Katia Fazio Belan is a third-year International Relations student. She is Chilean-Russian with a very strong interest for Latin American studies, which she believes are often pushed to the side and tend to be underrepresented. She is particularly interested in the geopolitical significance of the region in relation to natural resources, and the current wave of political polarisation.
On Sunday 22nd of October, Latin America held its breath and watched with careful eyes the unfolding of Argentina’s presidential elections. With no candidate amounting to the number of votes necessary for direct victory, the country’s decisive moment will come on the 19th of November between centre-left Peronist Sergio Massa and far-right populist Javier Milei – understood by many as a ‘punishment vote’. Choosing amongst the ‘lesser of two evils’ seems to be a region-wide phenomenon, as voting behaviour steers towards political figures that disrupt the mainstream narrative. As Chatham House describes the triumph of Boric in Chile, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Petro in Colombia and Castillo in Peru: ‘a decade of outsiders’.
Who is Javier Milei?
Javier Milei stands at the core of Argentina’s anti-establishment discourse. His proposals consist of a mix of controversial and often contradictory stances, reflecting a deliberate strategy to appeal to a wide range of the population. Described by the media as an ‘oddball economist’ and ‘the most eccentric character Argentina’s democracy has seen since 1983’, Milei’s shock victory in the primary elections in August turned the world’s head towards the Latin American country. His self-declared ‘anarchy-capitalist’ persona is a stark contrast to Argentina’s mainstream and identifies the State as the main enemy of the country’s stability. He advocates for a drastic reduction in the size and scope of the Argentine government through the elimination or privatisation of various ministries, including Education, Health, Social Development, and Science, Technology and Innovation, and has suggested that the state should limit its role to maintaining internal security and managing the judicial system. The comparison of taxes to slavery illustrates his main argument: the State is the enemy because it limits people’s liberties. This rolls over to topics such as same-sex marriage, gender, the right to bear arms, and even selling organs (but not abortion) – the State should not superimpose on people’s freedom, be it economic or social.
Milei’s main proposal to combat high inflation and poverty rates in Argentina is the dollarisation of the economy, drawing inspiration from (what he deems) the success of a similar policy during Carlos Menem’s presidency in the 1990s. However, while Menem pegged the Argentinian peso to the US dollar at a 1:1 rate, Milei takes it a step further and suggests fully establishing the dollar as the country’s main currency. While some argue that this proposal may mirror the deemed successful dollarisation of Ecuador, many economists and experts doubt its feasibility due to Argentina’s current economic conditions, including high levels of international debt and limited dollar reserves, as well as concerns about a loss of monetary policy independence and potential social costs. If anything, Milei should take into consideration the pitfalls of Menem’s convertibility law. While the policy did provide short-term stability and reduced inflation, in the longer term it affected the flow of capital to Argentina and increased its external debt. The increase in public deficit and general discontent triggered social unrest, which underscores the need for a comprehensive and, above all, realistic assessment of the potential consequences of dollarising Argentina’s economy.
A short description of Milei’s proposals inevitably poses the interrogative, especially from an outsider’s perspective, on why he is popular in Argentina. His anti-establishment and often hateful discourse towards institutions and opposition parties is reminiscent of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, controversial figures across the world. Yet, one look at Argentinian politics over the past decades explains Milei’s rising influence very clearly: Argentina’s democratic institutions are in crisis due to their inability to create significant change. Democracy is based on elections, which offer civil society the means to hold the current administration accountable. Voters can opt to continue with a candidate sharing similar views or choose someone more equipped to address their concerns. Nevertheless, Argentina’s political landscape, as many others worldwide, has become trapped in a recurring cycle of left- and right-wing governments who time and time again fail to deliver concrete and effective solutions to combat increasing inflation and poverty rates. Argentina’s inflation rate increased to nearly 140% in September 2023. For the sake of comparison, the United Kingdom’s expected rate for this year is 6.1%.
As a deer trapped in the headlights, civilians under the mandatory vote cannot help but wonder whether Milei’s radical ideas could provide the change that Argentina requires. Mainstream politicians are tainted with a history of dictatorship and corruption, of discontent and revolt, and people are tired. People are no longer hopeful that their vote will provoke change. The loss of trust in democratic institutions has naturally pushed voting behaviour towards the option that rejects what has failed to help civilians in the past. The hopelessness attached to mainstream politics propels Milei forward, as people see him as their way out. If he fails, at least there was an attempt at real change. Amidst this disillusionment with the status quo, the behaviour of young voters has placed Milei at an advantage as polls indicated that around 50% of people under 29 would support him at the presidential elections on Sunday. This group is mainly composed of young white men. Given the cyclical tendencies of Argentina’s mainstream parties over the past decades, young people, who have now come of age and are eligible to vote, have grown up in a political crisis-ridden environment and as a result, are strong advocates for immediate change.
Nevertheless, Javier Milei underperformed on last Sunday’s elections as he came in second behind his rival Sergio Massa, collecting 29.9% of the votes against Massa’s 36%. Patricia Bullrich, a conservative former security minister who came in third with 23.8% of votes, endorsed Milei for the second round in November. However, it is widely anticipated that many of Bullrich’s more traditionally oriented voters will align with Massa, given Milei’s often provocative and anti-democratic rhetoric. Regardless of the outcome, Milei’s rise and his unconventional proposals are symptoms of the decay of Argentinian democratic institutions and the sharp discontent that shakes the country. Should Massa win the elections in November, his goal must be to diminish Milei’s, and other populist, anti-democratic candidates’, chance of administrative power.
Again, Latin America will hold its breath and watch with careful eyes the unfolding of Argentinian presidential elections, patiently awaiting its future.
Image Credit: Natacha Pisarenko, AP, SIPA