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Six Questions About Argentina's Surprising Frontrunner

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Javier Milei

Argentina is facing an unprecedented economic crisis that includes increasing inflation and poverty rates, and the upcoming presidential election on October 20, 2023, could serve as a catalyst for change or spell further trouble for the nation. Following the PASO primary elections in August, libertarian candidate Javier Milei emerged at the top, with around 30 percent of the total votes cast. This newly minted and eccentric frontrunner has drawn both attention and criticism from local and international observers, and his vision for Argentina’s future is deeply concerning to some. Who is Javier Milei, and why is his primary win so surprising? What are his plans for Argentina? SIS professor Agustina Giraudy answers these questions and more.

Argentina held national primaries, or PASO elections, in August, and many were surprised when the far-right candidate Javier Milei emerged as the biggest winner in those primaries. Why was this so shocking?
The polls were not anticipating this victory, and pollsters did not capture what was really going on. Everybody knew that he was going to get around 20 percent of the vote, but he ended up having more than 30 percent.There were two other major results that to me, personally, were much more important. One has to do with the fact that he was able to win throughout the country. It was a victory that relied on several smaller victories at the state level, and he won in 16 out of 24 provinces. That was shocking, because earlier in the year, there were state elections, and his party was losing consistently at the state level. The second thing, which for me is the most dramatic changing narrative in Argentine politics, is that he has been able to capture the votes that have traditionally gone to the left-leaning party—the Peronist party of Argentina. This was the first time that some poor people voted for a party that was different from the Peronist party. This has not happened in 70 years. So, to me, this is one of the reasons why his victory in October or November seems more credible and more likely.
Milei and his ideologies have been compared to other far-right leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Why are some concerned about his stances?
Milei is a libertarian, and what he's proposing is essentially the reduction of the state as a whole. He wants to get rid of different ministries, shut down the central bank, and get rid of public health and education. While Trump and Bolsonaro never proposed that kind of state reduction, Milei is more like Trump in his conservative worldview. He is very radical, very anti-abortion, embraces authoritarian values, and is anti-communist, anti-socialist, and anti-China. So, in that sense, he's like Trump. Unlike Trump, Milei does not have a strong party. So, in that sense, he's more like Bolsonaro, who initiated his term representing a small party. All three presented themselves as outsiders to the traditional political system and sought to create the image that they would end with the “plagues” that characterized each country
Milei received the highest share of primary votes in the national primaries. What is it about Milei or his platform that is appealing to Argentinian voters?  
His appeal is that he is new to the political system. People in Argentina are extremely fed up with traditional politicians, traditional parties, and institutions. His two main contenders are clear examples of the status quo. These politicians and their parties, which have ruled Argentina in the past, have a proven record of not being able to solve historical economic, political, and social problems affecting the country. A great percentage of the Argentine population doesn't have trust in traditional parties and traditional politicians anymore, and they see Milei as a new opportunity. He's placing himself as an outsider—different from what he called “the cast” (of traditional politicians)—and someone who's going to get rid of the state and its inefficiencies. Many people think that even if what he's proposing is crazy, the political situation in Argentina cannot get worse.
Argentina has recently faced several issues, including inflation and rising poverty rates. How would the country be affected if Milei were to win the presidency?
One of the things that he's proposing is to dollarize the economy and get rid of the Argentine peso to help reduce inflation, but it's very unclear how he's going to do that. As of today, he cannot explain the details of his economic plan. Other than a message of reducing spending and the size of the state, his economic platform is vague. What is interesting is that this rhetoric runs counter to the interests of low-income citizens who voted for him. His proposed plan—in particular, the elimination of public health and education—rather than reducing poverty, will exacerbate it. It's all extremely contradictory.
Is this rise of far-right candidates and increasing economic instability a sign of democratic backsliding in Argentina?
It seems that the common understanding among Argentine politicians that democracy was the only game in town, could be broken. The last military dictatorship, which came to power in 1976, was among the most repressive and violent in the region, and thousands of civilians were disappeared and murdered. Since the transition to democracy in 1983, all major political parties agreed that the country could not go back to those years. Milei has challenged this agreement and has begun to validate some of the military dictatorship operations. If he wins, Milei will have to rule the country with a Congress that's going to be divided. This means that if he decides to rule within existing democratic institutions, he will have to negotiate with Congress—this will prevent democratic backsliding. If, instead, he chooses not to work with Congress and implements his preferred policies unilaterally, I see some risks for democratic backsliding because of his conservative and anti-democratic values.
How will the results of Argentina’s election impact the rest of the region? 
If Milei were to win, he would be an exception in the political landscape of the region, which is largely run by the left: Boric in Chile, Petro in Colombia, Lula in Brazil, and Lopez Obrador in Mexico. That being said, right-wing candidates have been on the rise. Last year’s elections in Chile and Brazil are an example of that. In both countries, right-wing candidates (Bolsonaro and Kast) were very close to winning the presidency. The support for this type of leader is big. Milei can easily create common ground with some of these leaders and become a coalescing figure in the region.
For more information on upcoming elections and election results, visit the SIS Global Elections Tracker.