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.