Milei: The Rise of the Populist Alt-right in Argentina

Tobias Belgrano
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On the closing night of Hugo Chavez Frías’s campaign, thousands of Venezuelans cheered around the box of the candidate who, in a few days, would be the next president of Venezuela. The traditional parties of the Caribbean nation – Acción Democrática and COPEI – put aside their differences to prevent the charismatic leader from taking the Miraflores palace by storm. The plainsman from Barinas, astute in his oratory, described the alliance as “rotten domes” and hinted that if he lost the elections, it would be due to electoral fraud. Because the political leaders would never let him triumph, letting him triumph would mean the end of his privileges.

According to the famous political scientist Steven Levitsky, author of “How Democracies Die” there are three fundamental characteristics of populism. One of them, used by Chavez, is brandishing an anti-establishment discourse and promising to wipe out the current political system. Second, populist leadership is usually made up of amateur candidates, as in the case of Trump, whose first public position was that of President. The author’s final criterion is that leaders often refer to their supporters as the “people” and themselves as their representatives.

In recent years, Argentinian politics has witnessed the formation of two new government coalitions. The Frente de Todos y Juntos por el Cambio, which is made up of parties that are limited to the old Peronist-Radical antinomy. In their governments (so far) they have tended towards moderation due to the absence of legislative majorities and have alternated with each other for power, creating democratic continuity. The economist Javier Milei is a character who seems to comply with two of Levitsky’s categories, which is reason enough to be alarmed according to the author. What is worrying is how he fuels the breakdown of the fragile political balance achieved. He encourages breaking this balance in the media, stating that the rift is really between the “real workers” and the “parasites of politics that impoverish us.”

This constant media presence and his proposals like “blowing up the Central Bank” have allowed him to amass a group of faithful followers who fill the auditoriums of his talks and social networks with a following of almost 65,000. His followers in Argentina, who clamor for the slogan “long live damn freedom” and nostalgically appeal to a glorious, liberal past, calling themselves “The Heirs of Alberdi.” Although the economist does not claim to represent the “people” he seems to be looking for his base of support in a middle class exhausted by economic pressure and instability. On the other hand, Milei’s amateurism in matters of state operation is clear, such as in his claims that the country’s fiscal deficit is caused by political spending, when almost all analysts agree that the bulk of national public spending is for the pension system.

In addition, his policy ideas usually include curious omissions, such as proposing that Argentina adopt an educational system of vouchers like the one applied in Chile. Lack of information in the educational sector and unequal conditions between private and public institutions in Chile resulted in subsidized schools for the rich and poor quality state schools for the poor. Chilean economists Cristian Aedo and Claudio Sapelli observed this phenomenon during the ’90s, indicating that Milei’s proposal to spend less would not actually change anything.

Javier Milei se refirió al custodio que amagó con sacar un arma en el Luna Park.
Source: ambito.com

The pandemic will leave a “scorched land” in terms of the economy and the success of the reconstruction will depend on the degree of consensus reached by both Together for Change and the Front of All. Angry societies are impatient to seek political pacts, demand action, and seek culprits. Hopefully, the Argentinian political class will get the country out of the crisis through agreements. If not, there is a risk that society will embrace those who appeal to frustration as a campaign strategy for 2021. It was that social anger that led to characters like Chavez and Bolsonaro to gain power. Parties such as Justicialismo-Kirchnerismo and Radicalismo-PRO, are far from perfect, but they were fundamental pieces in the reconstruction of Argentina’s democracy in 1983. Making the reforms from within will be what heals the political system; if the symptoms are not attended to, in time the country will get sick.

  • Does Milei have a chance to become president in 2023?
  • Will the populist speech of Milei be able to break the current political consensus?
  • Is it possible for the Cambiemos coalition to absorb Milei into their coalition?

Suggested readings

“La Rebeldia Se Volvió De Derecha?” By Pablo Stefanoni

“Populism and Competitive Authoritarianism in the Andes” by Steven Levistky

“El sistema de vouchers en la educación: una revisión de la teoría y la evidencia empírica para Chile” – Cristián Aedo and Claudio Sapelli.

3 Comments

  1. Federico

    I think your article is tainted with peronist ideals (extreme left in Argentina) No matter how hard you try to disguise it, it can be seen. Therefore making this article not impartial.

    1. Tobias

      Hi Federico! Thank you for your comment. The article cites authors from different disciplines to survey the validity of Milei’s arguments. In your opinion, which sources would you suggest to present a more fair portrayal of Milei’s figure?

      I look forward to engaging with your suggestions!

      Best,
      Tobias

      1. Ariela

        Well, for instance stating that Peronism was a fundamental piece in the reconstruction of Argentina’s democracy in 1983, is an embellishment which does not refute the fact that they are incredibly corrupt, they inherit power positions amongst each other, they have absolute disregard for private property, and they want to establish the idea that poor people in Argentina are the result of landowners and private companies becoming richer. In fact, the ones growing richer and unable to justify their fortunes are themselves, really. Socialists talk nice words, that sound sweet to some ears. But words like redistribution really mean absolutely nothing. Peronists only distribute money amongst themselves.

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