Libertarian firebrand Milei has a real shot at Argentina's presidency

Libertarian upstart candidate Javier Milei is in a strong position to win the country's presidency following his victory in last week's primaries. Milei proposes a radical remake that would see Argentina abolish its central bank and currency, end social programs and liberalize gun ownership.

Milei has shaken up Argentina's political culture — and new polls suggest he could actually win

A man stands in front of a blue backdrop with his arms outstretched.
Javier Milei, presidential candidate for the Liberty Advances coalition, acknowledges supporters after voting closed in the primary election in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Aug. 13. (Natacha Pisarenko/The Associated Press)

The firebrand economist nicknamed "the Wig" for his unruly hairstyle is being viewed increasingly as a real contender in new polls that have emerged since he upended expectations by coming first in Argentina's primary elections last week. 

Earlier polls failed to capture the true strength of right-wing candidate Javier Milei, partly because polling is banned in Argentina during the week before the vote. But new polls published in the vote's aftermath show him in a powerful position heading into the South American nation's presidential elections on October 22.

Milei's trademark leather jacket, sideburns and piercing blue eyes have become a regular fixture on Argentina's political talk shows over the past decade, where his combative style made him a popular guest. He parlayed that into his own TV and radio shows, and eventually into a political movement called La Libertad Avanza (Liberty Advances).

The prospect of Milei becoming president brings joy to some and trepidation to others, but leaves few indifferent.

The remedies Milei is proposing for Argentina's ailing economy — which include abolishing its peso currency and dollarizing the economy — are drastic. He has promised to cut taxes, slash government jobs and end the direct government subsidies to the poor that sustain millions.

A third of Argentine voters last week bought into Milei's claim that his prescriptions can reverse Argentina's long decline. Others believe they're more likely to kill the patient.

But all agree that, if they're carried out, these policies will represent a revolution in a country that has been governed mostly from the left since returning to democracy in 1983.

Runaway inflation hurts the poorest

It is above all the country's relentless inflation — now running at an annualized rate of about 115 per cent — that has opened voters' minds to Milei's radical proposals.

Forty per cent of Argentines now live in poverty, including 54 per cent of children. 

"Even Kirchneristas (supporters of the left-wing governments of Argentina's power couple Nestor and Cristina Kirchner) changed sides and voted for Milei," said political scientist Valeria Brusco of Argentina's Universidad Nacional de Cordoba.

"You could say that's ideologically impossible, but it happened."

Polling by Brusco and her colleagues of Argentine voters revealed that Milei's appeal was not limited to business circles, property owners or the middle class.

People wave flags and cheer at a political rally.
Followers of Javier Milei, presidential candidate for the Liberty Advances coalition, stand outside his campaign headquarters after polling stations closed during primary elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Aug. 13, 2023. (Mario De Fina/The Associated Press)

"We've been studying and following the phenomenon from 2021 and we saw it coming," she told CBC News from Cordoba. "We saw it expanding its popularity in different areas in the country, not only urban areas and big cities but very poor areas of the country. So for us, it wasn't a surprise."

The Milei vote is a vote of protest — and Argentina's poor have the most to protest. Argentina's salaried workers, who are able to renegotiate their wages in a country with strong unions, have some protection against inflation.

But the millions of Argentines who work in the informal sector do not, and they have suffered the most in the country's inflationary spiral.

Playing outsider versus establishment

The arrival of an unashamedly populist right-wing political force marks a cultural shift in Argentina. 

For years, the country has been divided between supporters and opponents of former Peronist president (now VP) Cristina Fernandez Kirchner and her deceased husband (also once president) Nestor Kirchner.

Like modern-day versions of their party's icons, Juan and Eva Peron, the two Kirchners have dominated Argentina in the 21st century, building a vast welfare state financed partly by taxing the rural export economy, and partly by debt and the printing of money. They used that largesse to create the biggest political base in the country.

Argentina President Nestor Kirchner (L) and his wife Christina Fernandez wave upon arrival at Hermitage Hotel where the 4th Summit of the Americas will be held in Mar del Plata, Argentina, November 3, 2005. Shopkeepers raced to board up storefronts and resident fled this Argentine resort as thousands of protesters prepared marches against U.S. President George W. Bush during his participation at the meeting. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Argentina's then-president Nestor Kirchner (L) and his wife Christina Fernandez wave upon arrival at the Hermitage Hotel in Mar del Plata, Argentina, on November 3, 2005. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Their allies in the Americas were socialist governments — those that came to power democratically and others (such as those in Cuba and Venezuela) that didn't. On the world stage, they sought to draw closer to China, Russia and Iran.

On the other side of "la grieta" — the "split" that divided Argentina — was the centre-right that sought to restore fiscal stability and more traditional alliances with the U.S. and other democracies. The centre-right governed from 2015 to 2019 under Mauricio Macri but failed to restore Argentina's economic health.

Milei aims his fire at both sides of the political divide, branding all of Argentina's established political class as "the caste" — a monolithic group he accuses of bleeding a once-rich country dry.

While Milei reserves his harshest language for the left ("zurdos de mierda"), he also rejects the centre-right coalition as too timid, too establishment, and too invested in the current structure to really challenge it.

He presents himself as the only true outsider, an incendiary "anarcho-capitalist" who is ready to tear down the whole system and rebuild it on the basis of minimalist government and unfettered free markets — an approach he says Argentina has never really tried.

