Argentina is teetering on the brink of an unpredictable new political era this weekend with an erratic far-right populist known as “El Loco” (the Madman) the slight favourite to become president of South America’s second-largest economy in Sunday’s election.
On Sunday morning, as voting began amidst high inflation and widespread poverty, experts predicted that Javier Milei, a former television personality now serving as a congressman, had a slight lead over his opponent, finance minister Sergio Massa. However, they also acknowledged that the outcome was uncertain and could go either way.
Massa, a centrist member of Alberto Fernández’s incumbent Peronist administration, unexpectedly won last month’s first round, with 9.8m votes to Milei’s 8m. But since then Milei – a climate-denying provocateur often compared to the far-right populists Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro – has been endorsed by several influential conservatives, including former president Mauricio Macri and the third-place candidate, Patricia Bullrich, who had previously condemned Milei’s “bad and dangerous” proposals.
Milei has toned down his provocative language in the weeks following October’s election, attempting to appeal to voters who were turned off by his extreme proposals. These proposals include shutting down over a dozen government departments, severing relationships with Argentina’s top trade partners, Brazil and China, and criticizing the pope as a “left-wing troublemaker”.
Milei stated this week that this election is of utmost significance, encouraging voters to remove the “delinquent” Peronist leaders who have been in power for 16 out of the last 20 years and have caused harm to our lives.
He stated, “May hope triumph over fear. The possibility of a better nation is present.”
Massa has spent recent weeks battling to focus voters’ minds on Milei’s volatile character, rather than the economic failures of his government, under which four in 10 Argentinians found themselves in poverty and inflation soared to more than 140%.
Juan Cruz Díaz, the managing director of Buenos Aires consulting firm Cefeidas Group, stated that Milei’s character provides Massa with a route to becoming president.
Experts believe that worries about Milei’s mindset may not be enough to rescue Massa’s campaign, considering the economic struggles in Argentina. According to Federico Finchelstein, an Argentinian historian studying the emergence of right-wing populist leaders like Trump, Bolsonaro, and Milei, the current government’s failures and high inflation rates make it difficult for Massa to gain support. As a result, some may see Milei as the lesser of two evils and choose to support him over Massa.
It is doubtful that the majority of voters are attracted to Milei’s extreme right-wing views or crude language, according to Finchelstein, a member of the faculty at New York’s New School for Social Research. However, with two unsatisfactory candidates, the main issue in Argentina is determining the lesser of two evils.
According to a Brazilian newspaper, a significant number of undecided voters who will ultimately determine the outcome of the election view their decision as a choice between two fictional characters: Dracula and Frankenstein. The mad scientist from Mary Shelley’s novel is seen as representing Milei.
There is disagreement among experts about the potential policies and actions of a Milei presidency. The eccentric and famous economist, who joined politics after winning a seat in congress in 2021, has promised to get rid of the central bank in Argentina, adopt the US dollar as the national currency, and reduce government spending by 14%. During his campaign, he has used a chainsaw as a symbol of his goal to eliminate wasteful spending and corrupt practices. His running mate for vice-president, Victoria Villarruel, has connections to members of the violent dictatorship in Argentina from 1976 to 1983, and has raised controversy by questioning the widely accepted number of people killed by that regime.
Díaz questioned the capabilities of the hard-right libertarian, whose political party, Freedom Advances, only holds 38 out of 257 seats in the lower house and eight out of 72 seats in the senate. He doubted that the party would have enough political power to successfully implement its extreme proposals if their candidate were to win the election.
According to Díaz, Milei does not have any governors or mayors and has little influence in congress. This could result in strong opposition from social groups, making major reforms unlikely in the first two years. Díaz speculates that established politicians like Macri may have a significant impact on Milei’s administration, potentially causing him to adopt more moderate policies.
Ariel Goldstein, a sociologist from Argentina who has authored books about Bolsonaro and the resurgence of authoritarianism in Latin America, believes that a win for Milei would empower other right-wing populists worldwide. Goldstein stated that Buenos Aires could potentially become a hub for the global far right if Milei wins, and that there would likely be significant social unrest as protestors oppose his proposed budget cuts.
The day before the election, over 100 top economists expressed a similar sentiment, cautioning that a Milei presidency could lead to severe financial damage and societal turmoil.
Finchelstein expressed that his biggest concern was Milei himself. He stated, “Milei is significantly more extreme and erratic than Bolsonaro and Trump. Therefore, it is incredibly uncertain what actions this individual could take while in a position of power.”
Finchelstein stated that the individual in question is known for having unpredictable mood swings and being very unstable. According to certain journalistic investigations, this person even has a deceased dog as a political consultant. While it may seem like a joke, it is actually true.
Leftist leaders in Latin America have expressed concern in recent days. Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro stated that Argentinian voters were faced with a decision between “hope and barbarism”, while Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva called for Argentina to elect a president who values democracy and respects institutions.
Prominent individuals, such as former Mexican presidents Felipe Calderón and Vicente Fox, Colombia’s Iván Duque, Chile’s Sebastián Piñera, and Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, have expressed support for Milei’s campaign. They believe it is a democratic means of eliminating the “harmful economic policies” of Massa’s political party. However, Vargas Llosa’s history of endorsing unsuccessful conservative candidates, including Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Chile’s José Antonio Kast, and Peru’s Keiko Fujimori, raises doubts about his judgment in choosing presidential hopefuls.
Milei’s supporters deny that he is portrayed as an unstable and volatile person, though they do not dispute the allegations that he seeks advice from his cloned mastiffs.
In a recent interview, Lilia Lemoine, a close ally, brushed off the notion that Milei is an extremist, stating that people will make any accusations against them, including calling them Nazis. She also added that they do not take these claims seriously.
Lemoine, a congresswoman-elect who used to be a cosplayer, stated that Milei was given the nickname “El Loco” due to his strong passion. She also commented that it takes a certain level of “craziness” to challenge the corruption in politics.