Many were left stunned by Argentina’s August 13 primary elections, which saw extreme right libertarian candidate Javier Milei win just over 30% of votes cast and push the opposition and governing coalitions into second and third place, respectively.
The result puts Milei in prime position to advance through the October 22 first round presidential election and into the second round run-off. Should he win, Milei has promised to dollarise the economy, sell-off all state assets, eliminate eleven ministries (including health, education, housing and women), shut down the central bank and slash public spending by 15% of gross domestic product.
So, how did a candidate, running for a party — Liberty Advances — established only two years ago, obtain such support? While his result fits within the international trend of radical right victories, the Milei phenomenon has its roots in five homegrown factors.
One: It is impossible to understand Milei’s eruption onto the political scene without comprehending the profound level of discontent caused by a decade of economic stagnation, currency devaluation, an annual inflation rate exceeding 100%, rising crime and increased precarisation of the workforce.
These factors have combined to generate a drastic reduction in living standards, greater inequality and a four-fold rise in the poverty rate since 2018, which now exceeds 40%.
Two: Support for the two major establishment coalitions, both of whom have presided over this economic debacle, has collapsed.
The governing Peronist coalition, Union for the Homeland, obtained perhaps its worst electoral results since the end of the dictatorship in 1983.
For most of the past two decades, Argentina has been governed by Kirchnerism, a centre-left current within Peronism that draws its name from the couple Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who won successive elections between 2002 and 2011.
Much like other centre-left and left South American governments at the turn of the century, Kirchnerism represented a partial break from neoliberalism, with its policies of mild state intervention and expanded social welfare programs.
But failure to implement promised reforms saw Kirchnerism’s support wane. After its defeat in the 2015 elections, Peronism opted for a more moderate candidate, Alberto Fernández, in the 2019 presidential elections. With Cristina as the vice-presidential candidate, the Peronist ticket won with 48% of the vote.
This year, Peronism only mustered a combined 27% of the vote — split between the current economic minister (and anti-Kirchnerist) Sergio Massa (21%) and dissident Kirchnerist Juan Grabois (6%). Grabois joined the campaign in a last ditch attempt to rally progressives reluctant to vote for Massa — even despite Cristina’s support for him.
The opposition centre-right coalition, Together for Change, which was in power under Mauricio Macri in 2015‒19, did not fare much better. Having sought to present itself as the only viable vehicle for defeating Peronism, the coalition overall obtained fewer votes than Milei, with its base sharply divided between hardliner Patricia Bullrich (17%) and centre-right moderate Horacio Larreta (11%).
A further signal of this collapse was the record abstention level, with more than 31% of voters choosing to stay home (7% more than the previous election), and the 5.5% who cast blank or null votes.
Three: Amid this economic crisis and political malaise, Milei’s vote represented a rejection of these two coalitions, and an expectation of change.
Writing in Le Monde Diplomatique, José Natanson said that — having punished Kirchnerism in 2015, Macrism in 2019 and Peronism in 2021 — “this time [Argentine society] sought something new”.
They found this in Milei, who in the weeks leading up to the election, honed in his extremist discourse — which mixes anti-Communist and anti-feminist discourse with wild libertarian policies, such as support for a free market for the purchase and sale of human organs — on concrete economic measures and attacks on the political “caste”.
This dynamic was on display at Milei’s closing and victory rallies, which saw large crowds chanting: “Throw them all out, every single one of them” — a chant associated with the 2001 uprising that toppled five presidents in a week and precipitated the rise of Kirchnerism.
Four: Milei’s discourse struck a chord with one-third of voters, and cannot be simply regarded as a protest vote, or merely the result of media or business backing. Neither was it due to a dramatic rightward shift in society: various opinion polls have shown that even most of his own voters reject his more extreme policies.
Rather, beyond a generalised sense of protest and change, Milei’s discourse was able to tap into sentiments within growing sectors of the workforce: primarily informal workers, precarious employees, those in new, non-unionised industries and youth in the gig economy.
Milei did best among these sectors, and not necessarily among traditional conservative voters. His vote was more a reorganisation of the right from below than a reshuffling from above.
Among these sectors, the ideas of entrepreneurship, self-empowerment, risk and “freedom” — all of which Milei’s anti-statist libertarianism embraces — seem much more “common sense” and convincing than concepts of collectivism and unionism and grandiose promises from the same old political caste.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Milei’s prominence began to rise amid the long lockdown imposed in Argentina during the COVID-19 pandemic, when his discourse of “freedom” was viewed differently within those sectors who had no other option but to leave home to work and survive.
Five: Milei’s ability to channel this sentiment of discontent was facilitated by the acquiescence of the country’s trade unions and social movements. Amid the crisis, and unable to offer a vision for these emergent sections of the workforce, they have largely sought to prioritise negotiations with the Peronist government in exchange for maintaining peace on the streets.
With no extra-parliamentary outlet to express their anger or despair, millions instead did so at the ballot box.
Despite previous good results, the radical Left and Workers Front-Unity (FIT-U) was unable to capitalise on this discontent. This was in part due to Grabois’ campaign, which channelled votes back to Peronism, and the fact that FIT-U ran a divided primaries, contested by two tickets whose differences were largely incomprehensible to most.
Milei may ultimately not win the presidency: recent history shows results in the primaries are not necessarily reflective of the vote in presidential elections. But even if Milei does not win, he has already upended politics-as-usual and his party will almost certainly have an important — if not decisive — presence in parliament.
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