Change in the aire in Buenos Aires
BY JOAKIM MOL ROMERO
Pictured: Javier Milei. Image credit: ph.Santiago Trusso
A heated battle between opponents vying for the ultimate crown. Supporters passionately cheering for their preferred side. Millions of others watching on, knowing the result could change their everyday life. This description could apply to the recent superclásico between the two giants of Argentinian football, Boca Juniors and River Plate, or the upcoming election in that same country. Of course, Perspectives being a politics magazine, this article will focus on the latter.
The election to decide the next president of Argentina is scheduled for the 22nd of October, although it could potentially lead to a second round between the two most popular candidates if none of them is able to meet the requirements for a first-round victory. With many believing there is a lack of palatable candidates it would perhaps be a tempting proposition to skip voting this time around. However, citizens must vote in this election (as it is one of the few countries where voting is mandatory) or risk facing a fine. Given the precarious state of many Argentines’ personal finances many will probably vote, albeit with a heavy degree of reluctance.
The noise emanating from the ongoing electoral battle is not indicative of a country that is even remotely satisfied with its current state of affairs, especially the dreary economy, which shows no sign of improving. The young Argentinians spoken to for this article expressed exasperation at both the state of the country, and successive governments’ failures to confront its deep-rooted problems. This is exemplified by Argentina’s economic data, which currently reads like the script of a horror movie. Even in a global inflationary environment, Argentina’s rampant inflation - running at over 100% - stands out. Many supermarkets have stopped putting prices on products as prices are changing so often. The economy is expected to contract by 1.3% this year, tipping the country into a recession it can hardly afford. And, perhaps most shockingly as it has often been viewed as at least a middle-income country, the poverty rate is above 40%, with many ordinary Argentineans finding it impossible to pay for essential products, leading to an increased reliance on food banks.
It is within this turbulent context that a surprise candidate has managed to establish himself as the frontrunner. In mid-August, the primaries heralded a shock victory for political outsider Javier Milei, who still leads opinion polling going into the first round, ahead of the centre-left Peronist Sergio Massa and the centre-right Patricia Bullrich respectively.
Up until a few years ago, Javier Milei, whose appearance can best be described as that of an ageing rockstar (which is fitting considering he used to be in a band that mostly covered Beatles songs), was best known for his colourful appearances on talk shows, in which his confrontational style garnered attention. He made the transition to politics just two years ago, but has already accumulated a vast array of political soundbites. These could fill a whole article but a few notable ones include: calling the Pope a ‘f***ing Communist’; describing the state as a ‘criminal organisation’ as taxes aren’t paid voluntarily; categorising abortion as ‘murder of a defenceless human’, and finally calling climate change a 'socialist lie'. These pronouncements clearly demonstrate his ideology, which is a mix of ultra-conservatism and anarchism.
It seems that Milei’s preference would be to abolish the state entirely, but he has instead settled on a program of deep cuts (equal to 15% of GDP) which includes reducing the number of government departments from 18 to 8. He also plans to abolish the Central Bank and replace the Argentine peso with the US dollar. Although the latter might theoretically seem like a positive change - replacing the notoriously unstable peso with one of the world’s most respected currencies - it has been criticised by experts such as Mark Sobel, who describe it as ‘too risky’.
His economic vision seeks to encourage investment by lowering taxes and cutting red-tape. However, these plans could be complicated by his verbal attacks on the leaders of the country’s most important partners. At various times he has directed his ire at the four countries with which Argentina trades the most, namely Brazil, China, the United States and Chile. Milei has mostly criticised their leaders for being ‘socialists’, and it is his disdain for Brazil's leader which is the greatest cause for concern. Milei has expressed admiration for Jair Bolsonaro (and Donald Trump), yet if he becomes President he will have to deal with Lula, and their relationship could become reminiscent of the frosty relationship incumbent Alberto Fernandez had with Jair Bolsonaro, as they have already had hostile exchanges. Further bickering could jeopardise South America's most important relationship, dealing the Argentine economy yet another blow.
Milei’s campaign has successfully used social media as a tool to reach disaffected younger voters. He boasts 1.4 million followers on TikTok, well ahead of Massa's 43,500 and Bullrich's 215,000. His TikToks explain his economic ideas in an easily digestible way. One of his most memorable videos features him tearing down sticky notes with the names of ministries he plans to shut, angrily shouting "afuera" - out with you.
Patricia Bullrich was likely the candidate most disappointed with the results of the primaries, finishing third despite predictions she could stand to capitalise on the unpopularity of centre-left Peronist politics. This is perhaps because she isn’t exactly an anti-establishment candidate herself, having first entered the Chamber of Deputies in 1993. Bullrich has tried to portray herself as a tough, ‘no-nonsense’ candidate, drawing on her experience as the Minister for Security under Mauricio Macri, while promising to continue his business-friendly reforms. However, Bullrich risks being outflanked by Milei, who espouses a more radical version of her free-market policies.
Sergio Massa, the Minister for Economy under Alberto Fernandez, is running to maintain the ruling Peronist coalition's hold on the Casa Rosada (the Presidential workplace). Massa pledges to reduce the government's ballooning budget deficit, yet he does not inspire confidence given he has failed to do so in his current role. Massa has also pledged to increase government spending on education. While this is commendable, given that Argentina ranked in the bottom 15 out of 80 in all categories of the PISA exam rankings, it is unclear where these funds will come from. Massa has made overtures to other parties in recent weeks, promising to create a ‘national unity government’ if elected. This is simultaneously an appeal to win votes and an admission that to many, the Peronist movement, whose leaders have governed Argentina for 18 of the last 22 years, has become toxic.
It is more than understandable that Argentinians should seek out a radical alternative after successive governments have failed to tame inflation and set the country on the right path. Yet it is very unclear whether Milei offers the answers to the problems the country is facing, while much of his rhetoric has been dangerous and divisive. One does certainly not envy the Argentines who will go to the ballot box.