The winner of the Argentinian presidential primaries is an ultra-libertarian
An eccentric “anarcho-capitalist”, Javier Milei, won the most votes in Argentina’s open primaries this past Sunday, in a Right-wing populist shock to the establishment. The primaries determine who will run in the general election, but with many parties standing only one candidate, Sunday’s ballot serves as a dry run for October’s election. Milei is now in pole position.
Milei’s victory in the primaries comes off the back of his declarations that la casta (the political caste) is afraid. His populist rejection of the political class, threatening to “kick politicians out on their asses” has earned him comparisons to Trump, as has his background as a TV personality. But while Trump promised to renegotiate trade treaties and put US interests first, Milei’s response to Argentina’s permacrisis is more “globalist” than the globalists: he wants to dollarise the economy, effectively handing control of Argentina’s money to a foreign power. In response to his early success the national currency, the peso, has been devalued by just under 20%.
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Milei calls himself a libertarian, while his supporters wave the yellow-and-black Gadsden flag of the US Right. He has consistently held extremely liberal positions on drugs, prostitution, immigration, firearms, and gay marriage. It sounds like an Internet ideology, cooked up on message boards — an impression underlined by his defence of a market for human organs. Lately, though, he has moved closer to other figures of the new Latin American Right, such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro or Chile’s José Antonio Kast, railing against “Cultural Marxism” and gender ideology.
Yet, amid low turnout at the weekend, it seems that it is Milei’s anti-politics that played beyond his base of ideologically committed Rightists.
Argentinians are disillusioned with the two main forces in the country. Mauricio Macri’s administration (2015-19) oversaw the country’s 22nd IMF bailout, worth a whopping US $57 billion, in 2018. High inflation and recession ensued. Alberto Fernandez’s centre-Left Peronist government followed, but 75% of Argentinians now disapprove of it. Government debt to GDP remains at 80% and the economy is set to shrink this year, while inflation is at 115% per annum.
The populist’s image and politics may be unique, but the way he feeds on disillusionment isn’t. In the 2010s, Spain’s Left-wing insurgent party Podemos rose to prominence by similarly attacking la casta, as did the more politically ambiguous Five Star Movement in Italy. Economic crisis and political immobilism generates this kind of politics. That it should now come from the Right in Argentina testifies to the fact that centre-Left Peronism has been in government these past years, and more broadly has been the ballast to the political system for decades.
Argentina has seen few consecutive years of growth since the 1980s, with deep recessions every few years. At Milei’s rallies, one often-heard refrain has been “que se vayan todos” (kick them all out). This was also the emblematic cry of the mass uprising of 2001 which culminated in Argentina unilaterally defaulting on its debt. The situation has not significantly improved since. In fact, Argentina sees itself ever more dependent, relying on primary exports while it undergoes deindustrialisation.
Milei’s economic proposals to privatise everything, scrap a slew of government agencies and ministries, abolish the central bank and tie the country’s currency to the dollar are wacky, but for despondent Argentinians voting for him can serve either as a protest vote or a desperate roll of the dice. His policies are unlikely to come to fruition, though — and if they do, could only succeed at immense social cost.
But Argentinian politics is stuck. The mainstream Right and Left alternate power, but neither feel like they can implement their agendas. Orthodox IMF prescriptions are in place but the Peronist compact means the state is never whittled down. This allows the libertarian economist Milei to play the “real libertarianism has never been tried” card. And in a dog-eat-dog world, this sort of politics could find support among the lower rungs of society.
Milei is unlikely to be the hero Argentina needs, however. The country has achieved two heroic things this century. One involved winning the World Cup in 2022; the other came in 2001, when the people said they would not pay for the crisis and politicians were forced to refute Argentina’s onerous debt. The TV pundit’s slash-and-burn approach might sound like a radical play for a new future, but should he win in October, the most likely outcome is more dependency.