On Sunday, Argentine voters delivered a striking rebuke to the political status quo. Javier Milei, an eccentric leather-clad libertarian, came in first place in the country’s presidential primaries. He has promised a radical suite of market-based reforms to tame Argentina’s catastrophic inflation. It is unlikely his proposed solutions will lift the country out of its deep malaise—but given the dismal alternatives, it isn’t surprising so many were willing to give him a chance.
As Sunday’s results confirmed, this will be a contentious three-way race. The traditionally dominant left-of-center Peronist bloc, which has held the presidency for most of the country’s democratic history, came in third with 27 percent of the vote under economy minister Sergio Massa—its worst showing in decades. In second place, the right bloc secured 28 percent of the vote, nominating former security minister Patricia Bullrich over Buenos Aires mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta. But the big winner, with over 30 percent of the vote, was Milei, an economist and TV personality.
Thus far, Argentina’s 2023 electoral contest and its candidates have been among the most colorful since the restoration of democracy in 1983. For instance, right-wing nominee Bullrich is a former Marxist guerrilla turned arch-conservative, and is widely regarded to be an alcoholic due to a 2009 charge for drunk driving. For his part, Massa once promised to send members of his coalition’s left flank, headed by his own vice president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to prison.
And then there’s Milei. A singer in a Rolling Stones cover band during his youth, Milei went on to study economics and gained notoriety as a political commentator during the late 2010s and early 2020s for his crusades against Argentina’s “casta política” (political caste). A bombastic firebrand, the candidate for La Libertad Avanza (Liberty Advances) calls himself a libertarian—liberal in Spanish. However, recognizing the dismal electoral prospects of conventional libertarianism in Argentina, Milei has pivoted to the right, making his current platform an odd mix of laissez-faire social liberalism and hard-line conservatism.
Known as “El Peluca”—the Wig—for his outlandish coiffure, Milei claims that his hair is combed only by the invisible hand of Adam Smith. Back in 2018, he resembled a more charismatic and radical version of former US Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson. In this earlier phase, he expressed support for the legalization of all drugs and expansion of immigration; he supported the legality of prostitution and the legalization of firearm sales to civilians. Today, Milei remains open to drug legalization in some circumstances but has come out against abortion except when it endangers the life of the mother. He also denies the existence of man-made climate change and has campaigned against what he calls cultural Marxism in the form of the incumbent administration’s delusional “gender inclusive Spanish.”
Milei’s newfound social conservatism sits uneasily with his prior record as an advocate of “free love”; in the past, the libertarian candidate boasted about being a master of tantric sex and claimed to have participated in multiple threesomes. In February 2023, a former member of his party alleged that party members often exchanged sexual favors for posts—a charge Milei denies. Milei has also advocated for turning the sale of human organs as well as children over to the free market, although he has more recently walked back some of these proposals. As for himself, Milei is a childless bachelor, preferring instead to dote on his five English Mastiffs, four of them named after Austrian economists.
“Milei has reaped the rewards of the resulting disenchantment with politics as usual.”
On the economic front, following the teachings of his Austrian masters, Milei has promised to slash spending by 15 percent of GDP, privatize state industries, eliminate 11 government agencies, close Argentina’s embattled central bank, and dollarize the economy—a tall order in a nation with increasingly limited reserves of the US currency. It would be impossible to imagine such proposals carrying him to victory in a nation where Peronist politicians who advocate aggressive state intervention in the economy have long dominated electoral politics were it not for the fact that Argentina is now languishing under 100 percent inflation. Milei has reaped the rewards of the resulting disenchantment with politics as usual.
Despite the likely infeasibility of Milei’s economic agenda, its mere existence has helped set him apart from his rivals. In an election in which the economy is voters’ top concern, both the Peronist and right blocs have preferred to campaign on other issues such as crime.
The grim reality is no one really knows how to fix Argentina’s chronic troubles. Under Mauricio Macri (2015-2019), the right happily sabotaged themselves and Argentina’s economy with the passage of unfunded tax cuts that increased debt while failing to yield increased growth. Macri’s downfall led to the election of the buffoonish Alberto Fernández in 2019. But Fernández’s newest economy minister, Sergio Massa—now the coalition’s presidential nominee—has seen inflation increase even as he has followed orthodox International Monetary Fund prescriptions.
Peronism has remained dominant through its constant shape-shifting and opportunism. At different points, the movement has incorporated populism, fascism, neoliberalism, progressivism, and national developmentalism. But in many respects, Peronism is more akin to a crime syndicate than a coherent political movement. Its current top boss, Cristina Kirchner, is credibly accused of embezzling billions, not to mention murder. In a country in which cronyism and revolving-door politics prevail, Milei’s outsider status has obvious appeal.
Milei’s unlikely rise, then, results from the exhaustion and discrediting of the alternatives. To be generous to his brand of economics, the only benefit neoliberal fiscal policy has ever brought to Latin America was the taming of inflation in countries like Brazil and Peru—at the cost, unfortunately, of industry, growth, and the social fabric. But Argentina has a habit of defying all expectations … for the worse. Even ChatGPT has cast doubt as to whether any of the candidates can successfully conquer inflation. Regardless of who wins in November—outside of soccer, anyway—it is always prudent to bet against Argentina.