. Massive popular protests toppled Fernando de la Rúa of the Radical Civic Union, who was forced to flee the Casa Rosada in a helicopter. The main slogan of the protests gave vent to a repudiation of the whole political class: ‘¡Que se vayan todos!’ – ‘Out with all of them!’ But unlike in other Latin American countries, where new political forces spearheaded challenges to neoliberalism – Chávez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, Lula in Brazil – in Argentina, Peronism succeeded in channelling popular grievances, remaking itself as the solution to a crisis it had helped to create.
Under Kirchner and his successor, his widow Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina made enough of a recovery to fund significant economic redistribution and to pay off the country’s debts to the IMF. Kirchnerismo, as this iteration of Peronism came to be known, shored up the party’s support among the working class without resolving the underlying structural problems of Argentina’s economy. In the 2010s, growth began to slow, wages stagnated and inflation crept up. The Peronists lost power in 2015, defeated by Mauricio Macri’s centre-right coalition. Macri reversed many of Kirchner’s policies, taking out a $57 billion IMF loan – the biggest in the organisation’s history – and implementing austerity. The damage this did enabled the Peronists to return in 2019, with Alberto Fernández (no relation to Cristina) winning the presidency. But Covid hit Argentina hard: despite a lengthy official lockdown, its mortality rate reached 289 per 100,000 and the economy is still reeling, with GDP yet to return to its 2017 level.
The crumbling support for Kirchnerismo was a key factor in Milei’s victory. In Gran Buenos Aires, the sprawling conurbation ringing the capital, Massa proved unable to inspire the kind of turnout that carried his Peronist predecessors to power. Even though he won by 55 per cent to 45 in this district, Milei nonetheless prevented him from building up a big enough pile of votes to compensate for his huge losses elsewhere. Many of the neighbourhoods that make up the conurbano are home to Argentina’s increasing number of informal workers, by some calculations now around 40 per cent of the labour force, who by definition fall outside the structures Peronism has used to mobilise support. It seems likely that these low-paid gig workers made up a significant portion of Milei’s voter base, both in Buenos Aires province and nationwide.
The early evidence also points to a generational rift. While the majority of voters over 45 supported Massa, those under 35 favoured Milei – and massively so in the case of voters aged 16 to 24, 69 per cent of whom went for Milei. This is a cohort who have known nothing but Kirchnerismo; many of them weren’t even born at the time of the 2001 crisis. In this context it’s especially striking that Milei and his supporters have taken up the ‘Que se vayan todos’ slogan. In 2001-02, it emerged out of popular protests that had a strong left-wing slant; this time, the rage against the political class has been orchestrated from the far right.
Yet despite Milei’s invective against the ‘caste’, the support of established centre-right and right-wing parties was another critical factor in his success. Two days after the first round of voting in October, Macri, the former president, hosted a meeting at his apartment at which he brokered a deal between his coalition’s candidate, the defeated Bullrich, and Milei’s team, including his sister, Karina (Milei calls Karina ‘the Boss’, and she is widely known to be the political brains of his operation). The terms remain unclear – there are rumours that Macri offered Milei $15 million in campaign financing in exchange for cabinet posts – but the outcome was decisive. Bullrich endorsed Milei, who took the lion’s share of ‘orphan votes’ from the first round, and his gains in the second round map closely enough onto Bullrich’s result to make it seem probable that her voters switched to him en masse.
This means that Milei’s electoral breakthrough isn’t quite the libertarian surge it might seem, but signals an alignment between Argentina’s established centre right and its new libertarian far right – something Macri, Bullrich et al see as preferable to the continuation of Kirchnerismo. They may be betting that Milei’s need for their support will enable them to temper his more extreme ideas. Though Milei’s coalition, La Libertad Avanza, gained 34 congressional deputies and eight senate seats in the October elections, it remains far short of a governing majority, and will need votes from Together for Change, which has 93 deputies and 24 senators, to implement its agenda. The centre right seems set to supply some of the key personnel for Milei’s new government: Bullrich has been tipped to run the Ministry of Security, and Macri’s former finance minister, Luis Caputo, is going to return to the role.
