In Argentina, the meteoric rise of hard-right libertarian Javier Milei has set off alarm bells. To avoid disaster in the October elections, the center-left candidate must convince voters that the welfare state is still worth fighting for.

Javier Milei, presidential candidate for the Liberty Advances party, during the Americas Society/Council of the Americas Latin American Cities Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, August 24, 2023. (Erica Canepa / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Javier Milei has been a fixture of the Argentine political landscape for the last five years. Appearing on daytime talk shows, the self-described “anarcho-capitalist” made a name for himself by excoriating right-wing politicians for their moderation and quoting obscure paleolibertarians about the virtues of selling human organs on the open market.

The running gag was that Milei was completely out of step with mainstream politics in Argentina — a country better known for tight capital controls, price fixing, high union density, and a strong welfare state. However, after receiving the highest overall vote count in Argentina’s primary election, Milei is now in pole position to clinch the October general election.

Commentators have gone into overdrive trying to make sense of a development that, for most, came out of nowhere. Discounting the possibility that ten million Argentines made a midnight conversion to free-market fundamentalism, explanations tend to focus on the fact that Milei’s rebellious image struck a chord with an increasingly disillusioned electorate.

That is certainly half the story. But the other half, according to historian Pablo Pryluka, is about the crumbling of what was once assumed to be a stable political balance between Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s center-left formation and the right-wing opposition coalition, led by business mogul Mauricio Macri.

That two-party system is coming undone, insists Pryluka, under the weight of decades of inflation and economic stagnation. It also lies behind one of the most unlikely developments from the recent primary contest: the center-left Peronist coalition — Argentina’s historic populist movement — seems to be losing votes to Milei.

The incongruity is more apparent than real. The broad Kirchnerista electorate has always been more mercurial and less ideological than the right-wing opposition has painted it to be. If its base among the lower-middle class and working poor grew during the golden years, from 2003 to 2011, there have been rumblings of dealignment at least since 2013, gaining steam with the presidency of Macri in 2015.

Still, Milei is a bolt from the blue. Nicolas Allen of Jacobin spoke to Pryluka to analyze the “Milei phenomenon” and understand what the Peronist challenger might do to avert catastrophe in October.

What’s the Deal With Milei?

Nicolas Allen

In early 2023, you wrote a piece suggesting that the ruling Peronist party and its right-wing opposition — the two major political forces in Argentina — were at risk of massive defections. The recent primary elections seem to have borne out that prediction, with far-right libertarian Javier Milei emerging as the frontrunner.

Pablo Pryluka

When I wrote the piece, I wasn’t convinced that 2023 was going to be the year that Milei would make his leap to the main stage. I imagined that his brand of radical libertarianism would only take hold if the right-wing party, Juntos por el Cambio, won the election and then had another disastrous government like Mauricio Macri had from 2015 to 2019.

Even the entrance polls in the city of Buenos Aires and the province of Buenos Aires didn’t suggest that Milei would do as well as he did. Curiously, he performed extremely well in the provinces outside the capital and the Buenos Aires metropolitan area. That was a big surprise, because those provinces are seen as the fiefdoms of local aristocracies, which hold a strong influence over local voters and tend to favor establishment candidates.

Milei’s sudden rise suggests that the political landscape in Argentina is less stable than previously supposed. Ever since 2021, when the incumbent Frente de Todos coalition did poorly in the midterm elections, people have been wondering how sustainable the current political balance is. For a time, it seemed that Argentina had settled into a two-party system in which Macri’s coalition would represent the Right and center right, while the center left would gather around Peronism.

We may be witnessing the collapse of Argentina’s establishment right-wing party.

The general elections in October will provide a clearer picture of whether that political landscape is really durable. If the Peronist candidate Sergio Massa makes it to the runoff election, and if Milei is the other candidate, the voting patterns of the Macrista electorate will tell us a lot.

The question there will be: Have we entered an entirely new political landscape based around the collapse of the Juntos por el Cambio coalition? In other words, is Milei’s 30 percent of the vote count from the primary going to turn into 40 percent in the general election? If that’s the case, and if Massa makes it to the runoff election, we may be witnessing the collapse of Argentina’s establishment right-wing party.

In the weeks prior to the August election, Macri, the virtual leader of Juntos por el Cambio, made little effort to conceal his sympathies for Milei. The reasons why are less clear: it might be that he actually likes Milei, or it might be that he foresaw Milei’s electoral success and is trying to lay the basis for a sort of peace treaty.

Whatever the reason, the Juntos por el Cambio coalition is going to hemorrhage support for that rapprochement: the more right-wing sectors might look kindly on Milei, but the center-right groups of the coalition see in Milei the emergence of a local Bolsonaro or Trump and will quickly distance themselves.

