Latin America Advisor

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Why Is a Far-Right Libertarian Surging in Argentina’s Polls?

Picture of Milei Javier Milei has surged in polls to become the front-runner ahead of next month’s presidential election in Argentina. File Photo: Facebook Page of Javier Milei.

Far-right libertarian presidential candidate Javier Milei is leading opinion polls ahead of Argentina’s Oct. 22 presidential election. Among Milei’s proposals are dollarizing Argentina’s economy, pulling out of the Mercosur trade bloc and relaxing gun laws. What is driving support for Milei, an economist and admirer of former U.S. President Donald Trump? What would his presidency mean for Argentina, and how would dollarization affect the country’s economy? How much of a chance do his competitors, ruling party candidate Sergio Massa and center-right opposition candidate Patricia Bullrich, have of being elected next month?

Benjamin Gedan, director of the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center: "The election of leftist candidates in recent years throughout Latin America—including in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Peru—was widely misinterpreted as evidence of an ideological transformation in the region. As it turned out, voters were mostly expressing anger at conservative incumbent parties. The so-called ‘new pink tide’ quickly sputtered, as antsy citizens directed their discontent at the new occupants of the presidential palace. The same dynamics are now at play in Argentina. The popularity of the libertarian Javier Milei primarily reflects the unpopularity of the ruling Peronist coalition and frustration with Argentina’s traditional political parties. Given the country’s prolonged economic stagnation and triple-digit inflation, it is no surprise that Milei’s tirades against the political ‘caste’ resonate with so many voters. Indeed, over the last eight years, Argentine voters watched both center-right and center-left coalitions try and fail to control inflation and generate consistent economic growth. Instead, the Juntos por el Cambio and Peronist administrations produced severe economic disorder. In that context, this year’s election offered fertile ground for a political outsider. The voto bronca should not be misinterpreted; there is little evidence of a massive conversion to libertarianism. The crowds at Milei’s rallies are not inspired by his promises to liberalize gun ownership, permit the sale of human organs, criminalize abortion, privatize state-owned enterprises or ‘chainsaw’ the federal budget. That will become clear should Milei win the presidency and attempt dramatic fiscal austerity and structural reform. Instead of cheering crowds at political rallies, he will see angry demonstrations paralyzing downtown Buenos Aires."

Bruno Binetti, nonresident fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue: "Support for Milei is fueled by anger toward the two traditional coalitions, which many Argentines blame for the disastrous state of the economy. In a context of high inflation, a plummeting peso and no net GDP growth for over a decade, Milei’s ultra-liberal proposals and his anti-politics message resonate with voters. However, this does not mean that Milei’s ideas are feasible. Dollarization, his star proposal to eliminate inflation, would require vast amounts of dollars that the Argentine state does not have and is unlikely to obtain, given its $44 billion debt with the International Monetary Fund, negative central bank reserves and mounting debts to the private sector. It is also unclear how Milei expects to fulfill his promise of cutting public spending by 15 percent without worsening Argentina’s socioeconomic crisis and with his party in a minority in both houses of Congress. Similarly, Milei’s rants against Brazil and China, Argentina’s largest trading partners, would only hurt the economy if he acted in a hostile way toward them as president. Many Argentines would rather jump into the unknown with Milei than risk continuing with the status quo. Right now, the most likely scenario is a runoff in November between Milei and incumbent Economy Minister Sergio Massa, who is supported by a weakened but still powerful Peronist party. The traditional center-right led by Patricia Bullrich has done well in many provincial elections but is finding it difficult to gather support for its ‘responsible change’ given widespread discontent."

Laura Gómez-Mera, associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Miami: "Frustration and disappointment with the failure of both the center-right and the left to deliver anything but hardship are behind Javier Milei’s support. His outsider status and his unhinged attacks on the political ‘caste’ have resonated with many Argentines, young and old, rich and poor. Young voters are not only captivated by his eccentric long-hair rocker look and his bold, confrontational style, they are also hopeless about the lack of opportunities and their bleak future prospects, and they see him as a much-needed change. Interestingly, the analysis of voting patterns in the Buenos Aires conurbano shows that Milei has taken away from Peronism a significant share of votes among the lowest income groups. At least in the short term, many of these low-income voters would be adversely affected by some of his proposed economic reforms. At the same time, it is these lowest income households that are disproportionately affected by high inflation, explaining both their vote and their support for dollarization. This quite extreme alternative is likely to deliver price stability, just like the currency board did in the 1990s. Yet, at this stage, it is not clear how it would be operationalized in a reserve-less economy like Argentina’s. In the long-run, giving up such an important economic policy tool may end up harming some of those who now support it."

Jorge Heine, research professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and former Chilean ambassador to China: "What drives support for Javier Milei is the extraordinary deterioration of Argentina’s economic situation, which makes many Argentines struggle to get to the end of the month. As of August, inflation had reached 80.2 percent, and the poverty rate hit 43.2 percent. Social peace has been kept through massive social subsidies (reaching 20 million people, a little under half of the population), which in turn fuels inflation and increases government debt. This creates a vicious circle of which the country cannot seem to get out. After 40 years of its transition to democracy, Argentina, despite its enormous natural riches and a highly skilled labor force, has been unable to come up with an economic model that delivers growth and prosperity. Milei has tapped into the ensuing discontent with the Argentine political class and the two established coalitions. Dollarizing the economy (and closing the central bank, another promise of his), though providing some short-term inflationary relief, would do little to address the underlying structural problems of the Argentine economy. It would also severely limit the policy options of policymakers, and put the country in a cul-de-sac that would be difficult to escape. Quitting Mercosur would isolate the country within South America and strain relations with Brazil, a key trading partner. Much can happen with less than a month to go before the election. Argentine polls are notoriously unreliable, and Milei does not have a party structure to get out the vote and staff the polling places, something especially important in Argentina, given the way elections are managed. However, all indications are that Milei is the candidate to beat, and that there is a good chance he will emerge as the winner of the first round of the election." 

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