With the election of Javier Milei as its next president, Argentina has taken a leap into the dark. In choosing the wild libertarian economist with no political background, it has become the latest Latin American country to turn against its political establishment as the poverty caused by another “lost decade” erodes public faith in traditional institutions.
At first glance there should be little surprise at Milei’s thumping victory in Sunday’s run-off. His rival was Sergio Massa of the populist Peronist party, which has misruled the country for all but four of the past 22 years.
The current finance minister, Massa was seeking election despite overseeing an economy rapidly contracting while representing a party that is an endless source of tawdry corruption scandals. He all but admitted he had no solution to chronic inflation, which is now above 140 per cent a year, leaving four in 10 Argentinians living in poverty and the rest in a constant hustle to offload pesos before their value plunges further.
Milei has offered a dramatic solution to this endless economic crisis, promising to destroy the central bank and ditch the “worse than shit” peso for the US dollar. This has been dismissed by most economists as unworkable. Massa’s team ran a fear campaign that sought to highlight the costs Milei’s radical libertarian proposals would mean for a society addicted to state handouts and hidden subsidies.
But on Sunday anger trumped that fear. Enough Argentinians were so fed up with the ruinous incompetence and corruption of the Peronists, they were willing to take a chance on someone who, to many outsiders, appears to be a narcissist struggling with anger issues.
Now Milei must take on the task of reforming an exhausted economic model that ran out of road long ago. He must do so despite having no executive experience and no sign he has the temperament for the task ahead. His new Liberty Advances party has no meaningful presence in congress and does not control a single province. His platform is both ultra radical and certain to be highly polarising, a fact acknowledged in his team’s threat to deploy the military to contain any social unrest his policies would almost inevitably provoke.
The main centre-right coalition, whose endorsement was crucial to his victory, will now demand a presence in his administration and analysts are already expressing the hope they will be a moderating influence.
But Milei’s rapid emergence as a force was first based on denigrating this same centre-right. His victory is as much a rejection of it as it is of the Peronists. Hopes the professionals of the traditional right can be a sensible hand on the tiller of a Milei administration also overlook the utter failure of their four years in power to 2019.
During president Mauricio Macri’s term, GDP declined, the national debt exploded, inflation worsened and poverty increased. Why the volatile Milei would now listen to economic advice from Macri’s team is not immediately obvious.
Meanwhile, though soundly thrashed, Peronism is a political movement with deep roots in Argentinian society and expert at unrelenting opposition when out of power. It still controls the rust belt that surrounds Buenos Aires from where party bosses have in the past whipped up protests in order to chase rivals from office.
Historically, non-Peronist presidents have a poor track record in Argentina. None though have been anything as radical as Milei, who has just won a huge personal mandate. Whether this means he can finally succeed where others have failed or will just flame out more spectacularly will now be tested.
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