Has Right-Wing Populism Reached Argentina?

By Demian Iglesias Seifert

Last Sunday, August 13, Argentina held elections to determine the candidates who will run in next October’s national presidential elections. In a surprising turn of events, the far-right candidate Javier Milei, an outsider that started in politics around 2019, surged ahead in the preliminary elections, sending shockwaves through Argentina’s political landscape. Milei won the election with about 30% of the total vote. The candidates in the main opposition coalition, United for Change (a conservative centre-right movement), obtained 28% and the current governing coalition Union for the Homeland (Peronist, centre left coalition) 27% of the votes, respectively.

In this blogpost, I argue that disillusionment with the political establishment, extremely high inflation and rising crime are core reasons driving Milei’s surprise success at the ballot box.

The Stakes

Within Argentina’s constitutional system, the President, who is directly elected every four years, ‘is the supreme head of the Nation, head of the government and is politically responsible for the general administration of the country’. In that sense, the Presidential election defines the country’s direction more than in parliamentary systems. Milei, a fervent admirer of ex-President Donald Trump, has advocated for the elimination of Argentina’s central bank, contends that the climate crisis is a fabrication, labels sex education as a manoeuvre to dismantle the institution of the family, supports the legalization of the trade of human organs, and aims to simplify the process of firearm ownership. His electoral success is particularly concerning, given Argentina hyper-presidentialist tradition. Thus, as Gargarella and Stringer explained, the President has not just the power to issue decrees under various circumstances but a long tradition of Presidents using these powers extensively to appoint supreme court judges, rip up media law and to initiate new policy by decree, bypassing the legislative power. If Milei were to win the presidential election in October, he would have these tools at his disposal to implement  his agenda and thereby drastically change Argentina’s political orientation.

Milei’s electoral success is in line with Argentina’s long history of voting for populist leaders. Thus, since the administration of Perón from 1946 to 1955 and 1973-1974, Peronism (a populist entity straddling the spectrum from centre-left to centre-right) has constituted the political mainstream in Argentine politics, with only few and short intervals where the Radical Party or Cambiemos (United for change, a conservative centre-right coalition) were in power. However, since the return to democracy in 1983, the nation has not experienced a victory by a far-right political party, with power predominantly shifting between these established political poles. With Milei’s electoral rise, this longstanding pattern appears to be on the verge of transformation.

Cass Mudde has suggested that there is a distinction between populism as it occurs in Europe, on the one hand, and in Latin America, on the other. The former has been described as mainly right-wing, conservative, traditionalist and authoritarian in both rhetoric and behaviour. The second, by contrast, shares an authoritarian impulse but has been described as primarily left-wing and socially inclusive. However, something is changing. Milei’s victory is a sign that Argentina is joining the global trend of right-wing populism. The country that used to be a bastion of left-wing populist governments, historically under the banners of Peronism, seems thereby to be following the patterns observed in other countries of the region such as Brazil, Chile and El Salvador. What has been the reason for this change?

Disillusionment, Inflation and Crime

One of the main explanations for Milei’s triumph is the growing disillusionment among the population with the traditional political class. For decades, Argentine citizens have experienced a series of broken promises and corruption scandals that have undermined trust in conventional political parties. Corruption convictions against Peronism’s leaders, coupled with the opposition’s lack of reflexes when it was their turn to govern, have eroded voters’ trust in the established parties.

At the same time, Argentina is currently facing one of its most severe crises. The value of the Argentine peso has sharply dropped, with yearly inflation exceeding 115 percent. Additionally, almost 40 percent of the population is living in poverty, and the nation is grappling with the challenge of repaying its $44 billion debt to the International Monetary Fund. Finally, widespread security issues have arisen and there is no answer from the government.

Polls show a striking prevalence of frustration with how crime is handled and support for punitive criminal justice measures. Regarding the economic situation, the sense of fatigue about inflation is clear in all the surveys around the country. Participants also mentioned a lack of representative political candidates as a driving factor, especially among the younger electors. The name of Milei is repeatedly mentioned by young voters, angry at the lack of opportunities for economic advancement, job instability and lack of future perspectives. Indeed, polls show that half of the people who support Milei are under 30 years old and agree with the candidate’s anti-system discourse and the feeling of disappointment towards politicians, or the „caste“ as Milei calls them.

Their enthusiasm for Milei as a candidate reflects general voter fatigue with regards to the political parties that have governed Argentina for the past three decades. During this period, the country has experienced alternations in power between different parties, but many citizens feel that their economic problems have not been effectively solved, no matter who is in office. In particular, the level of economic development is low, public services are neglected and inflation is rising so fast that many workers are poor because their salaries are not being updated at the same rate.. Peronism’s lofty stated goals have not translated into decent living conditions for those who used to be its voters. Milei has thus been able to take advantage of a situation of collective fatigue by ostensibly providing solutions to the very problems that mainstream politics has not been able to solve.

In this respect, his campaign promises include shutting down the central bank, trimming public employment, decreasing taxes, transitioning to a dollarized economy to address inflation concerns and fostering a more open labour market to create additional opportunities. He also advocates for lowering the age of criminal liability and legalizing gun ownership to tackle criminality. Despite the vagueness of these solutions and the absence of detail on their practical implementation, they appear to have swayed voters. Milei’s stance holds intrigue within the Latin American context, as he avoids leaning on authoritarian rhetoric and refrains from explicitly opposing any societal sector. His ambiguity concerning social matters like migration or minority rights prevents easy categorization akin to figures like Bolsonaro or Trump, who both employ a characteristic anti-establishment populist discourse. Simultaneously, his political agenda with the emphasis on economic matters, particularly his championing economic freedom and private property, reflects the core of current societal dissatisfaction. At the same time, Milei is likely benefitting from his novelty and the resulting absence of social censure that burdens established parties as a result of their past governmental failures to address critical social needs.

Argentina: The Next Domino to Fall to Right-Wing Populism?

The phenomenon of a far-right candidate winning in Argentina is not unique in the region. In recent years, we have witnessed the rise of far-right leaders and movements in several Latin American countries. These leaders often present themselves as anti-establishment voices that challenge political elites and promise to restore security, order and national sovereignty. The cases of Bolsonaro and Bukele are the most resonant but not the only ones. Chile and Uruguay also show some tendencies to this trend. In a world characterized by economic and social uncertainty, this rhetoric clearly resonates strongly with those who feel marginalized and neglected by the traditional political system.

While the triumph of an extreme right-wing candidate in Argentina’s primary elections represents a significant change in the political landscape, it is important to analyse this phenomenon with caution. We must wait until October to see if this trend continues and how society responds in the national elections. History has taught us that the rise of extremist politicians can have unpredictable and potentially dangerous consequences for stability and social cohesion as we saw when hundreds of supporters of the country’s former leader Jair Bolsonaro attacked the Parliament in Brazil or the mass detentions that violated human rights, with 2% of adults arrested in El Salvador. It is crucial to consider the ramifications of these victories for individual liberties, human rights and the democratic system as a whole.