By Rocío Ceballos and Pablo Nemiña
On November 19, 2023, the Argentinean people elected their next president in a runoff election. Right-wing libertarian Javier Milei won with 56% of the vote against Economy Minister Sergio Massa’s 44%. Milei’s victory reveals a lot about shifting allegiances in Argentina’s political climate.
Compared to the last 15 years, two novelties stood out in this election: The demand for a political and economic change is large, and the traditional division between Kirchnerism — a left-wing populist movement — and anti-Kirchnerism seems to have faded.
Since 2003, President Néstor Kirchner (2003–2007) and his wife and successor, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007–2015) have promoted a “neo-developmentalist” economic model, in which the state plays an active, paternalistic role in fostering economic growth. Both of them represented the Peronist movement, which has been the dominant political force in Argentina since the 1980s. In the last four presidential elections, the most successful political formulas were those that proposed to maintain, deepen or return to the roots of the neo-developmentalism.
Both of the candidates that made it to the runoff, however, proposed more market-oriented economic models. Massa, who is also a Peronist, proposed a development project centered on production and the coordination of labor, capital and the state. In contrast to this moderate proposal, the libertarian Milei promotes a drastic reduction of the state and the implementation of a market economy in all spaces of social life. He wants to privatize broad swathes of Argentinean life, from health to education, and even calls for liberalizing trade in human organs.
The last four presidential elections were organized around the cleavage between Kirchnerism and anti-Kirchnerism, i.e. between left-wing populists and their opponents. Today such opposition is attenuated. Massa called for national unity.
Milei, instead, created his own original rift, one between the “caste” of elites and those excluded by them. Milei took the concept of caste from the Spanish leftist movement Podemos and redefined from a libertarian perspective. It refers to a vague group that includes corrupt politicians, rent-seeking businessmen, trade unionists who betray the workers they represent, journalists and professionals (especially economists, lawyers and pollsters) who act as accomplices of the politicians and “give an intellectual patina to the theft of the State.” On the other side are the “good people.” In Milei’s worldview, these are individuals who compete in the market by offering quality goods and services at a better price, without resorting to traps or shortcuts.
A tired society wants Milei’s markets
Argentineans were divided between two proposals. The first was Massa’s plan to move towards a government of national unity. It appealed to the best men and women of all political spaces that respect democracy, laying the foundations for an inclusive and stable development model that revolved around production and employment.
The second proposal was Milei’s reset, unraveling the Argentinean welfare state. It was a dramatic reaction from the people’s annoyance with repeatedly unfulfilled promises of economic prosperity. Milei’s plan is to replace it, by consensus or force, with a dogmatic market society that turns every type of social relationship into a market transaction. American economist Gary Becker would be proud.
Milei personifies the people’s tiredness with a system that shows a serious imbalance between proclaimed and effectively guaranteed rights. He became the political leader that a part of society had been wanting for a while. A society unenthused by traditional electoral options, socially fragmented and angry with the political-economic system found its leader.
Part of Milei’s success is explained by his ability to synthesize that diversity of feelings in his own speech and person. His approach exalts individual freedoms and capabilities while denying collective solutions, mainly the state. It is an entrepreneurial ideology that looks for infinite markets between individuals, algorithms and digital technologies that make transactions efficient. It places no restrictions above and below to moderate wealth concentration or support the less fortunate. The sky’s the limit … or perhaps Hell is.
Solid support, shaky statements
Milei wields a figurative (and literal) chainsaw. With it, he intends to viciously cut public spending, suppress the Central Bank and end the impoverishing political caste and its promise of dollarization. This goal has generated sympathies among informal workers and liberal sectors that identify inflation as a result of the fiscal deficit and irresponsible monetary issuance.
However, Milei’s other remarks have put many sectors of Argentinean society on alert. He has firmly avoided highlighting the value of democracy. Milei seemingly has an experimental laboratory vision of society. He has made worrying statements about the free sale of human organs and children. He has referred to Pope Francis, the first Argentinean to hold the office, as a “son of a bitch preaching communism” and “the representative of the evil one on Earth.” His approach to foreign policy is anachronistic and includes cutting diplomatic relations with Brazil and China — Argentina’s two main trading partners — for having communist leaders. These ideas are frightening, to say the least.
Despite the economy’s poor performance, it was not clear that Milei was destined to win. In the first round of voting, Massa surpassed him by more than 6 percentage points, thanks to greater citizen participation. To improve his chances for the runoff, Milei handed over the management of his campaign to Mauricio Macri of the center-right Juntos por el Cambio coalition. Macri was president from 2015 to 2019, but could not plausibly run again due to the terrible memory he left among workers and entrepreneurs.
After the first round of voting, Juntos por el Cambio’s candidate, Patricia Bullrich, was eliminated. With his own coalition therefore out of the electoral race, Macri departed from his coalition and outlined a more radical pro-market ideological line. Evidently, his choice bore fruit.
Argentinean sociologist Christian Ferrer says that Argentina “is a sentimentally anti-capitalist but pragmatically hyper-consumerist country.” The latter trait has triumphed in this election. Society has chosen to pursue Milei’s uncertain market utopia, which he guarantees will demand sacrifice. The question remains: Will this sacrifice ultimately be worthwhile?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
About the authors:
- Rocío Ceballos received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from the University of Buenos Aires and her Master of Arts degree in Economic Sociology from the National University of San Martín. She is an Assistant Professor at the University of Buenos Aires. Her research agenda is organized around the International Political Economy.
- Pablo Nemiña is a research fellow for the National Scientific and Technical Research Council at the National University of San Martín and associate researcher at the Latin American Social Sciences Institute (FLACSO — Argentina). He teaches and conducts research on the political economy of international finance. He holds a PhD in Social Sciences from the University of Buenos Aires.
Source: This article was published by Fair Observer