Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

How Much Is a Far-Right Populist Upending Argentina?

Photo of Milei Libertarian economist Javier Milei won the most votes in Argentina’s presidential primaries on Aug. 13. // Photo: Instagram Page of Javier Milei.

Far-right populist Javier Milei emerged as the top vote-getter in Sunday’s presidential primary in Argentina. At the same time, voters selected former Security Minister Patricia Bullrich as the candidate of the center-right opposition Together for Change (JxC) coalition, and they confirmed Economy Minister Sergio Massa as the candidate of the ruling center-left Union for the Homeland (UP) coalition. Usually a reliable bellwether for the outcome of the presidential elections, what were the most significant results from the primaries? What does the vote mean for the opposition coalition, and the ruling party? What were the biggest surprises?

Mariano Machado, Americas principal analyst at Verisk Maplecroft: “If there is one certainty in Argentine elections is that one should expect the unexpected. Sunday’s vote has raised new questions in the run-up to the Oct. 22 general election. First, the emergence of Javier Milei as the most-voted candidate confirms the sheer scale of a long-brewing repudiation vote. The question is whether this performance is his electoral floor or ceiling. Second, the results make JxC’s return to power no longer a given. Although Bullrich emerged as the clear winner over Rodríguez Larreta, the overall result fell below expectations, and the question is whether she can retain and grow her support enough to secure a run-off spot. Third, with Massa at the helm, UP (Peronism) came in third in a presidential primary for the first time ever. Yet, the ruling coalition trails merely 240,000 votes behind JxC. Can the most extensive party machine in the country deliver a second place? The meager distance between the three forces increases uncertainty about the pecking order; all of them are statistically able to be one of the two most-voted candidates to enter the all-but-certain Nov. 19 runoff. But the most important question is whether any candidate can break the crowded gridlock in the first round. Come October, the silent tsunami of disfranchised voters—either absent at the ballot box (11 million) or casting a blank vote (1.25 million)—will play a pivotal role in the fate of all aspiring candidates.”

Alejandro García Magos, lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto and survey specialist at RIWI data: “The victory of Javier Milei in Argentina’s primary elections (the PASO) wasn’t so surprising for us at RIWI data. We’ve been tracking electoral preferences since July 7, and he was the front-runner right from the start. While his lead certainly diminished as the election date approached, this erosion didn’t stop him from securing a solid victory. This outcome can be interpreted as a trend seen across Latin America, where ruling parties face robust opposition that gains support among populations weary of administrative inefficiency, poverty and high levels of insecurity. Be it Milei in Argentina, Bukele in El Salvador or AMLO in Mexico, these political leaders are able to channel popular emotion—both in opposition and in government. This is true regardless of political inclination. It’s important to acknowledge that these political figures don’t spring up spontaneously. There exists a profound dissatisfaction with the economic and social situation in our countries, which serves as fertile ground for protest votes. However, not everything is rosy for Milei. Two points stand out. First, absenteeism: voter turnout in Sunday’s election was the lowest since 1983 in presidential elections. Second, according to our data, Milei is also the candidate who faces the second-highest rejection rate. Looking forward, Milei’s significant challenge will be ensuring that Sunday’s victory doesn’t become a mere footnote in a long electoral race. From a certain perspective, this race has just begun.” 

Juan Cruz Díaz, managing director at Cefeidas Group in Buenos Aires: “The primary elections consolidated a ‘triple-tie’ scenario between the ruling coalition Unión por la Patria (UP); the opposition Juntos por el Cambio (JxC) and the outsider option led by Javier Milei and La Libertad Avanza (LLA). The latter’s performance, obtaining first place with 30 percent of the vote, came as a surprise to many, since pollsters had anticipated a drop in LLA’s voting intention following the series of scandals surrounding Milei’s candidacy last month. Milei’s rise will be a challenge for both the JxC and the UP coalitions, which will have to rethink their strategies for October. Despite winning her internal race against Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, Patricia Bullrich (JxC) will still need the Buenos Aires mayor’s moderate profile to win votes in the center of the political spectrum. This will likely become a major battleground between JxC and the UP’s candidate Sergio Massa, who will try to exploit the fear of Milei’s figure in part of the population to present himself as a conciliatory and moderate candidate. The low turnout last Sunday (less than 70 percent) also leaves open the possibility of turning the tide and casting new votes. These primaries reflected the high level of skepticism among the Argentine population toward what Milei calls the ‘political caste.’ For many, the traditional parties have been unable to respond to the demands of Argentines and reverse the economic deterioration the country has experienced in recent years. Milei was able to capitalize on this discontent and take the lead with a surprising performance.” 