Of course, that situation might not materialize. We are assuming that both Massa and Milei will make it to the second round, which is the most likely scenario. But that doesn’t really take into account one striking trend in voter migration: it’s clear that some part of the declining Peronist vote is moving toward Milei, which is itself an important phenomenon to analyze. Could that trend continue and actually dump Massa out of the race?

Nicolas Allen

Do you really think that Milei is just a protest vote?

Pablo Pryluka

I think that probably 10 percent of Milei’s electorate is ideologically aligned with his platform. And even that electorate is diverse: there are conservatives who are against “gender ideology” and libertarians who want to blow up the central bank. I suspect that the rest of his support is people voting for what feels like a genuine — if terrible — alternative. Those people are just completely fed up with the two main parties.

I think that whatever political identification voters might feel with Milei is much weaker than we normally assume for an outsider candidate. To put it briefly: if Milei wins and doesn’t deliver economic stability in the short term, people will turn their backs on him as they did with previous governments. You can’t build a hegemonic project and create stable political identities when living conditions do not improve.

I think that probably 10 percent of Milei’s electorate is ideologically aligned with his platform.

I actually think that Milei’s rise speaks to the institutional resilience of Argentine politics. With the current levels of social decay it is facing, Argentine society could easily be in the midst of a political crisis like the one it had in 2001, which saw massive riots and the resignation of President Fernando de la Rua. Instead, that indignation is being channeled into a new candidate within the political system, even if he is an outsider and a right-wing radical. At a time when many countries in the region have seen massive upheaval, it’s revealing that Argentina has channeled growing unrest into institutional channels.

The Left, the Center Left, and the Far Right

Nicolas Allen

It sounds like the election results are all interrelated. First, should we be surprised by Massa’s poor performance? And, second, should we be surprised that he is losing votes to a libertarian candidate that basically stands against all the historic banners of Peronism: welfare statism, etc.?

Pablo Pryluka

I was surprised that Massa performed as well as he did, considering that he was the minister of economy for the unpopular Fernández administration. Argentina is struggling with more than 100 percent annual inflation, International Monetary Fund (IMF) pressures to reduce the fiscal deficit, and a stagnant economy.

So, the government is unpopular. But I should also add some caveats here. One big underlying issue was that the governing coalition never worked. That situation became more pronounced after the poor results of the 2021 midterm elections.

The conflict between President Alberto Fernández and Cristina Kirchner had to do with three main points: the level of public expenditure, the agreement reached with the IMF in 2020, and, finally, who really holds power within the government. Kirchner’s wing attacked Fernández for cutting public spending and signing a new deal with the IMF, although it’s difficult to separate that critique from a more general struggle for power within the coalition.

Sergio Massa in March of 2020. (Palácio do Planalto / Wikimedia Commons)

That feud ultimately meant that the coalition could not put forward a strong unity candidate, which partially explains the Peronist’s poor performance in August. But of course, Argentina’s economic situation is also just dismal. Here, too, I would actually add some caveats.

While the government’s approval ratings have been very low, especially since 2021, the government in Argentina did about average in its economic handling of the pandemic. If you look at the money that it poured into the economy — especially the hardest-hit sectors like the informal economy and small businesses — its intervention was in line with global averages.

Argentina’s economic situation was already bad when the Fernández government came to power in 2019. You’ll recall that high inflation and massive indebtedness were the major legacies of Macri’s government. There was even a small recovery in 2021 and 2022 in terms of per-capita income and a reduction in unemployment.

As for the question of why the Frente de Todos could be losing voters to Milei, I think there are several things to consider. That shift in voting patterns was most noteworthy in the traditional heartland of Peronism, in the province of Buenos Aires and the poor suburbs of Buenos Aires. These were the areas hardest hit by the 2001 crisis and that benefitted the most from successive Kirchner governments, between 2003 and 2011. Milei didn’t win those areas, but his strong performance there is noteworthy.

Argentina has been economically stagnant for the last ten or fifteen years, and inflation has become a chronic feature of society.

To explain the migration of votes, we should consider at least two things: one, Argentina has been economically stagnant for the last ten or fifteen years; and two, inflation has become a chronic feature of society. Leaving aside countries like Chile or Uruguay, the situation in Argentina is actually not so bad compared to other countries in the region. The problem has to do with the reality of living under constant inflationary pressures: there is no clear future for your family, no possibility of social mobility, and no expectation of improved living conditions. Even if people normalize inflation, as many Argentines have, it breeds frustration and political disenchantment.

Again, there is an interplay between realities and perceptions: the average Argentine’s income actually increased in real terms in 2021 and 2022. But it’s hard for the Argentine middle class, which is substantial, to see that when they’re thinking about buying a car or refurbishing their house. How can either of the two main parties ask for the middle-class vote when they can’t put forward a stable vision of the future?

