This weekend, Argentina is on the verge of entering an unpredictable new political era. The frontrunner for the presidency of the country’s second-largest economy is a controversial far-right figure nicknamed “El Loco” (the Madman).
On Sunday morning, as voters cast their ballots amidst high inflation and widespread poverty, experts speculated that former TV personality and current congressman Javier Milei had a slight lead over his opponent, Finance Minister Sergio Massa. However, they also noted that the outcome was too uncertain to predict.
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.
In the weeks after October’s election, Milei has toned down his provocative language in an attempt to attract voters who may have been turned off by his extreme proposals. These include shutting down over a dozen government departments, severing relationships with Argentina’s top trade allies, Brazil and China, and criticizing the pope as a “left-leaning troublemaker.”
“This week, Milei declared that this is the most crucial election in the past 100 years. He urged voters to remove the “delinquent” Peronist politicians who have been in power for 16 out of the last 20 years and have caused harm to our lives.”
He stated: “May hope prevail over fear. The possibility of a better nation exists.”
Massa has been working hard in the past few weeks to shift the attention of voters away from Milei’s unpredictable personality and towards the government’s economic shortcomings. During the current administration, 40% of Argentinians have fallen into poverty and inflation has skyrocketed to over 140%.
Juan Cruz Díaz, the managing director of Cefeidas Group, stated that Milei’s character provides Massa with a route to becoming president.
However, experts say concerns over Milei’s mindset may be insufficient to save Massa’s campaign, given Argentina’s economic woes. “This is a failed government with a record level of inflation and he is the minister for the economy,” said Federico Finchelstein, an Argentinian historian who studies the new wave of rightwing populists leaders, including Trump, Bolsonaro and Milei. “So [people think]: ‘Between a terrible thing and a crazy guy, let’s go for crazy, because perhaps it’s better than a terrible thing.’”
Finchelstein, who works at New York’s New School for Social Research, doubted most voters were enamored of Milei’s far-right ideas or foul-mouthed style. “But you have two really bad candidates and the question in Argentina is: ‘Which is the lesser evil?’”
According to a newspaper in Brazil, a significant number of undecided voters view their decision in the election as a choice between Dracula and Frankenstein, with Milei being represented by Mary Shelley’s notorious scientist.
Some people have different opinions about what a potential presidency under Milei might entail. The eccentric economist, known for his unruly hair, joined the political scene in 2021 after being elected to congress. He has promised to get rid of Argentina’s central bank, adopt the US dollar as the country’s currency, and reduce government spending by 14%. During his campaign, he has used a chainsaw as a symbol for his goal of eliminating wasteful spending and corruption. His vice-presidential running mate, Victoria Villarruel, has connections to individuals involved in Argentina’s brutal dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 and has stirred controversy by questioning the generally accepted number of lives lost during that time.
However, Díaz questioned if the far-right libertarian, whose party, La Libertad Avanza, only holds 38 out of 257 seats in the lower house and eight out of 72 seats in the senate, would have enough political influence to enact their most extreme proposals if they were to win the election.
According to Díaz, Milei lacks a governor and a mayor, and his influence in congress is greatly restricted. He is expected to encounter strong opposition from social groups. Therefore, it is uncertain if significant changes will occur in the initial two years. Díaz suggests that more conventional politicians like Macri may hold significant power in his administration and compel him to adopt a more moderate stance.
Ariel Goldstein, an Argentinian sociologist who has written books on Bolsonaro and Latin America’s authoritarian revival, said a Milei victory would boost fellow rightwing populists around the world. “Buenos Aires could become a new mecca for the global far right,” said Goldstein, predicting a Milei victory would also spark profound “social conflict” as protesters resisted his cuts.
On the eve of the election, over 100 prominent economists expressed their agreement with this perspective, cautioning that a Milei presidency could result in severe economic turmoil and societal disorder.
According to Finchelstein, his biggest concern was Milei himself. He stated, “Milei is much more extreme and unpredictable than Bolsonaro and Trump. Therefore, it is difficult to anticipate the actions he may take if in a position of power.”
According to Finchelstein, we are discussing an individual who is susceptible to abrupt shifts in mood and is very unpredictable. Some journalists have discovered that this person even has a deceased dog serving as a political advisor. While it may seem like a joke, it is not.
Leaders of the left in Latin America have expressed concern in recent days. Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro stated that Argentinian voters had to choose between “hope and barbarism”, while Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva called on Argentina to elect a president who values democracy and respects institutions.
Prominent figures 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 their support for Milei’s campaign. They see it as a means of democratically eliminating the harmful economic policies of Massa’s political movement. However, Vargas Llosa’s previous endorsements of right-wing candidates like Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Chile’s José Antonio Kast, and Peru’s Keiko Fujimori have been unsuccessful.
Milei’s supporters refute the portrayal of him as an unstable and explosive person, but they do not deny the claims that he seeks advice from his cloned mastiffs.
In a recent interview, Lilia Lemoine, a close associate, brushed off accusations that Milei and his followers are Nazis, stating that people will make false claims about them and they choose to not take it seriously.
Lemoine, a former cosplayer who was recently elected as a congresswoman, stated that Milei was given the nickname “El Loco” due to his intense passion. She added, “It’s not necessarily a negative thing. You have to be a bit daring to challenge all the corruption.”