Aníbal Nicolás Saldías, senior analyst for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Economist Intelligence Unit: “Javier Milei’s unexpectedly strong primary result has reshaped the landscape of Argentine politics ahead of the October presidential election. Milei, an anti-establishment outsider with radical free market policies, garnered a third of the vote. This result was 10 percentage points more than most polls had given him, suggesting that many undecided voters opted to back him in the days leading up to the primaries. He won in 16 of Argentina’s 24 provinces, which was also a surprise, given how poorly his gubernatorial candidates had done in provincial elections. His rise reflects frustration about poor governance and a decade of declining living standards. Against this backdrop, Milei faces a brief period to solidify and grow his support base; however, his uncompromising views and combative rhetorical style mean he will struggle to appeal to more moderate voters worried about governability. The poor performance of the governing Peronist Union for the Homeland (UP), which came in third, reflects public discontent with the government’s poor handling of the economy, which has triple-digit inflation and currency controls. The UP is unlikely to form the next government, and the JxC underperformed. Polls suggested that JxC should have been the most-voted coalition but came in second place behind Milei’s party. Conservative Patricia Bullrich is the presidential candidate for the JxC, but to win the presidency she will have to make amends with the supporters of her centrist opponent, which will be difficult given the divisive primary.” 

Marina Pera, associate analyst at Control Risks: “Javier Milei’s performance in the primaries exceeded expectations, as most polls prior to the primaries indicated that he had around 20 percent of the votes and placed him behind the Together for Change (JxC) and the Union for the Homeland (UP) coalitions. Milei’s campaign also recently faced corruption allegations and the Freedom Advances (LLA) party did not win any provincial elections in the past few months. Despite all this, he did surprisingly well. Even combining the votes of each coalition’s candidates, they failed to get as many votes as Milei. Voters did not choose Milei because of his policy proposals, but because of disillusionment with the establishment after several economic recessions and broken promises. However, abstention was the real winner: 31 percent of voters skipped the primaries, which underscores voter fatigue in Argentina. Given that voter turnout is usually lower in the PASO than in the general elections, the presidential candidates will fight to attract the apathetic voters who are not necessarily driven by conviction like Milei’s supporters but are more skeptical about profound changes. Since it was implemented in 2011, almost every candidate that won the PASO won the election: the only exception was former president Mauricio Macri (2015-2019) in 2015. Even so, this year’s race is still tight, leaving plenty of room for uncertainty. Any two-candidate combination of Milei, Bullrich and Massa is possible in the run-off, although Milei will most likely retain his upper hand in the race.” 

Tobías Belgrano, director of Latin American affairs at The New Global Order: “Argentina's political landscape and its traditional political divisions have experienced a significant backlash in the primaries held last Sunday. Javier Milei, a populist ALT right leader, emerged victorious in the election, surpassing candidates from the well-established Peronist coalition and the Macrist coalition. The surprising result served as a sobering reality check, particularly for the Macri coalition. The murder of an 11-year-old in the urban areas of Buenos Aires, the death of a protester on the 9 de Julio avenue and a currency devaluation only days ahead of the election raised red flags for the Peronist faction, and gave it the final kick for a defeat in the election. However, according to pre-election polls, the anger and frustration would be channeled by the Macrist candidate, Patricia Bullrich, who proposed a strong stance against state intervention and a firm hand against insecurity. One of the prominent victors of the election was the Kirchnerist Governor, Axel Kicillof. He managed to successfully hold onto his district in the face of Milei's libertarian wave. Moreover, he secured a victory against both competitors from the Macrist primary. What is curious about this election, is that many voters voted Milei for president, while simultaneously selecting Axel Kicillof for the role of governor. This still gives Peronism a weak but not minor chance to fight back in October, especially in the Argentinian electoral process which has historically been inclined to deliver black swans. Indeed, there is a sense of a changing political climate of the time, and Argentina is not isolated from the global siege that democracy has been recently suffering. We will have to see if the political system can effectively advocate for its own preservation. It's been 40 years since Argentina regained its democracy, in a context of a global democratic upheaval. The upcoming challenge will be a testament to its resilience and capacity to effectively respond.” 


Latin America Advisor logo.The Latin America Advisor features Q&A from leaders in politics, economics, and finance every business day. It is available to members of the Dialogue’s Corporate Program and others by subscription.

Related Links

Suggested Content

Can Spain Solve the Cuba Problem?

By all accounts, Spain wants to bring change to the European Union’s Cuba policy. In so doing, it is tackling a foreign policy challenge that often sheds more heat than light.