Argentina’s President-elect Milei promises drastic change: Can he deliver?

Adriano Machado/Reuters
In Buenos Aires, a supporter of Argentine President-elect Javier Milei celebrates after Mr. Milei won in the runoff election Nov. 19, 2023.
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Far-right former TV pundit Javier Milei is Argentina’s new president-elect after winning nearly 56% of the vote in Sunday’s runoff election. His victory underscores a broad rejection of the Peronist movement, a political coalition rooted in the working class that took shape in the 1940s, as well as a desire for drastic political and economic change.

Argentina clocked in with 143% annual inflation this year, the highest in nearly three decades, and unemployment and poverty are on the rise.

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With repeated economic crises and politicians who no longer inspire hope, protest candidates can transform into presidents-elect. Will Javier Milei be able to shake up Argentina as promised?

“Those factors contributed to the population’s disgust and exhaustion with traditional politics and gave Milei visibility,” says Paola Zuban, a pollster with Zuban Córdoba y Asociados.

Mr. Milei is promising to upend politics as Argentina knows it. That may be tempered by the fact that he faces a divided Congress, where Peronists and their allies hold a plurality in both the upper and lower houses. Meanwhile late-in-the-game endorsements from other opposition coalitions could sideline some of his flashier pledges, such as trading in the peso for the U.S. dollar.

If he’s going to succeed, “he’ll have to turn to others,” says political scientist Pablo Touzon.  

Argentina elected far-right libertarian Javier Milei as its next president, underscoring deep-seated discontent with the country’s politics and economy, and a desire for drastic change – even if it comes at a cost.

The economist and former TV pundit burst onto the political scene just two years ago with a promise to implement radical free-market policies. Pledges to destroy Argentina’s political elite and assertions that the “caste trembles” have been his go-to rallying cries, often punctuated by images of a rumbling chain saw. 

Having won nearly 56% of the vote, he is now Argentina’s president-elect. 

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

With repeated economic crises and politicians who no longer inspire hope, protest candidates can transform into presidents-elect. Will Javier Milei be able to shake up Argentina as promised?

Mr. Milei bested the ruling Peronist coalition’s candidate, Minister of Economy Sergio Massa, by nearly 12 percentage points. The result shocked many after Mr. Massa won the most votes in last month’s first-round election. 

Mr. Milei’s performance highlights popular frustration with the status quo in Argentina, where inflation reached its highest point in nearly three decades and 2 in 5 people now live in poverty. He’s committed to shrinking the size of the government, “blowing up” the central bank, ditching the peso in favor of the U.S. dollar, and upending Argentina’s foreign policy.  

“The changes the country needs are drastic,” Mr. Milei said in his victory speech last night. “There is no room for gradualism, for tepid half-measures.”

The stakes are high for him to deliver on his promises. Social tensions are nearing a boiling point as money becomes worth less each month in Argentina, and observers say Mr. Milei could face public protests from the moment he takes office Dec. 10. On top of that, pushback from a divided Congress, where the Peronists and their allies hold a plurality in both the upper and lower houses, could dampen some of his more extreme plans. 

“The holidays, Christmas and New Year’s, are a very sensitive time in Argentina, especially when there’s an economic crisis,” says Paola Zuban, a political scientist and director of Zuban Córdoba y Asociados, a political consultancy. “A Javier Milei government will have to deal with many social movements taking to the streets to protest.” 

Agustin Marcarian/Reuters
Argentine President-elect Javier Milei and his girlfriend, Fatima Florezi, react to the results of Argentina's runoff presidential election, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Nov. 19, 2023.

“The same things”

Mr. Milei’s resounding triumph demonstrates the degree to which he’s successfully captured popular disenchantment with Argentina’s traditional political forces. 

Mr. Milei was considered a protest candidate: Many of his supporters don’t agree with his core social and economic stances, but instead with the change he represents. But his ability to appeal to, above all, young men who are desperate for a change in the country’s economic and political situation helped propel the radical outsider to victory. 

“Everyone who came before tried the same things, and they didn’t help at all,” says Francisco, a 17-year-old and a first-time voter in Buenos Aires. Standing among a crowd of Mr. Milei’s supporters who chant, “Liberty,” Francisco says he’s not on board with all of Mr. Milei’s policy ideas. But “this man proposes something different for the country, which I think is needed.” 

