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Forty years after the return to democracy, Argentina’s democracy is undergoing a legitimation crisis brought about by triple-digit inflation, which has pushed 40% of the population below the poverty line. In September 2023, confidence in the government plummeted to levels on par with November 2001, the month before the calamitous end of Argentina’s experiment with convertibility. Amid this dire social and economic context, a populist outsider, Javier Milei, of the far-right La Libertad Avanza, has emerged as the frontrunner to become Argentina’s next president. Milei’s politics is a blend of the old and the new in Argentina’s political landscape. On the one hand, Milei inherits and builds upon Argentina’s long tradition of populist politics with a discourse based on a simple yet effective Manichean worldview.[1] However, he departs from these populist traditions by promoting radical free-market ideas that reject both redistributive and statist economic policies.

If Milei is elected, he would become the world’s first self-described libertarian president. Given this novelty, a Milei presidency would raise conceptual questions about the border between liberalism and illiberalism. What is clear is that Milei’s political discourse is classically populist, as his core claim is to represent the “good people” against the “political caste.” However, Milei’s populism is unique in Latin America, especially in Argentina, as he promotes policies that would increase income inequality. This novel combination of libertarianism and populism is also gaining attention from the new right on a global scale. An interview Milei had with American right-wing media figure Tucker Carlson garnered over 420 million views.

In this brief article, I will provide an overview of the path that led Argentinian politics to arrive at this critical juncture. The appeal of Milei’s anti-statist and anti-politics narrative must be understood in reference to the failed attempts by mainstream political parties to bring Argentina’s stagflationary economy back onto a path of economic growth. I will then discuss Milei’s electoral success and provide some early insights about the underlying sociological forces that explain his rise as a major political figure. Finally, I will end with a brief discussion of how to understand Milei within a broader conversation about populism and illiberalism.

Hopes dashed: Argentina’s path towards libertarian populism

Milei’s rise as a viable contender for the presidency represents both the exhaustion many voters feel with Argentina’s two main parties, which have failed to reverse the country’s decades-long economic stagnation, and frustration with a large, corrupt, and inefficient state. In 2015, Mauricio Macri of the center-right Cambiemos coalition (now called Juntos por el Cambio) defeated left-wing Peronist Daniel Scioli in a runoff election. He promised to introduce wide-ranging pro-market reforms that would reignite growth, rapidly lower inflation, bolster the independence of the judiciary, and reintegrate Argentina into the Western-led global order.

Despite narrowly winning the election, Macri maintained a relatively high level of public support for the first two years of his administration. However, governability was challenging as his government lacked a majority in Congress, making it difficult to pass structural reforms. Moreover, his cautious approach to fiscal consolidation and the politicization of monetary policy gradually eroded trust in his government’s ability to address Argentina’s underlying economic problems. The coup de grâce occurred when global economic conditions deteriorated, leading to the devaluation of the Argentinian peso in 2018. Macri was forced to seek financing from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Macri’s government was unable to regain the political initiative as Argentina’s economy fell into a deep recession, resulting in a sharp decline in real salaries and an increase in poverty. The opposition, led by former left-wing president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK), saw an opportunity to regain power. In a surprising move, CFK announced on social media that she would run for vice president alongside presidential candidate Alberto Fernández, who had briefly served under her in addition to serving as the chief of staff to former President Néstor Kirchner (the late husband of CFK, who passed away in 2010).

The coronation of Fernández as the presidential candidate for the Peronist Frente de Todos (now called Unión por la Patria) was a skillful but risky move by CFK. Fernández had been a fervent critic of her left-wing politics (known as Kirchnerismo), her statist economic policies, and her alleged corruption charges (which she denies). However, it was his background as a fierce critic of CFK that gave him credibility with voters who were uneasy about backing the Peronists once again with a Kirchner on the ballot.

CFK’s bet paid off when, in the nationwide obligatory primary elections (PASO) held in August 2019, Fernández (who ran unopposed) defeated Macri (who also ran unopposed) by a whopping 16 percentage points. Markets reacted poorly to Fernández’s outsized victory, partly because polls had suggested that Macri would have performed much better. The result triggered a sell-off of Argentine assets and led to a depreciation of the peso, signaling market skepticism about the country’s economic prospects under Fernández. This outcome energized Macri’s campaign, and he was able to narrow the gap with Fernández in the October general election to 8 percentage points before ultimately losing the election.

In December 2019, Fernández took office amidst another wave of optimism that statist policies would help revive the economy and reduce poverty. Just a few months into the Fernández administration, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, scrambling the government’s plans and plunging Argentina into a severe recession. Fernández quickly implemented one of the world’s strictest and longest-lasting lockdown measures, which were initially popular. However, the economic impact was devastating, with GDP contracting by 9.9%. The following two years saw negative economic growth.

Unlike most other countries, Argentina was locked out of international markets and had to finance its fiscal deficit by printing pesos (monetization). The government’s unwillingness to rein in fiscal spending, as many other countries did when the effects of the pandemic waned, led to further monetization and, consequently, higher inflation. Despite the economy recovering in 2021-22, inflation continued to rise, and the quality of employment declined as seven out of ten new jobs were created in the informal sector. This poor economic performance has placed a heavy burden on the government, which has been unable to reverse Argentina’s declining living standards.