Unashamedly right-wing

It's been 40 years since the fall of Argentina's military junta, notorious for disappearing its left-wing opponents. It left behind a country where few were willing to embrace the label of right-wing.

That was until Milei came along.

"People are no longer embarrassed of saying they are right-wing," said Brusco. "Before Milei, even the Macri people would say, 'I'm centre, my politics are in the centre.' Nobody dared saying right because the right was related to dictatorships and obscure times in our history."

Milei openly associates his movement with prominent populist demagogues like Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro and former U.S. president Donald Trump. He also associates himself with the Chilean ultraconservative Jose Antonio Kast — an admirer of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet — and the Spanish anti-immigration party Vox.

Javier Milei, presidential candidate of the Liberty Advances coalition, speaks at his campaign headquarters after polling stations closed during primary elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023.
Javier Milei speaks at his campaign headquarters in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Aug. 13, 2023. (Natacha Pisarenko/The Associated Press)

"Milei showed up very proudly saying, 'We are libertarians, we are to the right, the proud right,'" said Brusco. "It became a gesture of pride, that 'I don't like anything that we've been told.'"

Milei has questioned the Kirchnerist consensus that Argentina's violence of the 1970s was a one-sided affair in which a reactionary military set upon a group of innocent left-wing activists.

His chosen running mate is lawyer Victoria Villaruel, the 48-year-old daughter of an army officer. She has been accused of "denialism" and revisionism for her past statements on the dictatorship and the disappearances of the "Dirty War."

Milei courts social conservatives

Having Villaruel on the ticket makes Milei more appealing to a socially conservative segment of society that adds to his original libertarian following — which is mostly composed of young men Milei refers to as his "lions."

Milei himself — a bachelor who has spoken about his support for "free love" and who named his pet dogs after free-market economists — does not have the background of a social conservative.

His core messages are libertarian, such as his proposal to end restrictions on civilian gun ownership.

One of the promises that helped Bolsonaro win Brazil's presidency in 2018 was to allow law-abiding citizens to more easily obtain the handguns that Brazil's criminals already possess illegally. Milei's rise in the polls is due partly to his tough-on-crime message, and a rash of shocking violent crimes in the weeks before the primaries may have helped to drive his growth.

Until recently, Milei had shown less interest in the more socially-conservative and religious themes that motivated many Trump and Bolsonaro voters — but that is now changing.

Milei now supports an almost total ban on abortion, says he'll end sex education in schools and describes climate change as a socialist conspiracy to hamper free enterprise.

"He wasn't so much concerned about religion and social issues," said Brusco, "but in the last days he has addressed, for example, the Israeli issue and said he would move the embassy (from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem). He speaks about the Torah, he brings religious messages that were not there before."

Such themes are popular with evangelical Christians, who are a significant minority in both Brazil and Argentina. 

A first-round victory?

Milei's unexpectedly strong showing in the primaries has pundits and pollsters furiously recalculating scenarios in the run-up to Argentina's presidential election on October 22.

Once, the conversation in these circles was all about how Milei's third-party candidacy might affect the two presumed front-runners. Now, the discussion is about the odds that Milei might actually win.

Argentina has a ballotage system under which a candidate can win in the first round if they succeed in getting 45 per cent of the vote, or get more than 40 per cent and achieve a margin of at least 10 per cent more than any other candidate. If no candidate can pull that off, there is a run-off between the top two.

Presidential candidate Patricia Bullrich (center), former hopeful Horacio Rodríguez Larreta (right), with the United for Change coalition, and Argentina's former president Mauricio Macri (left) celebrate at their campaign headquarters after polling stations closed during primary elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Aug. 13, 2023.
Presidential candidate Patricia Bullrich (center), former hopeful Horacio Rodríguez Larreta (right), with the United for Change coalition, and Argentina's former president Mauricio Macri (left) celebrate at their campaign headquarters after polling stations closed during primary elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Aug. 13, 2023. (Daniel Jayo/The Associated Press)

Milei is theoretically within reach of a first-round victory if he can increase his vote at the expense of centre-right candidate Patricia Bullrich, a onetime Marxist guerrilla turned law-and-order politician who placed second in the primaries. 

Failing that, it seems certain that Milei will at least make it to the second round. The question that remains is whether his opponent will be Bullrich, or Peronist Sergio Massa, who is currently Argentina's minister of economy and whose approval rating is deep underwater.

'A disorganized mess'

The governing Peronist party may find that it is able to use the spectre of Milei in the same way the Socialist Party of Spain recently used the threat of the far-right Vox Party to revive its disenchanted base and stave off electoral disaster. 

For centrist candidate Bullrich, Milei presents a dilemma, said Brusco.

"She cannot move to the right because that's where Milei's voters are, and she's having trouble finding the way to get her base bigger to the centre left," she said.

Brusco said the disorganized and improvised nature of Milei's movement may yet prove his undoing. 

"It's very personalistic. There's no structure," she said. "They couldn't organize local elections. We had 24 gubernatorial elections and they mostly couldn't organize candidacies there. And where they did, they lost. So it's a mess at organizing."

But even if Milei is unable to capitalize on his upset win this month, his candidacy has shaken up Argentina's politics to an extent that it is unlikely to return to its former patterns.


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.