MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Nov 28 (IPS) — For many of Argentina’s voters the choice on 19 November was between the lesser of two evils: Sergio Massa, the minister overseeing an economy with the world’s third-highest inflation rate, or Javier Milei, an erratic far-right libertarian outsider promising to shut down the Central Bank, adopt the US dollar as the currency, cut taxes and privatise public services.
After underperforming in the October first round, Milei won the presidential runoff by a 12-point margin.
Many took the gamble out of despair. Argentina is undergoing a protracted economic crisis, with a devalued currency, low economic activity and zero growth. Economic decline is compounded by widespread corruption. Milei was the only candidate who appeared to take people’s concerns seriously.
He made a point of placing himself on the side of a hardworking, productive majority that, as he characterised it, is being bled dry by taxes to maintain the privileges of a parasitic and corrupt political ‘caste’. He acted out the anger that many feel. The amateurism that could have detracted from his campaign instead made him appear more authentic. When mainstream politicians joined together to ridicule him, people empathised because they felt equally mistreated by the ruling class.
The first economist to become president, Milei spent the campaign speaking of the shock measures he’d take. Even if these might hurt people, many chose him believing that nothing could be worse than the status quo. Milei’s candidacy was a magnet for young voters who’ve never experienced anything but crisis.
In backing an opposition candidate, Argentina squarely conformed with the regional trend of incumbents losing elections regardless of their political hue. But Argentina has gone further than most, since the opposition that beat the centre-left government wasn’t a centre-right alternative but an extreme right-wing one.
A symptom of dysfunction is now Argentina’s next president.
An unusual election season
This was the first time a political outsider has won the presidency in Argentina’s 40 years of democracy. Argentina’s relatively strong political parties had so far been able to dodge the phenomenon seen in many of the region’s countries. But for decades, mainstream politicians haven’t solved any of the problems that make people’s lives miserable – and they’ve allowed corruption to grow deep roots, lending credence to the narrative of a privileged political ‘caste’.
Having entered politics only in 2021, when he got elected to Congress on the ticket of his just-founded Libertarian Party, Milei was the candidate with most support in the primaries. He displaced the mainstream centre-right opposition coalition, Juntos por el Cambio (Together for Change, JxC), seen until then as the natural successor to the failed administration of the Peronist movement’s current incarnation, the centre-left Unión por la Patria (Union for the Homeland).
Massa came third in the primaries, with the lowest vote share ever received by Peronism. But he orchestrated a comeback: ahead of the first round, he used large amounts of state resources in the ‘small cash plan’ (‘plan platita’), offering tax cuts and increased subsidies. This, combined with scare tactics, allowed him, economy minister of a failing government, to pull off the feat of winning the first round.
But ahead of the runoff, these tactics had nothing more to offer. A redoubled campaign of fear equating a Milei win with a return to dictatorship, with Massa presenting himself as the standard bearer of democracy, was unconvincing and counterproductive.
Liberal or conservative?
Milei’s election was celebrated as a victory by the global far right. But his rise owes more to domestic than international factors.
Milei’s style, including his inclination towards conspiracy theories, certainly resembles that of the likes of Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. But he differs from them in important ways. He holds libertarian or ultra-liberal ideas that, at least in theory, are consistent with liberal immigration, drug and reproductive rights policies. The market is his compass – he believes the state shouldn’t take on any tasks the market can perform more effectively. He asserts that anything more than a minimal state stifles individual ambition and innovation.
Milei also denies climate change, ridicules identity politics and scorns feminism. He personally holds some conservative views, although he has only politicised them intermittently and opportunistically. They weren’t the focus of his campaign, which centred on economics.
But Milei’s platform involves an unsettlingly reactionary element. His running mate, Victoria Villarruel, represents the conservative backlash against sexual diversity and gender equality policies, along with reappraisal of the murderous military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. Given the space, she’ll attempt to roll back hard-won sexual and reproductive rights.
The future of democracy
Elected by a wide margin, Milei no doubt has democratic legitimacy. Run-off votes, however, create artificial majorities. Only 30 per cent of voters chose Milei in the first round, when they had a whole range of options. Many of the additional votes he received in the runoff were against Massa rather than for him.
Milei owes his win largely to his combative message against the political establishment: more people identified with his posture than his ideas. Among those who cared about his ideas, more were convinced by his economic proposals than by the culture war his vice-presidential candidate seems intent on. Some didn’t worry because they didn’t think he’d win, or have the power to implement his ideas if he did.
A major unknown is how Milei will read his victory. He has democratic legitimacy but so does the Congress in which he’ll have minimal representation. For the first time in 40 years, the ruling party will have as little 15 per cent of the seats in the House and 10 per cent in the Senate. If Milei gathers the support of the mainstream centre-right, he’ll still be far from even getting a quorum.
In the week since the election, the winning camp seemed in disarray. Milei’s main asset, being an outsider, could turn against him. Without congressional support, he’d risk the fate that often befalls Latin American presidents in his position: premature departure from office.
But so far he’s shown a surprising level of flexibility and pragmatism. He has already softened some proposals, including postponing his most controversial move – dollarisation, forcing its most rigid backers to step aside.
Milei went from rejecting the ‘caste’ to seeking alliances with it. Hardcore conservatives of Milei’s coalition have already been marginalised, while prominent JxC members and even some Peronists are likely to be appointed to ministries and other key positions. Rather than the mainstream centre-right shifting rightwards to compete with the far right, as has happened elsewhere, it appears that the mainstream centre-right, having provided support that Milei lacked, might gain the space to set the tone of the new administration.
For much of the 20th century, democracy in Argentina was, as political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell put it, an ‘impossible game’. Peronism was undefeatable in free and fair elections; right-wing parties had no chance of winning, and those with no hope of winning became disloyal players, seeking power through other means.
This changed with the 1983 transition to democracy that followed dictatorship. Elections are now the only game in town. If an outsider like Milei can be brought into the political fold it would prove the strength of Argentina’s institutions. Argentina’s democracy is strong enough to survive this shock.
Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.