Another factor that contributed to the decline in the public’s confidence in the government was related to scandals concerning a double standard in the implementation of pandemic policies. The first was the revelation that Fernández had held a clandestine birthday party for his wife in the middle of the lockdown, colloquially known as the Olivosgate scandal. The other major scandal involved reports of well-connected individuals receiving vaccines earlier than they should have, known as the “vacunatorio VIP” scandal.

Amid this context of economic stagnation and impunity, Milei’s presence in Argentina’s media began to grow. His brash and argumentative style, coupled with his radical and uncompromising free-market views, served as a counterpoint to Argentina’s social democratic consensus. His free-market economic arguments were also expressed in moral tones, often asserting that taxes are a form of theft and should be abolished on principle. Furthermore, Milei’s hyper-individualist views directly challenged the equity-based politics advocated by Fernández, which had taken on a more identitarian tone.[2]

Milei leveraged his name recognition to run for Congress in the October 2021 midterm elections, where his party, La Libertad Avaza, won two seats – the other seat went to his current running mate, Victoria Villarruel. Milei’s party captured 5.6% of the vote, which was similar to the far-left, Frente de Izquierda y de Trabajadores-Unidad, with 5.4%. Having demonstrated his ability to garner millions of votes, Milei decided to launch his presidential campaign in April 2022.

Amid this context of economic stagnation and impunity, Milei’s presence in Argentina’s media began to grow. His brash and argumentative style, coupled with his radical and uncompromising free-market views, served as a counterpoint to Argentina’s social democratic consensus.

Milei’s journey from fringe to mainstream

Milei’s campaign to become Argentina’s next president seemed like a long shot. Since the 2015 election, Argentina’s party system had been dominated by two large coalitions: the left-of-center Peronist-Kirchnerist coalition, running under the Unión por la Patria banner, and the center-right Radical-PRO coalition within the Juntos por el Cambio party. Together, these two parties accounted for 88.5% of the vote in the 2019 presidential elections. They also controlled extensive patronage networks, with both parties splitting most of the country’s governorships.[3] In the cities, especially in metropolitan Buenos Aires, the Peronists had strong connections with labor unions and social movements.

The first test of Milei’s electoral prospects at the national level came with provincial elections in the first half of 2023. Candidates associated with Milei performed extremely poorly in all these provincial elections, reinforcing the perception that he would likely struggle to gain a foothold at the national level. Another reason to believe that Milei would perform poorly in the primary election was a decline in his polling numbers amid allegations of his party selling candidacies (charges he denies).

On August 13th, voters went to the polls to participate in the primary election. Among the three leading parties, Juntos por el Cambio had a competitive primary, while Unión por la Patria had a nominal primary (with Sergio Massa as the clear favorite), and Milei ran unopposed in the La Libertad Avanza primary. Against all expectations, Milei won the primary with almost 30% of the vote, surpassing Juntos por el Cambio, which received 28%, and Unión por la Patria with 27.3%. Milei’s margin of victory was even more significant as he was the most-voted individual candidate by a wide margin, with Sergio Massa coming in a distant second at 21.4% of the vote. What was even more surprising was that Milei won the most votes in 16 out of Argentina’s 24 provinces, including provinces where candidates he endorsed failed to gain any traction.

The result was a political earthquake, as Milei’s strong electoral performance broke the party duopoly that has dominated Argentine politics since 2015. The results demonstrated that Milei made significant inroads with traditional Peronist voters. According to an analysis conducted by the Centro de Investigación y Acción Social (CIAS), Milei’s vote share in low-income areas was similar to the vote share captured by Massa.

The result was a political earthquake, as Milei’s strong electoral performance broke the party duopoly that has dominated Argentine politics since 2015. The results demonstrated that Milei made significant inroads with traditional Peronist voters.

Another noteworthy development was that Milei performed exceptionally well with young people, men, and informal workers. A survey conducted by the local pollster Taquion after the primary revealed that 64% of his voters were men, compared to 49% for Massa and 48% for Patricia Bullrich (the Juntos por el Cambio candidate). He also significantly outperformed among young voters, with 60.2% of his supporters being under the age of 42, in contrast to 24.6% for Massa and 17.6% for Bullrich. Another important distinction was the division between formal and informal workers. Among Milei’s voters, 38% were informal workers, compared to 21% for Massa and 9.6% for Bullrich. These young, male, and informal workers are colloquially known as the ‘voto Rappi,’ a term referring to gig workers.

Milei’s appeal to these voters stems from their frustration with a lack of economic opportunities, a distrust of politicians amid several high-profile corruption scandals, disenchantment with both the left and the right, poor public services despite high taxes, the rise of anti-identitarian politics and the popularization of libertarian ideas. These disparate sentiments were encapsulated effectively by Milei with the use of the term “the political caste.” Milei argues that Argentina’s politicians enrich themselves by exploiting the state’s resources, a widely held view substantiated by the conviction of several high officials for corruption, including CFK in December 2022. Milei’s notion of the caste extends beyond politicians and includes those he believes perpetuate a statist political culture:

[The] caste are not only the thieving politicians; they are also prebendary businessmen, the union bosses who betray their workers, the well-heeled journalists, and the professionals who work for politicians selling the idea of the active State, such as the econochantas [bought economists], the jurists and the pollsters.

