Argentina's high-stakes election: The rise of Milei and the path ahead

Who is this surprising front runner and likely new president?

Argentine presidential candidate Javier Milei of the La Libertad Avanza party gestures during a campaign rally in Buenos Aires | Reuters Argentine presidential candidate Javier Milei of the La Libertad Avanza party gestures during a campaign rally in Buenos Aires | Reuters

Some 36 million Argentinians will go to the polls this Sunday to elect a new president in a highly divided nation under the trauma of a sustained economic crisis that has left inflation in three-digits amid deep institutional dysfunction and volatile politics that have damaged the public trust.

In its wake, it may end up electing a far-right politician straight out of the Trump mold who promises the seductive solution of dollarization of the country's economy.

Argentina stands at a crossroads. More volatility could degrade its fragile democracy, say economists. With a visionary leadership, engagement across society, and institutions reformed for the common good, Argentina can regain solid ground, say politicians.

The nation's next chapter hangs in the balance.

From establishment promises to fiery populism, Argentine voters face stark choices at the polls for their nation's future direction. Latin America and the world are watching closely as this bruising election comes to the ballot box.

The ruling Peronist government of outgoing President Alberto Fernandez has struggled with pandemic fallout and debt default. His party's candidate, Sergio Massa of the Unity for the Homeland coalition, tries to hold power.

Challenging from the center-right is Patricia Bullrich, a former security minister for the Together for Change opposition. Her law-and-order pitch appeals to some voters' frustrations.

But the wild card and center-focus is libertarian Javier Milei, a Trumpian figure complete with a record of swearing during public discourse, vile insults to those he disagrees with, and a perplexing late-age Elvis hair.

He has positioned himself as the outsider and surprised the country in the primaries riding a wave of anti-system, anti-Peronist anger. Despite experts questioning his policies, the James Dean style rebel-leatherjacket-wearing populist got the most votes in the primaries and leads in the polls.

His candidacy threatens to upend Argentina's two-party grip on power; the stakes are momentous.

After economic tumult under Fernandez and the Peronists, Argentines are yearning for change.

“We can’t take it anymore. We need change,” said Buenos Aires resident Rosario Silva, sharing her frustrations with THE WEEK.

But Milei's right-wing revolution alarms many in a country that suffered one of the most brutal right-wing military dictatorships of the last century.

“But Milei is a very dangerous choice, coming out of nowhere, and with our history,” adds Rosario’s husband Antonio Gonzalez.

The Milei Meteor

Milei is a right-wing rebel that burst into the news after winning the primary in August. Since then, he has been rattling the race as the improbable front-runner.

With his Trumpian flair, leather jackets, unkempt hair, and rockstar persona, the 52-year-old television personality-turned-politician is a libertarian economist, politician, professor, writer and congressman, leader of the political coalition La Libertad Avanza -Freedom Forward. He promises to fix the shattered economy by eliminating its central bank and switching to the US dollar.

Milei is famous for fiery TV appearances throwing verbal bombs lambasting the country's traditional politicians as an out-of-touch, criminal elite. He has long denounced both the ruling leftist government and mainstream opposition as corrupt castes only interested in their own power and wealth.

This anti-system message gave him nearly 30 per cent of primary votes—surpassing both major party candidates.

Now the front-runner, Milei is drawing diverse support, from poor urban districts to middle-class farming provinces.

His central pledge is dollarizing the economy and smashing the state through mass privatisation, evoking the 1990s’ neoliberalism of Carlos Menem who served as the President of Argentina from 1989 to 1999 and pegged the Peso to the dollar in order to combat hyperinflation but was mired by charges of corruption.

“The country has been immersed in corruption since the rise to power of Juan Perón,” notes Latin-American observer Jorge Biggemann in remarks to THE WEEK.

“While the rhetoric was about helping the weakest, in reality, they made a growing number of Argentines weaker. Additionally, the corruption within the Peronist ranks and their 'eternal' hold on power, especially in the provinces, fueled corruption until it reached its peak with the Kirchners,” said Biggemann, echoing the sentiments of many Argentinians who support Milei.

