No matter who wins the presidential election in Argentina on 19 November, the result will be difficult to understand.
We will have to explain either why the Argentinians have elected an apparently mentally disturbed radical libertarian like Javier Milei, or why they have elected the incumbent economy minister, Sergio Massa, in the midst of a profound, and partially self-inflicted, economic crisis.
The answers to both these questions will inevitably include the words inflation, corruption and polarization.
So far, the biggest surprise is that Javier Milei has got as far as he has. On good days, he seems like Boris Johnson crossed with the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. He rarely speaks without screaming and often he screams very loudly. He has raised his profile by making extreme statements.
For example, that it should be legal to sell one’s own body parts, that Pope Francis is a communist imbecile, and that climate change is fake news. But really he has a single agenda: to abolish the state and all its institutions. He prioritizes freedom over everything else, and sees rights as privileges.
His symbol is a chainsaw, which he will use to cut down the state. The first institution to fall will be Argentina’s central bank. Milei believes that the bank is to blame for Argentina’s current economic mess, because the bank’s response to economic decline included printing more money, contributing to inflation that has reached 140 percent. Milei’s solution is to abolish the Argentinian peso and introduce the dollar, negating any need for a central bank.
Milei has been compared to both Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Milei’s core supporters share some characteristics with Trump’s and Bolsonaro’s bases. For example, they tend to be men who are frustrated about equal rights for women and the recognition of sexual minorities. But unlike Trump and Bolsonaro, Milei is no populist, at least not in the sense of a calculating political boss with a talent for reading popular opinion, and he is also no nationalist. Milei is an economics professor and convinced libertarian, taking inspiration from Murray Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalist philosophy. He seems to be driven by genuine hatred of the political left and the state. His policies also include putting an end to international cooperation, including links to the BRICS group, to which Argentina was recently admitted.
Support in Argentina for such ideas has long been only marginal. If we are to understand why Milei was the runner-up in the first round of the presidential election on 22 October, we must look for other explanations. The most important is obviously that Argentinians are in a state of deep despair and frustration at having been thrown into a further dramatic economic crisis, 20 years after the last economic collapse. Argentina has enormous natural resources, a highly educated population and historically was the richest country in Latin America. Today, 40 percent of Argentinians live in poverty and inflation is out of control.
At the same time, their media screens are continually flooded with stories about the misrule and corruption of the incumbent government. Many people simply want change, preferably one that will shake the foundations of the current political system. At the same time, dollarization is not so remote a possibility in a country where distrust of the state and the Argentinian peso is so strong that most people put their savings into dollars anyway.
In light of this, what is perhaps more extraordinary is that it was Sergio Massa, the incumbent economy minister, who gained the most votes in the first round of the election. For many people, he symbolizes everthing that has gone wrong with Argentina. He is a member of the centre-left Peronist party that has governed Argentina for long periods ever since it was founded in 1946 by the legendary Juan Perón. Today, the party unites a broad range of factions, but has close links with the trade union movement. In recent years, the most notable Peronist has been Cristina Fernández (president of Argentina from 2007 to 2015). She belongs to the most populist left-wing faction of the party and inspires both disgust and support among Argentinians. Massa belongs to a more moderate faction and was brought in to rescue the situation by Alberto Fernández, the current Peronist president, when the economy crashed once again. In August this year, he managed to secure an agreement with the IMF. Accordingly, Massa is associated with both Peronism and neoliberalism – a poisonous cocktail if you want to be president of Argentina.
If he is elected nonetheless, it will be thanks to the political machine controlled by the Peronist party. If Javier Milei is elected, it will be partly thanks to ‘la grieta’ – the impassable abyss that has separated the Peronists from traditional centre-right coalitions in Argentina’s more recent history. Getting Argentina’s traditional right-wing to vote for a Peronist candidate is a very difficult task. Their candiate, Patricia Bullrich, who came third in the first round of the election, has now entered an agreement with Milei under which she endorses his candidacy.
Even so, it is far from certain that Milei will emerge the winner. His most recent media appearances, in which he snarled, his gaze appeared to wander, and he ‘heard voices’ in the studio, have led many people to question his mental state. He is a true outsider whose only political base is his millions of followers on TikTok and Instagram. This base may be enough to whip up enthusiasm, but it cannot be guaranteed to outmanoeuvre a well-oiled machine like the Peronist party.
And it would pretty certainly not be enough to save Argentina.
- Benedicte Bull is a Professor at the Centre for Development and the Environment at the University of Oslo.
- This text was published in Norwegian by Dagsavisen 01 November 2023
- Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext