Javier Milei
Javier Milei in 2024. Credit: Quirinale and Wikimedia Commons

Even amongst the rising global tide of populism, the world has not quite seen a politician like Milei. His radical proposals, such as dollarizing the economy and legalising the sale of organs, are surpassed only by his bizarre personal life, exemplified by his claims to take advice from his four cloned dogs and to be an expert in tantric sex. This polarising combination propelled him to power last November in an election dominated by Argentina’s worst economic crisis in two decades. And yet, after only a few months at the helm, pressure is already building for Milei. The big question now is whether Argentina’s political elite and democratic structures can handle ‘El Loco’.

As Argentine democracy enters its fifth decade, Milei proposed last month a grand ‘omnibus’ bill designed to signal a new era. Comprising wide-ranging reforms to privatise state assets and give greater presidential power, the controversial bill was the first key test of Milei’s tenuous legislative authority. To Milei’s rage, the bill was blocked from passing through the Lower House on February 6th, reflecting the limited support for his government in both legislative chambers. His lack of willingness to show compromise on the bill demonstrates his determination to remain the ‘radical outsider’ despite being in the hot seat. Meanwhile, a multitude of trade unions and NGOs have already organised lawsuits and begun to mobilise against his extreme right-wing agenda, hoping to capitalise on any short patience amongst a suffering electorate. Milei will have to hope his ‘shock therapy’ measures of privatisation, deregulation, and currency devaluation can quickly change the country’s fortunes.

Despite the unprecedented nature of Milei’s presidency, keen followers of Argentinian politics will be accustomed to uncertainty and frustration. Indeed, there is widespread discontent amongst the Argentinian population who are understandably tired of presidential scandals and economic mismanagement. However, this latest development in Argentine democracy seems like a defining crossroads. To grasp the significance of this moment for Argentina, it is important to understand the challenges that Milei’s presidency represents to the existing democratic model that has survived for forty years. In particular, he directly threatens two longstanding features of Argentine democracy.

‘Establishment populism’

The first feature is what one might paradoxically call ‘establishment populism’. Argentine leaders have generally displayed populist tendencies, employing divisive rhetoric whilst aiming to concentrate power in their own hands and undermine accountability from political institutions. Both Carlos Menem and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, for instance, were notable for their attempts to weaken the power of the courts during their tenure.

However, unlike classic anti-establishment models of populism, where political outsiders would justify such actions through criticism of the ‘corrupt’ political class, Argentine presidents have come from established parties and coalitions. In particular, the salience of Peronism, a broadly nationalist and redistributive ideology based on the controversial figure of former president Juan Peron, has been key to this trend, forming governments for 28 out of 40 years of Argentine democracy since 1983. With its strong attachment to trade unions and its deep penetration into poorer Argentinian communities, Peronism has shown remarkable resilience and has shaped Argentine politics through its ‘establishment populism’ model.

Milei could hardly be less aligned to the ‘political establishment’: the former TV pundit only entered politics in 2020 and his election campaign was premised on his criticisms of the political elites that have mismanaged the Argentinian economy. Such criticisms are not unfounded. The strong grip that elites have had over Argentinian politics has led to abuses of power, scandals, and economic failings. However, from the point of view of democratic stability, the strength of established parties and coalitions has led to remarkable resilience during social crises, even if those crises have often been caused and perpetuated by those same institutions.

For instance, when the great depression from 1998-2002 triggered widespread rioting and protestors demanded “que se vayan todos” (throw everyone out), it was not a radical and dangerous outsider with potential to dismantle the system from the inside who was elected in 2003. Instead, a Peronist candidate, Nestor Kirchner, was able to leverage the social and political capital of Peronism amongst poorer voters whilst in opposition to win the election. This starkly contrasts with the present day, where the man who has spearheaded the modern “que se vayan todos” crowd has been elected as president. This is unprecedented and contradicts the existing model that has, despite being heavily flawed, corrupt, and inefficient, provided an impressive record of regular elections and peaceful transitions of power.

Condemnation of the military junta

A second feature of Argentine democracy that has been crucial to its resilience is the consistent consensus in condemning the preceding military regime (1976-83). Since the 1985 military trials which publicly prosecuted the military leaders for human rights atrocities such as systemic kidnappings and murders, a broadly unequivocal commitment to democratic governance amongst politicians and citizens alike has underpinned forty years of democracy.

Milei, by contrast, has been far from subtle in his attitudes towards the military regime, disputing the consensus that they had killed 30,000 people. Moreover, Victoria Villarruel, his vice-president, is from a military family and has been a long-term defender of the regime, repeatedly understating their atrocities and emphasising the violence of left-wing guerrilla groups that they fought. This is a broader indication that Milei represents a credible threat to Argentine democracy. He has already shut down the Ministry of Women, Gender, and Diversity and promises to dismantle the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. With his complete disdain for his democratically elected colleagues in the legislative chambers and his appetite for authoritarian proposals such as cracking down on public protest, this demonstrates a worrying lack of concern for democratic norms and procedures.

Looking ahead

Given Milei’s threat to two defining features of Argentinian democracy, the question is therefore what this new development signals. Have we entered a new model of Argentine democracy that has broken the grip of Peronism and the established political class? Are we entering a period of severe democratic decline representing an existential threat to democracy? Or will Milei ultimately represent an entertaining but short intermission in the existing model of Argentine democracy?

With tumultuous economic conditions and weak legislative power, Milei certainly has an uphill battle if he is to establish a new political hegemony. His initial emergency economic measures of government deregulation and devaluing the peso have so far done little to earn the trust of the Argentine people. However, there are some positive signs, with monthly inflation slowing down from 25.5% in December to 13.2% in January.

Moreover, despite his rhetoric, Milei has begun to show some degree of pragmatic moderation, downplaying any short-term dollarization plans whilst allying with former right-wing president Mauricio Macri and appointing Patricia Bullrich, his conservative electoral rival in 2023, as Security Minister. Even this less extreme approach appears to be too much for his political rivals, however, and on 14 March the Senate voted to reject Milei’s “mega decree” of economic reforms by 42 votes to 25 – dealing a significant blow to his political agenda.

In the absence of a clear verdict on Milei’s economic approach, and growing tension between the legislature and the executive, it is also worth keeping an eye on his chief opposition, the Peronists. If Milei cannot decisively turn the economic tide, last year’s election might well turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Peronist strategists. Looking back to their successful 2003 election, the Peronists had already jumped a sinking ship by losing the previous election in 1999, avoiding the burden of governing during the height of the crisis from 1998-2002. Now, in 2024, a few years in opposition might present another opportunity for this pragmatic and flexible political movement to reinvent itself once more and reclaim power.

Author - David Tucker

David Tucker is a Philosophy, Politics, and Economic graduate from the University of Oxford and a research intern at CEDAR.