It seems, in other words, that the incoming Milei administration is likely to combine previously fringe ideas with more familiar policies. Milei may struggle to get some of his more extreme libertarian ideas through Congress: legalising the sale of organs, for instance, or abolishing the central bank. He may backtrack on his commitment to dollarising the economy, especially since it will be difficult to implement. Argentina doesn’t have anywhere near enough foreign currency reserves to begin using actual greenbacks, though the term ‘dollarisation’ could in theory include a range of measures short of that, such as legalising dollar-denominated transactions to make the US currency a parallel unit of account alongside the peso.
The core of Milei’s agenda, though, is new only in the intensity of its pro-market fervour. His plans to slash government spending imply drastic austerity in the short term – and his commitment to remove price controls on basic goods could lead to even higher inflation. But beyond these cuts, Milei envisages a radical shrinking of the state. He has promised to abolish several government departments, including the Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity, and to merge the ministries of education, health, labour and social development into a single Ministry of Human Capital – a term beloved of Chicago School economists. Recently he announced that ‘everything that can be in the hands of the private sector will be in the hands of the private sector.’ Among the enterprises in line for privatisation are YPF, the national oil company, and the national energy company, Enarsa, as well as publicly owned media outlets. The impending fire sale of Argentinian assets is warming hearts on Wall Street, where the price of shares in the country’s companies and banks climbed on news of Milei’s victory.
All this may sound familiar. The same neoliberal recipe was applied in the 1990s under Menem, contributing to the pile-up of economic woes that ended in crisis in 2001-02. But this time the surge of austerity and privatisation is likely to have a much more authoritarian cast. It’s telling that the security services are the one part of the state Milei has promised to expand. His coalition includes the ultra-conservative Fuerza Republicana, originally a vehicle for a former general who led vicious counterinsurgency operations in Tucumán province in the late 1970s. Milei’s vice president, Victoria Villarruel, is the daughter of a soldier who served in Tucumán and the Falklands/Malvinas, while her uncle was stationed at a clandestine detention centre run by the junta that ruled the country between 1976 and 1983. According to human rights groups and organisations representing victims’ families, the military killed or disappeared as many as thirty thousand people during the so-called Dirty War. Villarruel made her name by questioning the country’s hard-won reckoning with state violence, calling instead for a ‘complete memory’ of the dictatorship – meaning that blame should be shifted away from the military and back to the left-wing movements they repressed. Her presence on the Milei ticket points to another reason for the generational differences in voting patterns. For younger voters, the dictatorship is ancient history. But those old enough to remember it take very seriously the injunction of the 1984 truth commission’s report, ‘Nunca Más’ – Never Again.
The pattern of centre-right parties aligning with an insurgent far right won’t be news to residents of Brazil, the US, Italy, or indeed the UK. In that sense, recent events in Argentina conform to an ugly existing trend, in which the multiplying crises of liberal democracy produce political breaks to the right and attempts to impose ever harsher versions of the same economic medicine. Argentina’s centre right are seemingly betting that they can use Milei to further their own ends, but this may prove a catastrophically irresponsible wager. As Latin America’s experiences of dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s show, when the centre right and right converge the latter tends to drag the former along.
In a radio interview on 27 October, Macri used a hair-raising analogy to describe the options facing Argentina in the November run-off. ‘You’re driving at 100 [km per hour], you’re going to hit a wall and you know that you’ll die, so you throw yourself from the car.’ For Macri, a Peronist victory was the wall and voting for Milei was the last-ditch dive onto the tarmac. ‘Will you survive?’ he asked. ‘I don’t know, but you have a chance, right?’ The image was all the more vivid in that it came from the man who had, only three days earlier, brokered the pact that eventually helped carry Milei to victory. On 19 November, Argentinians opted to throw themselves out of the moving car. But as this troubling new chapter in the country’s political history begins, they are unlikely to forget that there were other people in the car, who opened the door and gave them a hefty push.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.