Javier Milei and Argentina’s Clarion Call

Argentina’s recent primary election has shocked international public opinion and surprised even the locals, given the magnitude of the victory of Javier Milei, a libertarian economist and political newcomer whose discourse has elements of right-wing populism as well. 

Argentina’s primaries are a weird affair whereby the candidates, while competing against other members of their own party or coalition for the nomination, also compete against the candidates from the other parties or coalitions, albeit symbolically, because all the primaries take place simultaneously. Any voter can cast a ballot in any one contest without being registered. The election, therefore, produces a presidential candidate for each party or coalition. Still, it also offers a sense of the voters’ overall preferences among the different options. 

Milei, who was his party’s only candidate, got 30 percent. In contrast, the main opposition bloc, which saw former minister Patricia Bullrich emerge as the candidate for the presidential election that will be held in October, obtained a total of 28 percent. The government’s Peronist coalition, which saw current Economy Minister Sergio Massa win the nomination, got 27 percent.

The good news is that Peronism, that mixture of populism, nationalism, and socialism that turned Argentina, once a first-world country, into a pitiful disaster, obtained its worst electoral result ever. The bad news is that the division between the two major opposition forces means that Massa has a chance to make it to the second round in October, given the small difference between his support and the support that Milei and Bullrich command. If this were to happen, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that Milei’s votes would flock to Bullrich or vice versa in the runoff, which gives the Peronist government a fighting chance. 

The other bad news is that the division is so bitter, at least today, that it seems unlikely, should either one of them become president, that Bullrich or Milei will command enough support in Congress to be able to protect the future government from the scorched-earth type of opposition that Peronism is known to exercise when it is not in power.

Argentina needs three things to come out of the October elections and the runoff soon after. The first is a Peronist debacle that reduces that party to insignificance for a very long time; the second is a strong government able to undertake major free-market and institutional reforms to rebuild a country now suffering from three-digit inflation and in which forty percent of the population lives in poverty; third but not last, so that major reforms can take place, Argentina will need what is known as “governability.” Without some kind of understanding between Milei and Bullrich, there will be scant governability, and the reforms will not be possible, which will facilitate the destructive job of a hypothetical Peronist opposition.

Milei is a radical libertarian economist who understands what the country needs in terms of economic reform, but a political populist who has little understanding of the importance of moderating institutions, has a precarious political structure behind him and will command small support in Congress and in the 23 provincial governments if he wins. 

Bullrich is less versed in economic matters than Milei. Having served in former president Mauricio Macri’s government between 2015 and 2019, she understands the need for strong institutions. She has a bloc of experienced parties behind her. If Milei can give the future government a sense of economic direction and social legitimacy (his base of support, made up of people fed up with all political parties, spans the social and generational spectrum) and Bullrich can give it respectability, a workable majority, and institutional solidity, then Argentina has a chance. But that entails a rapprochement that looks unlikely, given how competitive both sides are at this point. If either of them wins, but they fail to work with each other, Peronism will be back in a wink.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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