Nicolas Allen

Even with a disenchanted electorate, it’s hard to understand the appeal of Milei when he’s calling for very specific, radical measures like eliminating the central bank. That seems like a bridge too far for middle- and lower-middle-class voters.

Pablo Pryluka

I think Milei’s success speaks to the deep structural failure of Argentine politics. For the last twenty years, the two political coalitions have alternated in power but failed to solve the problems that began to accumulate in the 2010s: lack of growth, increasing inflation, and a deterioration of the balance of payments.

But I also think there is a level of rhetoric to Milei’s radical proposals. For example, Milei proposes to dollarize the Argentine economy. Dollarization is not possible in Argentina for a variety of reasons — starting with the fact that the country doesn’t have the foreign reserves to do a dollar-peso parity system like in the 1990s.

People might not really buy that proposal, but, still, they hear Milei’s message and say to themselves: “What the hell, we’ve tried everything and nothing has worked.” Again, it comes down to the social and political effects of long-term inflation: after more than fifteen years of high inflation, the average middle-class voter starts to not care as much about the consequences of a radical solution.

People have started to buy into Milei’s rhetoric about la casta: the idea that the state has failed to guarantee a meritocratic order and instead benefits a certain social caste.

If you think back to the neoliberal presidency of Carlos Menem in 1991, he introduced the Ley de Convertibilidad — establishing that one peso was worth one dollar — after two years of hyperinflation, between 1989 and 1990. Argentina hasn’t reached the point yet where that kind of “shock policy” could become attractive again, but it isn’t out of the question.

People have started to buy into Milei’s rhetoric about la casta: the idea that the state has failed to guarantee a meritocratic order and instead benefits a certain social caste, or that the state is that caste. The Argentine left doesn’t help matters either; it talks a lot about being in favor of public spending, equality, etc. But that same left is largely comprised of upper-income earners who enjoy distinct privileges — largely professional, mostly white, high cultural capital — and are loath to acknowledge those privileges and show little understanding for those who might resent them.

Nicolas Allen

I could see how that would feed into a strong antiestablishment sentiment and how it could hurt the Peronist coalition, specifically. It’s less clear to me why the Macrista opposition couldn’t reinvent itself as a protest vote. Was Macri’s single term in office enough to bury that possibility?

Pablo Pryluka

Argentina’s two main political forces have reached what I would call a “weak” tie: each of them has consolidated about 30 percent of the vote, leaving another 40 percent of the population outside either of the two main coalitions.

Now, why can’t the right-wing opposition capture part of that 40 percent? It’s pretty simple: people were enraged by Macri’s handling of the economy, so much so that as much as half of the vote for Alberto Fernández in 2019 was simply a vote against Macri.

The candidate that ended up clinching the nomination for Juntos por el Cambio, Patricia Bullrich, represents the more explicitly right-wing and neoliberal fraction of the opposition coalition. But Milei’s response to her victory was pointed: he published a tweet saying, “Why vote for the copy when you can have the real thing?” On the other side of the spectrum, there were lots of memes circulating — mostly on the Left — saying that voting for Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, the more moderate candidate of Juntos, was practically the same as voting for Massa, the more centrist, technocratic Peronist candidate.

My point is that the existing two-party structure in Argentina might be coming undone. The basis for that division was Kirchnerism versus anti-Kirchnerism, with Juntos por el Cambio representing the anti-Kirchner vote. The rise of Milei and the split within Juntos por el Cambio, to the advantage of the more right-wing faction, hints at a possible redefinition of the political field along the lines of American politics: a rigidly centrist party, like the Democrats, including more leftist currents like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and an increasingly right-wing party like the Republicans, that’s basically come untethered from its more traditional establishment base.

As I mentioned, Macri has already started saying nice things about Milei — while still supporting Bullrich — and Milei is going to need to make overtures to the traditional right to form coalitions in Congress. At the same time, Peronism is a famously malleable entity and could easily absorb parts of Larreta’s more center-right structure.

Nicolas Allen

Speaking of reshuffling the political deck, I was wondering what you thought about the performance of left-wing candidate and social movement leader Juan Grabois. He never presented a serious challenge to Massa within the Unión por la Patria primary race, but he did remarkably well considering he ran what was essentially a moneyless campaign, backed by grassroots supporters and in-person events. Could he also be part of this restructuring of the political field?

Pablo Pryluka

I think there are two important takeaways from his candidacy. First, Grabois was very good at capitalizing on his background as an outsider to score political points. Second, he showed that the grassroots structure in and around the organization he represents — Argentina’s informal workers’ union — is substantial and can have a future in politics. In the poor suburbs of Buenos Aires, the electoral region with the highest population density, Grabois won one out of every ten votes. That’s a lot of votes for an avowedly left-wing candidate coming from a background as an organizer of waste pickers.

