Argentina: What to expect from populist President Javier Milei

Self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist Javier Milei has won Argentina’s presidential election by a landslide. The country now faces an experiment with an uncertain outcome.

Former US President Donald Trump was one of the first to congratulate Javier Milei after he defeated Sergio Massa in the presidential run-off: “I am very proud of you. You will turn your country around and truly Make Argentina Great Again!” Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform.

But Milei, the 53-year-old self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist, wants to do more than just turn the country around to “end Argentina’s decline” and make it “a world power” and “a model of freedom” again.

“El loco”, or “the madman” as he was nicknamed in his youth, plans to quickly get to work with his chainsaw, a symbol he used also in his election campaign, in order to apply neoliberal shock therapy to this economically devastated country with an inflation rate of more than 140 percent and a debt to the International Monetary Fund of $44 billion (€41.2bn).

Milei wants to adopt the US dollar as a means of payment instead of the Argentinian peso, which he described as the “excrement of the political class.” He wants to abolish the central bank. And he wants to slash the number of ministries in the government, which he has deemed a “criminal organization,” from 18 to just eight and radically cut public spending.

Weary of economic crisis

The political outsider, who until two years ago was almost unknown in Argentina, struck a nerve with the 35 million eligible voters and defeated Economy Minister Sergio Massa in 23 of the country’s 26 provinces: A landslide victory.

There was widespread anger at the ruling Peronist party, which governed for 16 of the last 20 years and failed to stop the economic decline. There was great contempt for the “parasitic and useless caste,” a term Milei repeatedly wielded at “those at the top” and the “establishment,” beset by corruption scandals. And too great was the sense of hopelessness in a country that until the early 1950s was one of the world’s richest per capita, and where today 40 percent of the population lives in poverty.

Above all, the run-off was a settling of scores and a protest vote. Milei, a former singer in a Rolling Stones cover band, is adored like a pop star, especially among young male voters who know nothing but crisis.

Like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Milei was successful through his social media campaign, which was managed by his sister Karina, a tarot card reader who only two years ago was still selling cakes on Instagram. And he has relied on increasing polarization in a country that is now only united by Lionel Messi and the Argentinian national soccer team.

Remembrance of the military dictatorship

If anything, divisions are likely to grow, as Milei also plans to roll back social policies in Argentina by decades. Milei has called for a strict ban on abortion, has called climate change a “socialist lie,” and has even put forward the idea of allowing access to firearms, which he withdrew shortly before the runoff. But more than anything, Argentina’s future president has cast doubt on the reported 30,000 people who disappeared during Argentina’s military dictatorship.

His running mate, Victoria Villaruel, has repeatedly spoken of a mere 8,751 victims and has relativized the atrocities claiming that numerous casualties were also caused by left-wing terrorism. She has said that the 17-hectare site of the ESMA Naval School in Buenos Aires, then the country’s largest torture center and today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, would be better used to build the schools that Argentina so urgently needs.

International concern

Reactions to Milei’s election victory from other South American countries suggest that Argentina may also become isolated in terms of foreign policy. Brazilian President Lula, whom Milei denounced as a communist during the election campaign, dutifully offered his congratulations without mentioning his name. Colombia’s left-wing president, Gustavo Petro, said the victory of the “extreme right” in Argentina was “sad for Latin America.”

There doesn’t seem to be any enthusiasm for Milei’s election victory within the South American economic alliance Mercosur, which includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay: For it announced that Argentina would “follow its own path.”

Germany, and especially the EU, are also likely to keep a watchful eye on Argentina’s development. The free trade agreement between Mercosur and the European Union, which has been planned for decades, would be far from easy with Milei at the helm.

But this man, who even called the Pope a “lousy leftist,” only to later apologize to his compatriot in Rome, will face quite a few political hurdles in pursuit of his radical agenda. No president since 1983 has had as little support in the Argentine Congress, with less than 20 percent in the Chamber of Deputies and just over 10 percent among the senators.

And so it is far from clear how Javier Milei will be remembered in Argentine history. “What’s the difference between a genius and a madman?” he recently asked. His own answer was: “Success.”

This article was translated from German.

Author: Oliver Pieper

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