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How extreme will Javier Milei be?

Javier Milei won the presidential run-off by 56% of votes to 44%. Credit: Getty

November 20, 2023 - 7:00am

A self-described “anarcho-capitalist” will be Argentina’s next president. Javier Milei, a chainsaw-wielding celebrity economist with wild hair and Wolverine mutton chops, won the run-off against the centrist Sergio Massa on Sunday by 56% to 44%. Now it is Argentina’s turn to experiment with a big-talking hard-Right outsider, after similar trysts across the continent and beyond. 

Milei will inherit a country struggling with recession, a poverty rate at 40%, hyperinflation, high debt and rising crime. Will he manage to implement his radical shock-therapy measures, as many fear — and many others are desperate enough to try? The indications are against it, though it is hard to know what to expect from a man whose own biographer called him “unstable”. 

Milei’s victory came announced. La Libertad Avanza’s sole candidate came first in August’s open primaries, a sort of dry run for the election itself. But when Economy Minister Massa won the first round last month by 9.8 million votes to Milei’s 8 million, some wondered whether Argentines’ appetite for risk may be less than expected. 

In the end, Massa was trounced. Figures from the centre-Right anti-Peronist coalition, including defeated presidential candidate Patricia Bullrich and the neoliberal former president Mauricio Macri — both of whom Milei repeatedly insulted — threw their weight behind the libertarian. This probably proved decisive, as did the fact that inflation is running at 140%. Massa, who comes from the moderate wing of the nationalist and populist Peronist coalition, tried to distance himself from the previous, more Left-leaning administration, but that was always going to be a hard sell.

For all of Milei’s extremism, though, he rolled back on many of his promises in the last weeks of campaigning. The man who said he would abolish the central bank, replace the peso with the dollar and cut any number of government ministries could be later seen claiming that he would preserve pensions, welfare policies, and public health and education. It is also worth recalling this is a libertarian so radical that he talked about allowing a market in human organs (another policy he renounced recently). 

What to expect from a Milei government? On a personal level, Milei is hot-headed and prone to outbursts, such as in a recent TV interview in which he claimed to be hearing voices that weren’t there. That was maybe not so far out for a man who claims to commune with his dead dog. 

Massa of course tried to make hay. But when the Economy Minister is saying “don’t vote for this guy, he’s out of control” while the economy that he is ostensibly in charge of really is out of control, Argentinians can hardly be blamed for deciding to roll the dice on crazy. 

At an institutional level, the expectation must surely be for deadlock. Milei’s party holds only 38 of 257 seats in the lower house and eight of 72 in the senate. The question is, how willing will the establishment Right be willing to work with a guy who claimed to be “against everything that’s there” and to want to “kick politicians out on their asses”? And how able will he be to work with them? 

If neighbouring Brazil’s experience with Jair Bolsonaro is anything to go by, the administration will be more conventionally neoliberal on economic matters, while radicalism will be expressed in the cultural field. Calling the Pope a “Leftie son of a bitch” and antagonising the country’s second-largest trading partner, China, by saying he won’t work with communists may foreshadow some of his antics in government. 

For now, three wider conclusions can be drawn. First, a massive realignment is underway, as I noted after the first round. Second, it looks like the pattern of politics across the continent is increasingly between an establishment centre-Left unable to offer any real programme and far-Right populism. 

Third, and most concerning, is the way dictatorship is being whitewashed. Milei has minimised the crimes of Argentina’s junta, which ruled from 1976 to 1983 and was responsible for mass torture and up to 30,000 dead or “disappeared”. His running mate, Victoria Villarruel, is worse still — she is famous for defending military officials accused of dictatorship-era abuses. 

Here, too, an incoming Milei administration seems to have a lot in common with Rightists elsewhere, like Brazil’s Bolsonaro or Giorgia Meloni in Italy, who have caused outrage for breaking with the post-dictatorship democratic consensus. 

Perhaps this is the nature of Right-wing populist politics in an age of sharp economic decline. With no future, politics becomes a battle over the past.


Alex Hochuli is a writer based in São Paulo. He hosts the Aufhebunga Bunga podcast and is co-author of The End of the End of History: Politics in the 21st Century.

Alex__1789

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
7 months ago

It’s not like he’s going to make life worse in Argentina, with its 140% inflation. They’ve been doing the same thing for 50 years and what’s that got them?

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
7 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

They stole British assets: it got them that.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
7 months ago

A fantastic victory for Argentina.
Let’s all celebrate this beautifull day, and hope for similar change on our shores.

Last edited 7 months ago by Emmanuel MARTIN
Peter B
Peter B
7 months ago

Prepare to be disappointed.
Argentina is one of those countries (I’d suggest that Russia is another) that basically has everything needed for success, but still isn’t successful. In the end it comes down to leadership and management, discipline and following the rule of law. It’s a terrible shame and waste. It could be another Canada or Australia. It should be a rich country.
Javier Milei doesn’t sound like he has the required qualities to get Argentina back on track. I wish I was wrong, but doubt it. They need boring, steady, reliable and competent and not a loose cannon.
The record shows that Argentina has done best when it pegged the peso to the dollar. They just don’t seem to have the discipline to control inflation when left to their own devices.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
7 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Your “boring competent” politician would get hijacked by a coalition of populist demagogues, entreched bureaucracies and “consensus seekers”. You need a high-level troll to disrrupt the swamp.
As for pegging the peso, Millei plans to embrace it fully : rather tha a peso pegged to the dollar, let’s use the dollar directly.

Last edited 7 months ago by Emmanuel MARTIN
Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
7 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

It was a rich country once. Expropriating assets and wasting them on nationalist and socialist projects did the rest. The hyperinflation is sort of the icing on the cake.