After seeing Milei’s election results and Grabois’s own positive performance, we might reach the conclusion that ‘radical’ is what people are actually looking for.

Like Milei, Grabois said a lot of things on the campaign trail that would ordinarily be too incendiary for public opinion — talk of nationalizing industry and natural resources, land reform, etc. But, after seeing Milei’s election results and Grabois’s own positive performance, we might reach the conclusion that “radical” is what people are actually looking for. Grabois himself said it in an interview: “Land reform might seem like an unpopular campaign slogan in this day and age, but how many people were calling to blow up the central bank before Milei came along?”

The General Election and the Future of Argentinian Politics

Nicolas Allen

Let’s talk about the upcoming general election. The current minister of economy, Sergio Massa, has been attacked for imposing austerity and making an already terrible economic situation worse. Will he use his position in government to try and create a more favorable climate for the October general election?

Pablo Pryluka

Massa is in a very awkward position. I do think that he has a better chance than Bullrich to make it to the second round. He can still get votes from the Left and he has a hand on the levers of the state, so he can pour money into the economy and make things seem slightly better for a time.

On the other hand, as you were saying, Massa is the minister of economy, and he just oversaw a big devaluation of the Argentine peso after the election. The devaluation was part of an agreement with the IMF to receive the latest loan disbursement, but it had an immediate effect on domestic prices. It remains to be seen if Massa can approve measures that would boost income without also creating an inflationary spiral.

One thing the Left and the Peronist coalition should definitely not do in the general election is portray the anti-Milei vote as a battle against fascism. Argentina is not Spain, where it was possible for Pedro Sánchez to run a campaign against Vox that called for a united front against fascism. That won’t mobilize people in Argentina. But there’s another reason why it would be misguided to use the anti-fascist card: progressive Argentines have a tendency to label as “neoliberal fascism” the very things that, at their root, are why many Argentines are voting for Milei.

For instance, as important as Argentina’s public health system is, the poor condition of public hospitals drive many people to seek private insurance. Efforts to convince the working poor that privatizing the health system is “neofascist” is going to fall on deaf ears — they experience too many obstacles to access basic care to see why they should defend the public system. Something similar happens with welfare protections: one-third of the workforce is informal and enjoys few of the benefits that dependent employees normally expect. Pretending that those informal workers are voting against their interests by voting for Milei is disingenuous.

Massa needs a political campaign emphasizing the importance of organized labor, national production, and economic growth.

Massa needs a political campaign emphasizing the importance of organized labor, national production, and economic growth. A campaign like that could get him into the runoff election. But from there he faces a real conundrum: he probably has worse odds of beating Milei in a runoff contest than the right-wing candidate Bullrich. If Bullrich makes it to the second round against Milei, a lot of Massa’s votes will support her for the sole reason of avoiding a Milei presidency — not entirely unlike what happened in the last French election, where some parts of the Left held their nose and voted for Macron against Le Pen. But if it’s Massa in the second round, Bullrich’s votes will probably go to Milei.

Nicolas Allen

Massa was never a close ally of the Kirchners — sometimes he was even a vocal opponent. That, taken with the fact that the Unión por la Patria performed so poorly, leads me to wonder if Kirchnerismo is starting to fade.

Pablo Pryluka

I wouldn’t go that far, because 25 percent of the population will vote for a Kirchner-backed candidate without asking questions — they are what we might call ideological supporters. I do think that the political coalition that has been the vehicle for Kirchnerismo is transforming. The more left-wing sectors inside that coalition, like La Campora, might become a reduced expression of Argentinian politics in the sense of representing just 10 percent or 15 percent of the popular vote.

I also don’t think Peronism as a whole will disappear any time soon. On the other hand, if Peronists fail to recognize how the world has changed — if they keep thinking that Argentina is a country with 50 percent union membership and ignore the fact that informal workers have no meaningful relationship to the state as workers — I don’t think they will have a very positive outlook for the future.

The relationship with informal workers is going to have a strong bearing on the future development of Peronism. The historical legacy of Peronism is that of the social welfare state, but what does the social welfare state mean to those informal workers, reliant on public services, who have to wait six months to see a doctor at the hospital, or who send their kids to schools that are falling apart and are overcrowded?

The sociologist Pablo Seman has posed that dilemma in very elegant terms: if you live in a poor suburb in the province of Buenos Aires, you might not receive any kind of government assistance, but there will definitely be someone on your block who does. That kind of visibly differential treatment — which is really about the inadequacies of the welfare state — breeds resentment and turns neighbors into enemies. And that resentment can also turn into the breeding ground for far-right tendencies like Milei.

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