MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Nov 28 (IPS) – For many Argentine voters, the choice on November 19 was between the lesser of two evils: Sergio Massa, the minister responsible for overseeing an economy with the third highest inflation rate in the world, or Javier Milei, an erratic far-right libertarian outsider promising to close the Central Bank, adopt the US dollar as its currency, cut taxes and privatize public services.
After underperforming in the October first round, Milei won the presidential election runoff by a margin of 12 points.
Many took the gamble out of desperation. Argentina is going through a prolonged economic crisis, with a devalued currency, low economic activity and zero growth. Economic decline is compounded by widespread corruption. Milei was the only candidate who seemed to take people’s concerns seriously.
He insisted on placing himself on the side of a hardworking and productive majority which, as he characterized it, is bloodless by taxes to maintain the privileges of a parasitic and corrupt political “caste”. He expressed the anger that many feel. The amateurism that could have harmed his campaign instead made it seem more authentic. When mainstream politicians came together to ridicule him, people empathized because they also felt mistreated by the ruling class.
The first economist to become president, Milei spent the campaign talking about the shock measures he would take. Even though it could harm people, many chose it, believing that nothing could be worse than the status quo. Milei’s candidacy attracted young voters who have only ever known crisis.
By supporting an opposition candidate, Argentina has squarely complied with the regional trend outgoing presidents losing elections, regardless of their political color. But Argentina went further than most other countries, since the opposition that defeated the center-left government was not a center-right alternative but a far-right alternative.
Argentina’s next president is now a symptom of dysfunction.
An unusual election period
It was the first time a political outsider won the presidency in Argentina’s 40 years of democracy. Argentina’s relatively powerful political parties have so far managed to avoid the phenomenon observed in many countries in the region. But for decades, mainstream politicians have failed to solve any of the problems that make people’s lives miserable – and they have allowed corruption to take deep roots, lending credence to the narrative of a privileged political “caste.”
Having only entered politics in 2021, when he was elected to Congress on the ticket of his newly formed Libertarian Party, Milei was the candidate with the most support in the primaries. It replaced the dominant center-right opposition coalition, Juntos por el Cambio (Together for Change, JxC), previously seen as the natural successor to the failed administration of the current incarnation of the Peronist movement, the center-left Union pour la Patrie. for the homeland).
Massa came third in the primaries, with the lowest vote share ever achieved by Peronism. But he orchestrated a comeback: before the first round, he used significant state resources in the “platita plan,” proposing tax cuts and increased subsidies. This, combined with scare tactics, allowed him, as Minister of Economy of a failing government, to achieve the feat of winning the first round.
But before the second round, these tactics had nothing left to offer. A redoubled fear campaign, equating Milei’s victory with a return to dictatorship, with Massa presenting himself as the standard-bearer of democracy, proved unconvincing and counterproductive.
Liberal or conservative?
Milei’s election was celebrated as a victory by the global far right. But its rise owes more to national than to international factors.
Milei’s style, including her penchant for conspiracy theories, certainly resembles that of Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. But he differs from them in important respects. He defends libertarian or ultraliberal ideas which, at least in theory, are consistent with liberal policies on immigration, drugs and reproductive rights. The market is his compass – he believes that the state should not take on tasks that the market can accomplish more efficiently. He argues that anything beyond a minimal state stifles individual ambition and innovation.
Milei also denies climate change, ridicules identity politics and scorns feminism. He personally advocates some conservative views, although he has only intermittently and opportunistically politicized them. They were not at the center of his campaign, which focused on the economy.
But Milei’s program has a troubling reactionary element. His running mate, Victoria Villarruel, represents the conservative backlash against sexual diversity and gender equality policies, as well as the reevaluation of the murderous military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. Given space , she will try to push back hard-earned sex. and reproductive rights.
The future of democracy
Elected by a large majority, Milei undoubtedly has democratic legitimacy. However, the second round of votes creates artificial majorities. Only 30 percent of voters chose Milei in the first round, despite having a range of options. Most of the additional votes he received in the runoff were against Massa rather than for him.
Milei owes her victory in large part to her combative message against the political establishment: more people identify with her posture than with her ideas. Among those who cared about his ideas, more were convinced by his economic proposals than by the culture war that his vice-presidential candidate seems to want to wage. Some weren’t worried because they didn’t think he would win, or that he wouldn’t have the power to implement his ideas if he won.
A major unknown is how Milei will interpret her victory. It has democratic legitimacy, just like the Congress in which it will be poorly represented. For the first time in 40 years, the ruling party will have only 15 percent of the seats in the House and 10 percent in the Senate. If Milei gains support from the dominant center-right, he will still be far from reaching a quorum.
In the week following the elections, the winning side seemed in disarray. Milei’s main asset, being his underdog, could turn against him. Without congressional support, he would risk the fate that often befalls Latin American presidents in office: premature departure from office.
But so far he has demonstrated a surprising level of flexibility and pragmatism. He has already softened some proposals, including postponing his most controversial decision – dollarization, forcing his most rigid supporters to step aside.
Milei went from rejecting “caste” to seeking alliances with it. Die-hard conservatives in Milei’s coalition have already been marginalized, while prominent members of the JxC and even some Peronists will likely be appointed to ministries and other key positions. Rather than the dominant center-right turning to the right to compete with the far right, as has happened elsewhere, it appears that the dominant center-right, having provided support that Milei lacked, could gain the space needed to set the tone for the new administration.
For much of the 20th century, democracy in Argentina was, as political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell put it, an “impossible game.” Peronism was invincible in free and fair elections; Right-wing parties had no chance of winning, and those who had no hope of winning became disloyal actors, seeking power by other means.
This changed with the transition to democracy in 1983, which followed the dictatorship. Elections are now the only game possible. If a foreigner like Milei could enter the political fold, it would prove the strength of Argentina’s institutions. Argentina’s democracy is strong enough to survive this shock.
Inés M. Pousadela is a CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and editor for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society report.
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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service