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
7 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Canadian here. I would love some boring, steady, reliable and competent about right now. Those words pretty much describe Stephen Harper and most of his predecessors. We have had a bit too much of the ideological, world saving, cult of personality recently.

Steven Targett
Steven Targett
7 months ago

With the global establishment so moribund is it any wonder that electorates are desperate to try anything which offers the chance of improvement. Could be dangerous times ahead as there are many similarities with continental Europe in the 1930’s.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
7 months ago

Anarcho capitalism is not hard right.

Ralph Hanke
Ralph Hanke
7 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Agreed.

So, is he an anarcho-capitalist or hard right? I sincerely hope he is an anarcho-capitalist. Argentina will be much better off if he is.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
7 months ago

What has Meloni done to deserve her inclusion in that group? How is she undemocratic? Sigh.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
7 months ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

Exactly, It’s typically lazy journalism that labels any politician they don’t approve of (or in Milei’s case they don’t really know anything about) as a ‘far-right populist’.
As for Meloni causing ‘outrage for breaking with the post-dictatorship democratic consensus’ who exactly is outraged?  Ursula von der Layen? I do hope so. Certainly not the Italians who voted for her.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
7 months ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

I can’t make my mind up whether it’s “lazy” or “desperate” i.e.most people disagree with me so I need a way to insult them to make me feel clever.

Last edited 7 months ago by Ian Barton
AC Harper
AC Harper
7 months ago

Let me see…
“Bonfire of the QUANGOs”
“Drain the Swamp”
so how will
“…and cut any number of government ministries…”
end? There is probably some magic economic inflection point where the benefits of having an Establishment are overtaken by the effects of stagnation and resistance to change.
Javier Milei may be on to something (or not) but he will meet far greater resistance than he thinks.

Last edited 7 months ago by AC Harper
Harry Child
Harry Child
7 months ago

Watch out for the Falkland Islands. The UK will need to strenghten the military presence there, for when the Milei administration runs into trouble, as surely it will, what more popular move to divert public attention than a second invasion.

David Fülöp
David Fülöp
7 months ago
Reply to  Harry Child

That is the least of their concern. They don’t have the money or the will to have another go, they have no navy or air force left to speak of so it would take decades to build up to a level that would enable them to even think about an attempt.

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
7 months ago
Reply to  Harry Child

Nah, the balance of power did not favour not favour Argentina in 1982. The balance now is far worse considering the state of Argentina’s military, the fact the RN now have substantially more capable carriers, and there are Meteor armed Typhoons based in Stanley. Realistically, what was a bad idea in 1982 is now utterly insane.

Nathan Ngumi
Nathan Ngumi
7 months ago

Indeed. The lack of alternatives other than the exasperating binary of right-wing populism and failed left-wing neoliberalism plagues most democracies worldwide. The Economist in its 2024 Outlook notes that for the first time in history more than half of the world’s population will have elections in the same year. How this will play out remains to be seen.

Paul Monahan
Paul Monahan
7 months ago

They definitely love ❤️ Marxism too much for any changes to be implemented. The rich have a charmed life whilst 75% writhe in agony to the sound of tango

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
7 months ago

Anarcho-capitalists, Javier Milei has hoovered up enough otherwise Peronist votes not to distress you by following through either on abortion, or on protectionism towards China and Brazil. If you would have liked either of those, then how libertarian are you?

But another conundrum is more urgent. The Prime Minister would be either Keir Starmer or a member of the present Cabinet. Which side would you support when, needing to distract from quite the economic crisis, Milei’s Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands?

Enoch Powell once baffled Margaret Thatcher by telling her that he would have fought in the Second World War even if Britain had had a Communist Government at the time. He would still have fought for his country. With no Tory roots, that was beyond her. With deep Liberal roots, she thought that wars were about “values”. Well, you profess to be her heirs, and Milei is now the global standard-bearer of your values. This war is fairly likely. Which side are you going to be on?

Ralph Hanke
Ralph Hanke
7 months ago

This is a question based in my own ignorance. Can Argentina adopt the US $ as the country’s currency without some kind of “permission” from the US?

It seems to me the US would not want the US $ to predominate in Argentina as inflation is a consequence of economic activity; and simply adopting the US $ would not stop the inflation. Wouldn’t Argentina’s rampant inflation bleed over and ultimately lower the value of the US $ throughout the world if the US $ becomes Argentina’s currency?

Last edited 7 months ago by Ralph Hanke
Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
7 months ago
Reply to  Ralph Hanke

Yes I was thinking along those lines. It’s an interesting concept but I need it all explained by someone cleverer than me.

Ralph Hanke
Ralph Hanke
7 months ago

Looks like Peter B, below, has answered our question.

And so; it would require the courage of the governing powers—including the Argentinian Fed—to show the courage and do the pegging.

I wonder if it will happen? And is that enough?

Another question that comes to mind is: what happens if the Peso is pegged, and the Argentinian Fed continues to print Pesos?

Again, any and all help is appreciated with this.

Peter B
Peter B
7 months ago
Reply to  Ralph Hanke

They pegged the peso to the dollar around 1998 for several years when I visited. 1 peso was equal to 1 dollar and you could use either currency (though pesos went down a bit better in Buenos Aires). Not sure whether any permission was needed – I don’t think so. This got inflation under control and there weren’t black market currency rates. Not sure why they ever floated the peso again. Certainly hasn’t worked out well for them.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
7 months ago

Well he’s got Prodessor Steve Hanke’s support for his dollarisation plan, which is saying something. Not sure about the tantric sex.

Gerry Quinn
Gerry Quinn
7 months ago

A new Argentina!
The voice of the people rings out loud and long.
from Evita

Last edited 7 months ago by Gerry Quinn