Who’s afraid of Javier Milei?
The eccentric outsider’s victory speaks to the collapse of the Argentinian establishment.
The bastions of Western liberal-elite opinion have reacted with characteristic composure to Javier Milei’s victory in Argentina’s presidential elections. ‘A victory for the far-right’, was how the New York Times saw it. The Guardian, meanwhile, opted to call it ‘a dark day for democracy’.
Reading these accounts and the many like them, you’d think Milei, a 53-year-old celebrity economist with a Wolverine hair-do, had just marched on Buenos Aires. That this ‘far-right outsider’, as the BBC called him, had effectively seized power, backed by a mass of armed Argentians. The truth, of course, is that Milei simply beat his rival, current economy minister Sergio Massa, by winning 56 per cent of the vote in the presidential run-off on Sunday.
This hyperbolic talk of Milei as a threat to democracy, of his imminent presidency providing a ‘filip for the far right around the world’, obscures far more than it reveals about what has just happened in Argentina. For Milei is not a product of some ‘far-right’ insurgency. He hasn’t been washed into power on a wave of political reaction. Far from it. The success of Milei and his upstart party, Liberty Advances, rests above all on the collapse of the Argentinian political establishment. That is the real political earthquake here. Not Milei’s rise from virtually nowhere, but that which made it possible: namely, the implosion of the largely Peronist political class, which has held sway over Argentina, in a variety of forms, since the end of the Second World War.
Indeed, since an economic crisis in the early 2000s, Argentinian politics has been dominated either by a centre-right coalition or a centre-left coalition of Peronist parties. But over the past decade or so, these two dominant, centrist blocs – both liberal and social-democratic to varying degrees – have proven incapable of addressing Argentina’s deep-seated socio-economic malaise, from its chronic lack of growth to ever-rising inflation.
This malaise has now turned into a full-blown crisis. Four out of every 10 Argentines now live below the poverty line. The state coffers are bare, with the public-debt-to-GDP ratio standing at 90 per cent. Annual inflation currently sits at a staggering 140 per cent, up from 54 per cent in 2019, which was when the centre-left coalition last won a General Election.
It’s fair to say that the majority of Argentines have simply had enough. They have endured two stripes of the same consensus for so long and for no benefit. As Argentinian historian Pablo Pryluka puts it, neither of the big two coalitions are now able ‘to put forward a stable vision of the future’.
Enter Milei. He is the mutton-chopped form that this turn against the failed political consensus has taken. Indeed, he made his breakthrough in last August’s primaries precisely by campaigning against the corrupt political ‘caste’. That has been his key rhetorical move throughout the presidential campaign, too – to rage against ‘la casta’.
He has channelled this popular resentment towards the political establishment – this widespread anger at ‘la casta’ – by extending it towards the overgrown Argentinian state. Hence he has pledged to reduce the number of federal ministries from 18 to eight and to cut federal spending by 15 per cent of Argentina’s GDP. And he has presented these proposed cuts – symbolised by the chainsaw he has wielded at countless rallies – as an attack on the political elites who have allegedly lined their own pockets with public money.
Milei has coupled this rejection of the political establishment with his own free-market economic vision. This boils down to promising to privatise as much as possible, lower taxes and, above all, ‘dollarise’ the Argentinian economy – that is, replace the national currency, the peso, with the US dollar as legal currency.
Few observers believe dollarisation is even possible, given Argentina has very few dollars in currency reserves. Fewer still think it would work to tame the staggering rise in prices. But given the choice between a political establishment that has delivered triple-digit inflation and Milei’s wildcard alternative, it seems many voters have decided to take a chance on the unknown.
Western pundits have of course been trying to talk him up as some sort of Trump mini-me, or an Argentinian cousin of Brazil’s hard-right former president, Jair Bolsonaro. That way he can be reduced to and portrayed as part of some global right-wing threat to the status quo.
But Milei is different from both. He hasn’t been able to ride an established political party into power, as Trump did with the Republicans. Unlike Bolsonaro, he hasn’t floated the prospect of a military coup. Instead, he has exploited his pre-political celebrity as an eccentric talk-show guest, one who combined foul-mouthed outbursts and boasts about his tantric sex life with his love of fantasy free-market economics. If anything, he’s a celebrity politician in the mould of Silvio Berlusconi rather than Trump.
Indeed, Milei’s stratospheric rise – he only entered congress in 2021 – is partly a triumph of too-much-personality politics. He’s a self-styled ‘mad man’; the owner of four ‘cloned’ Italian mastiffs, each named after a right-wing economist; and he used to be in a Rolling Stones covers band called Everest. Over the past few years, he has also shown his willingness to speak his mind, labelling his compatriot Pope Francis an ‘imbecile’, questioning Diego Maradona’s lifestyle choices and praising former British PM Margaret Thatcher, little loved in Argentina because of the 1982 Falklands War.
Milei’s supporters have lapped up his excessive, unruly personality. In October, at a rally in Salta in Argentina’s north-west, he rode in a truck bed through a crowd of thousands. Fans wore ‘Milei’ wigs, gave out fake $100 bills adorned with his face and showed off drawings of his dogs.
Yet as anarchic as he might appear, this self-styled libertarian is also deeply illiberal, too. So while he defends drug use and ‘trans rights’, he is vehemently opposed to abortion and has pledged to hold a referendum on banning it. It all adds up to an almost incoherent mix of libertarian posturing and regressive social illiberalism.
Yet, so politically and morally exhausted is Argentina’s political establishment that voters have decided to opt for a figure as bizarre and contradictory as Milei. He’s not the far-right demagogue Western liberals imagine him to be. He’s the product of the deep-seated decay of the Argentinian political class. Whether he can do anything to rectify this malaise seems doubtful. But that voters felt they had to take a chance on him speaks volumes.
Tim Black is a spiked columnist.
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