Leap in the dark: On the election of Javier Milei, in Argentina

Javier Milei is likely to worsen Argentina’s economic woes

November 21, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 11:15 am IST

The election of Javier Milei, a self-declared anarcho-capitalist, as the President of Argentina, marks the sharpest turn towards the right in the four decades of democracy in the Latin American country. When the initial results were out, Mr. Milei had won 56% of the votes against the 44% of Sergio Massa, the Economy Minister in the outgoing leftist government of President Alberto Fernández. During the campaign, Mr. Milei had vowed to “flatten” the political establishment, which has been dominated by the centre-left Peronist movement for decades, “blow up” the central bank, and rebuild the economy. Argentina’s leaders have historically tried to fix the economy and failed. But even by Argentina’s own standard, the economy is in a pretty bad shape today. Annual inflation has crossed 140%, which is one of the highest in the world; more than 40% of the population is in poverty, and the peso, the currency, has plummeted to historical lows; a dollar is now equivalent to 1,000 pesos, from the 80 pesos it was in the early 2020s, before COVID-19 struck. While Mr. Milei attacked the political establishment and leftists in particular for the economic woes, Mr. Massa, on whose watch the latest crisis unfolded, struggled to mount an effective counter-campaign.

Mr. Milei’s victory is a boost for the far-right in the Americas. An admirer of Donald Trump of the U.S. and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, what has pushed Mr. Milei into the political limelight are the same views that raise concerns about his future administration. He wants to replace Argentina’s currency with the U.S. dollar, ban abortion, dismantle the public health-care system and move public education into a voucher system. He has said that under his administration, Argentina will have better relations with countries, such as the U.S. and Israel, that fight socialism. He has often attacked the media, claimed that Argentina was controlled by a shadowy cabal, has backed Mr. Trump’s claims of the 2020 U.S. elections being “stolen” and warned against election rigging against him (after his victory, his campaign stated that the elections were clean). He has projected himself as a crusader against Peronism, which in his narrative was the embodiment of the ills of Argentina. Fed up with economic miseries and hungry for political change, voters bought into his promises. But there is no clarity on what his untested libertarianism has to offer to fix the chronic economic woes. He may not be able to implement his most radical promises for lack of legislative support (his Liberty Advances party has seven seats in the 72-member Senate and 38 in the 257-seat House), but as a President who is at constant war with the country’s institutions, he could weaken Argentina’s democracy while worsening its economic problems — just as in Brazil under Mr. Bolsonaro. Testing times are ahead for South America’s second largest country.

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