This quote from Milei provides a better context for the moral motivations behind his radical free-market policies. He asserts that he is engaging in a ‘culture battle’ to transform the underlying values of society toward individualism and free markets. To achieve this, he believes that a radical reduction of the state’s role in society and its delegitimization is necessary. It will be up to Argentine voters to decide whether to grant him the mandate he needs to pursue his radical goals.

Mileismo and the new right in Latin America

If Milei becomes president, he would join the ranks of leaders representing the new right in Latin America, who “frame politics as a moral crusade” and express mistrust of “globalism.”

If Milei becomes president, he would join the ranks of leaders representing the new right in Latin America, who “frame politics as a moral crusade” and express mistrust of “globalism.” Currently, one of the prominent figures of the new right in the region is El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele. He has gained recognition for his strict security policies, which have significantly reduced homicides but have also led to the incarceration of almost 2% of the adult population. Like Bukele, Milei has built his political career by asserting that the political establishment, spanning both the left and the right, is complicit in the country’s poor state of affairs. He often dismisses criticisms of his views as mere political correctness and not worthy of serious consideration. Additionally, Milei targets journalists with whom he disagrees, often resorting to threats of defamation lawsuits.

Milei’s anti-pluralism poses a risk to the health of liberal democracy in Argentina. However, as Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way note, “electing a president… with autocratic tendencies certainly heightens the risk of backsliding, but it should not be taken as evidence of backsliding. Elected leaders with dubious democratic credentials may govern democratically.” It is unlikely that a potential Milei presidency could lead to democratic backsliding for several reasons. First, Milei will lack a congressional majority, denying him the ability to reform the constitution. Second, Argentina has highly mobilized civil society organizations that would strongly oppose any attempt at a power grab. Third, Argentina’s Supreme Court is independent, and it is unlikely it will yield to Milei’s will.

Milei’s radical free-market policies do not constitute a “backlash against neoliberal reforms,” as seen as a driver in the rise of illiberal leaders globally.

Milei also raises conceptual questions about the boundaries between liberalism and illiberalism. As a libertarian, Milei does not neatly align with the illiberal prism that Brazil’s former far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, represents. While Milei supports many of the same right-wing policy positions as illiberal leaders, his libertarian views contradict the nationalist and communitarian values they promote. Milei’s radical free-market policies do not constitute a “backlash against neoliberal reforms,” as seen as a driver in the rise of illiberal leaders globally. Furthermore, unlike other illiberal leaders, Milei does not oppose same-sex marriage; instead, he opposes marriage as a state-sanctioned institution.

On the other hand, Milei opposes abortion like Bolsonaro, but he does so on secular grounds. He states that he will close down the Ministry of Women, Genders, and Diversity, on the basis that it promotes left-wing identitarian politics in ways that echo the statements made by illiberal leaders. Milei said, “I have no reason to feel ashamed of being a white man, blond, and with blue eyes. I won’t concede anything to cultural Marxism. Therefore, the Ministry of Women will close because there is only equality before the law.” Notably, Bullrich has also expressed her intention to close down the ministry, citing inadequate addressing of women’s issues.

Even if Milei does not win the presidential election, his influence on Argentine and potentially regional politics is likely to be long-lasting. He will have a sizable number of representatives in Congress and will remain a fixture in local and potentially global media. If Milei does become president and is successful at reducing inflation and putting Argentina on a path of growth, the influence of his libertarian economic ideas may spread throughout the region, not unlike the influence that Bukele has had on the region’s security policies. In this scenario, a potential synthesis between these two new right-wing populist models could present new challenges for democracy in Latin America and beyond.

Nicolás Saldías is a Senior Analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) for Latin America and the Caribbean. He currently provides economic and political forecasts for Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. Since 2021, he has served as the regional lead for Latin America and the Caribbean in the EIU’s Democracy Index. Saldías earned his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Toronto in 2021.

[1] Argentina’s first populist leader was Hipólito Yrigoyen (1916-22 and 1928-30) of the Unión Cívica Radical followed by Juan Domingo Perón (1946-55 and 1973-74) of the Partido Justicialista.

[2] The left in Argentina has adopted what Yascha Mounk calls the identity synthesis, or the view that “any set of institutions or arrangements that does not explicitly distinguish between people on the basis of their ascriptive identities will merely serve to oppress marginalized minorities (p.47, 2023). Mounk, Yascha. The Identity Trap: a story of ideas and power in our time. New York: Penguin Press, 2023.

[3] Argentina has a number of provinces with provincial parties that are aligned with one of the major coalitions.

Banner image: Created by John Chrobak made using “Acceso por Rivadavia” by Carlos Ravazzani licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; “Javier Milei 2022” by Ilan Berkenwald, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0; “Billete 1000pesos arg 01” by Casa de Moneda Argentina, licensed under CC BY 4.0.