Javier Milei, the libertarian candidate riding Argentina’s rising tide of discontent

The national deputy is gaining ground in the polls ahead of this year’s presidential election, armed with a chainsaw and the promise to destroy everything in sight

Argentina elections
Javier Milei addresses supporters during a campaign rally in Buenos Aires on November 6, 2021.Anita Pouchard Serra (Bloomberg)
Federico Rivas Molina

Until a little under two years ago, Javier Milei was simply a provocative economist with curly black hair and a penchant for insults. He was a darling of political TV programs: with his incendiary, unfiltered rhetoric, he was always sure to put on a good show. But in 2019 he quit his economic analysis, ran for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies and won. Still, nobody took him very seriously until he announced his intention to run for president and began to rise in the polls.

The worse things go for Argentina, the better they go for Milei, who has been able to attract the vote of those who don’t believe in politics. This week, the libertarian candidate recorded a video to present his “Chainsaw Plan,” a mixture of ultra-liberal ideas where there are no ministries of Education, Health, Public Works or Social Development, where the sale and purchase of organs is allowed, and where crime is resolved by allowing civilians to arm themselves.

The crisis gripping Argentina is taking its toll on politicians. Economic stagnation, social frustration and bleak prospects are giving rise to emerging figures who promise to blow up everything and start from scratch. The formula worked for Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil in 2018, when it was feared that it might spread to Argentina. But Peronism, in its Kirchnerist version, found the formula to neutralize any individual anti-system adventure and prevailed in the 2019 elections. The failure of that experiment, with Alberto Fernández as president and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as his vice-president, opened the doors of Congress to Milei in the midterm elections. And since then, his star has kept on rising.

Milei’s Libertad Avanza is today the third political force in Argentina, and no one is laughing at his electoral chances anymore. An average of six national surveys carried out by the newspaper Clarín gave the economist 17% of the vote. With five months to go before primaries and seven for the general election, that puts Milei right behind the two great coalitions that currently dominate Argentina’s political scene: the ruling Frente de Todos (25%) and Juntos por el Cambio (27%). Milei has managed to break this polarization, wedging himself in as an electoral referee.

Javier Milei
Candidate Javier Milei of La Libertad Avanza greets supporters after the legislative midterm elections on November 14, 2021.Anadolu Agency (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Milei has associated himself with all kinds of characters. In the northwestern province of Tucumán, for example, his gubernatorial candidate is Ricardo Bussi, the son of a former military man convicted of crimes against humanity. Bussi presented his candidacy with a video where he shoots at a stationary target amid images of assaults on civilians. “May the next life taken not be yours,” he says to the camera. When a journalist from the news channel TN asked Milei why he defended the right to bear arms, he responded with the style that is already his trademark: “Why are you in favor of honest Argentines suffering like rats at the hands of criminals?”

Milei’s voters do not necessarily defend the right to bear arms, the sale of human organs, the end of free education or his call to burn down the Central Bank to end inflation. Rather, what unites them is their protest against the establishment and their vision that all politicians are “a bunch of criminals and thieves.” Milei’s catchphrase is: “I hate fucking lefties.” And to differentiate himself from “the caste,” every month he raffles his salary as a national deputy.

Milei’s growing popularity is already a problem for the traditional parties. His voters are mostly young and middle-class, but they are also in the poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of Buenos Aires that were traditionally Peronist. The government can do little about it. The inflation data for February is 6.6% and the interannual rate exceeded 100% for the first time since 1991. As the crisis deepens and social ill-temper grows, Economy Minister Sergio Massa is losing steam as a potential consensus candidate for a Peronist movement that is bleeding to death from internecine fights. Juntos por el Cambio (Together for Change), the opposition coalition created by former president Mauricio Macri, is not faring any better. Milei’s rhetoric is forcing the pre-candidates of the political center, in particular the mayor of the city of Buenos Aires, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, to swing to the right. And at the same time it is giving wings to the most extremist figures in the alliance, such as the former Minister of Security, Patricia Bullrich, and Macri himself.

That Milei would end up engulfed by Juntos por el Cambio seemed like a no-brainer just a few months ago. But the deputy’s popularity is growing in the polls. His goal now is to reach a runoff at the October election and cash in on society’s discontent. Milei is no longer a cause for laughter.

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