“Beyond dollarization, I believe he will take a hard stance against Peronist corruption.”

In pop-star-like rallies, Milei makes radical proposals to slash regulations and privatise state industries. Those have captured imaginations, especially among disillusioned youth tired of economic turmoil.

Milei openly admires Donald Trump, and has a reputation of being adept at the use of props and the media; his social networks team easily outmaneuvers the other candidates.

Invariably at rallies, someone hands him a meter-long oversized card of a USD100 bill with his face on it, which he proudly rises overhead like a boxing champion to cheers from the crowd.

Decades of a battered Argentina's economy and Peso have many citizens desperate for change. Milei channels their frustrations into a bellicose anti-establishment fury. He denounces the ruling leftist party and mainstream opposition as an out-of-touch criminal elite.

He sells himself as the only politician who can rescue Argentina. Sound familiar? "Only I can fix it," Trump had said famously at his nominating convention in 2016. Milei is a proud product of the same political cookie-cutter.

His meteoric rise proves Argentina's democracy remains open to outsider revolts when the system fails citizens. But his fiery right-wing populism alarms many as dangerous and destabilizing if handed power.

Rivals warn Milei's plans could devastate Argentina's vulnerable economy and shred its social safety net. Milei dismisses such concerns, claiming only he grasps what is truly best for the nation.

Milei could win Sunday's first round outright with 45 per cent of votes or 40 per cent and a 10-point lead. Otherwise, the race heads to a November runoff where Milei remains the favorite.

If victorious, Milei's radical proposals would face major legal and fiscal hurdles. Yet his cult of personality suggests he may aggressively pursue his platform regardless.

Like Trump and "Tropical Trump" Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the Argentinian doppelganger has already alleged electoral fraud, claiming ballot theft robbed him of votes.

This foreshadows a contentious post-election period if he falls short. Similar claims in the US and Brazil have resulted in after-election loss refusal to accept results and insurrectionist charges against the centers of power.

Charging the Peso is worthless, Milei recently urged supporters to divest from treasury bonds, stoking market panic. It is such inflammatory gestures that fuel Milei's rebel image among disaffected youth and Argentinians disgusted with corruption scandals sinking the ruling party.

Milei's dollarization proposal, requiring tens of billions in reserves, faces doubts. With global power shifts, and with the dollar facing a mounting challenge by the BRICS countries, a potential US backing can't be ruled out.

With the economy in crisis, Milei's outsider populism has already disrupted Argentina's political coordinates. Betting on an anti-elite wave, he makes a bold play for over 40 per cent support on election day—enough to potentially win outright in the first round.

The latest pre-election polls show Miliei with an estimated voter support ranging from 25.2 per cent to 35.6 per cent, with Massa between 26.2 per cent and 32.7 per cent, and Bullrich with a range of 21.8 per cent to 28.9 per cent.

Without 45 per cent of votes, or 40 per cent with a 10-point lead, a runoff between the top two will occur on November 19.

Love him or hate him, Milei's rise shows Argentina's voters ready to gamble on radical change. The Milei revolution is by now shaking the foundations of power, for better or worse.

Beyond immediate fixes, however, voters face an ideological choice on Argentina's economic model.

Milei pledges a stripped-down state and capitalism unfettered by regulations and institutions to a society desperate for change, and though his anti-system message resonates, his prescription scares many as extremist.

As the election reaches to its moment of truth, however, Argentinians are conscious that Milei’s right-wing populism could either resurrect Argentina or plunge it into the abyss.

Whoever ultimately wins the election will inherit a precarious economy. Inflation is nearing 140 per cent, poverty has spiked, and distorted exchange rates are straining reserves. Expansive pre-election spending has worsened imbalances.

Sunday's election not only decides who navigates Argentina out of this crisis. The verdict will reshape the nation's entire economic and political philosophy for the future.

The stakes could not be higher.


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