Throughout the campaign, Mr. Milei was able to reach Argentina’s youth through savvy social media campaigns. In a number of viral, expletive-laden videos, he railed against Argentina’s political establishment with often casual, relatable disdain. 

The pandemic also played a large role in laying the groundwork for his success, says Ms. Zuban, describing it as having “shattered Argentina’s social fabric.” Those without formal employment, some 45% of the population, saw their earnings evaporate and received little financial support from the state during one of the world’s longest lockdowns. 

“They saw how their neighbors [with formal employment] could navigate the situation while they sank into a profound crisis. This caused a significant social rupture,” she says. 

Max Klaver
Seventeen-year-old Francisco poses for a photo in Buenos Aires, Argentina, after watching Javier Milei cast his vote in the presidential runoff election Nov. 19, 2023.

Those inequalities, combined with several scandals, confirmed for many that Argentine citizens don’t receive equal treatment, from certain politicians’ flouting the country’s intense lockdowns with impunity, to others’ receiving preferential access to vaccines. 

In that context, says Pablo Touzon – a political scientist and founder of Panamá Revista, a political publication – many were drawn to Mr. Milei’s bombastic rhetoric and promises to eradicate what he calls the “political caste.”

For many, Mr. Massa, a career politician, was the embodiment of that caste. His Peronist coalition has ruled Argentina for 16 of the past 20 years. Opposition to the Peronist movement, which dates back nearly 80 years, drew many toward Mr. Milei. 

Annual inflation surged to 143% this year, and the peso’s value plummeted. Mr. Massa, who is also the current economy minister, struggled to make a case for why the captain of an economy in such dire straits could also be its savior.

“Those factors contributed to the population’s disgust and exhaustion with traditional politics and gave Milei visibility,” says Ms. Zuban.

Upending business as usual?

Following his win – which drew congratulations from the likes of former U.S. President Donald Trump, X (formerly Twitter) owner Elon Musk, and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro – Mr. Milei promised an end to “Argentine decadence.” 

His extreme rhetoric and policies may be viewed as enticing to some, but they are just as troubling to others. 

Adriano Machado/Reuters
Argentine presidential candidate Sergio Massa (center) gestures onstage in Buenos Aires during the runoff presidential election Nov. 9, 2023.

Outside Mr. Massa’s campaign headquarters, Luis, a local journalist in his 30s, stared blankly at the stage where the Peronist candidate had just given his concession speech. Next to him, a woman and her young daughter, both wrapped in Argentine flags, sat sobbing. 

“I am scared. I feel threatened,” says Luis, who asked not to use his full name out of privacy concerns. “[Milei’s] proposals directly attack issues that are central to our identity as a country, issues that are central to our democratic system,” such as support for public education and the unequivocal repudiation of Argentina’s last dictatorship.

Human rights groups, including Argentina’s famous Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, have accused Mr. Milei and his running mate of denying the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship. 

He’s characterized the military government’s atrocities as a pursuit of national security, and he’s questioned the number of people killed during that period, asserting that it is far fewer than the broadly accepted estimate of 30,000.  

Turning to others

Despite his commanding win, Mr. Milei will need to find political accord within the alliance that delivered him the presidency. Some of his high-profile backers from the opposition, such as Patricia Bullrich – who placed third in the first-round presidential vote – have vocally opposed some of his key proposals, including his plan to adopt the U.S. dollar as Argentina’s national currency. Argentina flirted with dollarization in the 1990s, when it pegged the peso to the dollar, though that scheme ended disastrously in 2001 amid a political and economic crisis.

The support Mr. Milei received from Ms. Bullrich and her party after the first-round vote boosted his image, says Ms. Zuban, lending him “a certain degree of sanity,” in the eyes of skeptical voters unhappy with Peronism.  

“Milei will face a governance problem,” says Mr. Touzon, the political scientist, emphasizing that the president-elect will need to rely on the party infrastructure of his more politically mainstream allies. 

“I don’t think the libertarian space [in Argentina] has enough people to fill even two government ministries,” Mr. Touzon says. If he’s going to succeed, “he’ll have to turn to others.”

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