As Argentina’s economy faces collapse, a right-wing candidate surges in the presidential polls

May 30, 2023 | 60 comments

By Daniel Politi

He believes selling human organs should be legal, climate change is a “socialist lie,” sex education is a ploy to destroy the family and that the Central Bank should be abolished. He also could be Argentina’s next president.

Javier Milei

Javier Milei, an admirer of former U.S. President Donald Trump, is the latest example of how right-wing populists are making inroads in Latin America, appealing to a citizenry angry with politics as usual and eager for outsiders to shake up the system.
A libertarian economist and self-described “anarcho capitalist,” Milei made a name for himself by shouting against the “political caste” on television. His presidential candidacy looked like a sideshow until recently. Polls show his popularity rising, and his proposals dominate discussions ahead of October elections.

“Today no one can say that Milei isn’t someone who could get to the presidency,” said Luis Tonelli, a political scientist at University of Buenos Aires.

Milei jumped from talking head to politician in 2021 when he won a seat in Argentina’s lower house of Congress. Since then, he’s had little legislative activity, but 2.7 million people have signed up for his monthly raffle to give away his salary.

On a recent Sunday, fans lined up at the Buenos Aires Book Fair to see him talk about his latest book, “The End of Inflation,” on addressing Argentina’s most pressing economic issue : inflation running at an annual rate of more than 100%. The book calls for cutting spending, abolishing the Central Bank and moving to the dollar.

Many of his fans never made it inside. They’re mostly young men who treat the 52-year-old politician like a rock star and affectionately refer to him as “the wig” because of his signature unkempt hair.

“The caste is afraid,” Milei said, and his followers chanted along.

Afraid or not, the country’s political leaders now see him as real competition in an election that until recently seemed like a contest between two electoral coalitions that have dominated for years.

Analysts have drawn parallels between Milei and Trump, because they both espouse socially conservative views and vow to return the country to an unspecified period of greatness.

Federico Finchelstein, an Argentine historian at New School for Social Research in New York, said Milei is “a Trump who fancies himself an academic.”

Milei has tapped frustration over Argentina’s triple-digit inflation, which makes many feel like they’re constantly falling behind. Seven out of 10 Argentines say they struggle to make ends meet, noted Roberto Bacman, director of the Center for Public Opinion Studies

Francisco Beron, 21, a tech worker who listened to Milei from outside the book fair auditorium, said his starting salary last year was the equivalent of $700 a month. Despite two raises since then, Beron now earns less in dollar terms, or about $500.
“It’s absolute helplessness,” Beron said.

Finchelstein depicted Milei as the kind of candidate who appears “with magical solutions” when people see traditional politicians as failing to meet their demands.

Milei sprinkles his economic messages with a heavy dose of conservative policies, such as opposition to abortion, which the country legalized in 2020.

Milei’s running mate, Victoria Villaruel, the founder of a group that defends former military officers tried for human rights violations during the country’s bloody 1976-1983 dictatorship, has spoken against same-sex marriage, which Argentina legalized in 2010.

Milei has cut against the grain on many issues. He dismisses current concern over global warming by noting that “10 or 15 years ago there was a discussion that the planet was going to freeze.” He calls sex education a post-Marxist program to destroy ”the most important social core within society, which is the family.” He’s proposed “market mechanisms” to deal with long waiting lists for organ transplants, arguing that organs are a person’s property to sell.

For many of Milei’s supporters, though, what he proposes takes a back seat to how he proposes it.

“It’s about vengeance,” Tonelli said. “It’s the vote of ‘these people deserve it because they screwed me over, and now I’m going to screw them over’.”

Ricardo Poledo, a 51-year-old doctor, said Milei’s appeal is that he calls out politicians as power-hungry kleptocrats. “The last thing they’re concerned about is the people.”

Poledo listened to Milei at the book fair while wearing the Gadsden flag as a cape. The yellow flag with a rattlesnake and the words “don’t tread on me” is a U.S. symbol often associated with the libertarian right and which Milei and his supporters have adopted.

Milei’s ascendance is part of a regional change arriving in Argentina later than elsewhere in the hemisphere, Finchelstein said. In Brazil, former President Jair Bolsonaro, often called the tropical Trump, ruled from 2019 to 2022. Elsewhere, right-wing populists are making inroads with a tough-on-crime message.

In Chile, the right-wing Republican Party recently won the majority of seats in a commission to re-write the country’s constitution. In Paraguay, populist outsider Paraguayo Cubas came in an unexpectedly strong third place in presidential elections last month. And in El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele has seen his popularity soar amid a severe crackdown on gangs that has led to human rights abuses.

Some analysts have questioned whether Milei can win without a national structure to mobilize votes. For now his popularity has failed to help his allies win elections in provincial races. But Argentina’s presidential election includes a runoff, which means that squeaking by to the second round could be enough for Milei to ultimately win.

“Milei is a new phenomenon in politics that is difficult to predict,” said Mariel Fornoni of the consultancy Management & Fit. “There is a void, and anything can happen.”

Credit: Associated Press


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