In December 2001, Argentina experienced one of the most dramatic moments in its history. The imminent bankruptcy of convertibility – the monetary stabilization plan that established parity between the dollar and the peso – led tens of thousands of people to the streets to protest against the government’s confiscation of the currency, the “corralito.” . In a historic moment, the then president Fernando de la Rúa fled the Casa Rosada by helicopter after resigning, to the disbelief of the protesters who occupied the Plaza de Mayo.
Almost 22 years later, the Argentine population seems to have finally found a figure capable of effectively expressing the cry “let them all go” that marked that tragic December. Javier Milei, far-right economist and founder of the La Libertad Avanza (LLA) party, was elected president of Argentina by defeating the Peronist Sergio Massa in the second round held last Sunday.
The advantage of more than ten points between Milei and Massa once again called into question the credibility of the polling institutes that predicted a close race, defined by narrow margins, but the signs that this panorama was wrong were visible from the first round. In the October vote, the sum of the votes given to Milei and Patrícia Bullrich already exceeded those of Massa by about 15%.
Victory in 20 of the country’s 23 provinces
In the end, Milei managed to retain more than 80% of Bullrich’s votes and expanded his electoral base by more than 324,000 votes compared to the right’s performance in the first round. The result was a landslide victory, in which Milei beat Massa in 20 of the country’s 23 provinces, as well as in the federal capital, Buenos Aires. In traditional anti-Peronist bastions, such as Mendoza, the difference exceeded 40%, but Milei won in five of the eight provinces currently governed by Peronism.
Understanding the reasons that have led to this situation is an effort that will last some years. In a preliminary analysis, the results can be read as the expected end of an atypical electoral cycle in which a society punished by a decade of economic stagnation and different failed stabilization plans decided to punish the traditional political forces, that is, in the face of rejection To the known formulas, the unknown was embraced.
What is striking is that this discontent has found its main representative in Javier Milei, an aggressive figure, visibly unprepared, without firm social bases and who has become better known for his idiosyncrasy than for the defense of a project or a career in politics.
Extreme and angry campaigns
Stripped of the enlightened clothing with which the traditional Argentine right tries to disguise its repudiation of the poor, Milei opted for a campaign in his image and likeness: histrionic, extreme and rabid, symbolized by the chainsaw with which he intended – we hope metaphorically – to destroy to the “caste”, an expression with which he referred to the country’s politicians. To this he added half a dozen slogans (“dollarization”, “freedom”, “end of the Central Bank”), about which few explanations were given, and built the successful campaign that took him to the Casa Rosada.
Understanding this phenomenon requires an understanding not yet available of a series of transformations underway in Argentine society, ranging from the changes brought about by communication in the Internet era to the advance of job insecurity and the marginalization of large contingents. of the population from markets and formal state protection networks.
In this sense, it must be recognized that Milei demonstrated a greater ability to read the situation than his opponents. He understood that fatigue with the Government would not be represented in gradualist formulas, such as those proposed by the Together for Change coalition, and left room to accept a shock therapy proposal, such as the one he announced yesterday in his victory speech.
In this sense, the proposal to dollarize the economy proved to be correct from an electoral point of view by generating the support of younger voters, who do not have the memory of the experience of the collapse of the 90s of the last century and directly feel the impacts of a stagnant economy just as they enter the job market. At the same time, the idea resonates positively among segments of the middle and upper classes, nostalgic for the days of “give me two,” despite the political cost it entails.
While we must expand our efforts to understand the roots of this result, we must reflect on its implications going forward. As significant as Milei’s victory is, it represented a less important challenge than those posed to the president-elect starting December 10.
“The change has to be drastic, with no middle ground”
Milei himself seems to be aware that his program is less feasible than he made it seem during the campaign. During his victory speech, Milei made no reference to dollarization or the abolition of the Central Bank, but he made it clear that the path he intends to follow is that of shock therapy, stating that “The changes we need are drastic. “There is no place for gradualism, there is no place for middle ground.”
The application of this shock agenda represents a very complex political operation. Approving laws and projects that require a qualified majority will require agreements with sectors of Peronism, but the challenge does not end there. The adoption of shock therapy usually produces very costly effects in terms of employment and income, which could unleash waves of protests that put the country’s already difficult governability at risk. In this context, Milei’s political sustainability will depend on building a support network that goes beyond votes in the House and Senate, and that also makes itself felt in the streets.
The expectation of moderation, as with Trump and Bolsonaro, may not happen
To what extent Milei will be able to make these policies without losing his anti-establishment legitimacy is unknown. Another open question, and potentially more serious, refers to the impact of Milei’s presidency on Argentine democratic institutions. For the moment, in the country’s traditional circles there seems to be an expectation that the president-elect will be moderate, restrained by the weight of the office, and that his virulent tone is more a candidate’s speech than an expression of temperament.
However, one of the lessons to be drawn from the experiences of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro is that expectations of moderation are frustrated by far-right politicians. The idea that the Republican Party or the Armed Forces would contain Trump and Bolsonaro, respectively, was not only wrong, but what we saw was a radicalization of these actors.
To deny the authoritarian DNA of Milei’s project, as the traditional Argentine right has done, is to close one’s eyes to the obvious to avoid facing one’s own contradictions. In the campaign committee, the posters with Milei’s face were accompanied by the phrase “the only solution.” Now, if a figure claims to be the only solution to the country’s problems, everyone who opposes that solution automatically becomes part of the problem.
How the new Argentine president plans to confront this scenario is something we will soon know, but the clues offered by Milei and the country’s history suggest that the vibrant capacity for mobilization that distinguishes Argentine society may be more necessary than ever.