Election Watch

Why Did Argentina Just Elect a Radical Right-Wing Political Outsider?

By choosing Javier Milei, Argentinean voters didn’t just reject the status quo. They have sent their country hurtling in an unknown direction. 

By Virginia Oliveros and Emilia Simison

November 2023

On Sunday, November 19, Javier Milei, the self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist, became Argentina’s next president-elect. With almost 56 percent of the vote, Milei won the presidential runoff against the current economy minister, Sergio Massa of the Peronist coalition, by more than 11 percentage points. Milei’s victory signifies an enormous rupture with Argentina’s past and presents many questions about its future. With a radical right-wing, antisystem president at the helm and the people who elected him deeply dissatisfied with the status quo, democracy in Argentina is moving headlong in a wholly unknown direction.

The election took place amid a severe economic crisis. Inflation in Argentina has increased over the past year, now topping 140 percent, and the poverty rate is 40 percent. According to LAPOP’s AmericasBarometer, 86 percent of Argentineans think the economy is doing badly, and about one in four are affected by food insecurity. The poor economy has affected how people view the political system, with only 68 percent now expressing support for democracy — a sharp decline from 90 percent in 2008. Given all this, it is not particularly surprising that the economy minister of the incumbent party was vulnerable to a political newcomer who offered radical solutions to the status quo.

But the story is more complicated than that. Milei’s candidacy, let alone his victory, is a huge departure in Argentine politics in several ways: To begin with, this the first time a complete outsider has won Argentina’s presidency. Although past crises have turned the people against traditional politicians, establishment parties always managed to absorb the public’s dissatisfaction. During the country’s socioeconomic crisis in the early 2000s, for example, the people chanted “Everyone must go!” (que se vayan todos), but ultimately they elected another Peronist (Néstor Kirchner), albeit a lesser-known one who presented himself as an outsider. Milei, in contrast, has almost no political experience, having just been elected to Congress in 2021; his own political party, Liberty Advances, is brand new; and he has no formal ties to any of the established parties.

This is also the first time a far-right candidate has been elected president in Argentina. Milei even claimed in his victory speech to be the first liberal libertarian elected president anywhere. Many of his proposals are radical, including dollarizing the economy and closing the central bank, drastically shrinking the role of the state, and privatizing all education and healthcare. He has argued that there should be a free market for selling organs and children, and more freedom to buy guns. Milei’s political ascent has also been accompanied by and encouraged an erosion of the established consensus in the country on the condemnation of the last military regime and its human-rights violations.

Finally, this is the first time since Argentina’s return to democracy in 1983 that the outcome of a presidential has been this unpredictable. Last year, most analysts were predicting a sure victory for Juntos por el Cambio. Instead, the presidential candidate of this coalition, Patricia Bullrich, ended up in third place in October’s first round. Just months ago, no one seemed to have any idea who would win this contest. Most opinion polls had predicted razor-thin margins in the second round, yet Milei ended up winning handily. This was after he had surprised most analysts and observers by coming in second in the first round with 30 percent of the vote.

What’s to Come?

Looking to the future, Milei’s victory raises many questions. Foremost among them is whether he will actually be able to govern. His margin of victory may appear to give him a strong mandate. But Milei has little support in Congress. Although his Liberty Advances party increased its presence in Congress in the October elections, going from zero to seven senators and from three to 38 members of the lower chamber, that’s far from a majority in either house.

To pass any laws, Milei will have to build legislative alliances. For this, he will need Juntos por el Cambio. This coalition of parties has a significant presence in Congress and controls ten of the country’s 24 governorships. Some of the coalition’s leaders, including Bullrich and former President Mauricio Macri, supported Milei in the runoff and even campaigned with him, while others vocally opposed him. This makes it hard to predict the extent to which Juntos por el Cambio will ally with him in the legislature. Without a solid legislative coalition, then the question would be how Milei will respond if Congress refuses to pass his agenda. What use (or abuse) will he make of the president’s decree power? How will the established parties react? And will Argentine democratic institutions be damaged in the process?

In addition to the institutional and political constraints Milei would face in implementing any of his proposed policies, it is unclear whether his own voters even support those policies. Milei may have won the election, but both he and Massa were unpopular, with negative opinions of each hovering around 50 percent. Many people likely voted for the lesser evil. A case could be made that the 30 percent that Milei won in the first round of the election represented his “true” supporters. Those who had voted in the first round for Bullrich (at the time, a harsh critic of Milei and his plans) and then supported Milei in the runoff were probably motivated more by anti-incumbent, anti-Peronist sentiment than support for Milei or his policy proposals.

Voters in Latin America have shown time and again that they will rally around whoever can improve the economic situation. This was true of Carlos Menem in Argentina, who was reelected in 1995 by 20 percentage points after bringing inflation under control, and also of Alberto Fujimori in Peru the same year. If Milei manages to control Argentina’s soaring inflation, his support will most likely rise. But his current plan for dealing with the problem, dollarization, seems nearly impossible to implement in the short run given Argentina’s depleted foreign-exchange reserves. Moreover, many economists doubt whether dollarization could actually work or if it is even constitutional.

As an antisystem candidate and now president-elect, Milei is not a singular phenomenon in Latin America. Dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracy was key to catapulting Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Nayib Bukele in El Salvador. Milei, however, has significantly less political experience than either of them, and his proposals are a more radical break from the past than what even most political outsiders propose. At the end of the day, both Milei’s unusual victory and his prospects for political survival may be linked to the most typical explanation of electoral outcomes in Latin America: the economic situation in general and inflation in particular. If he fails to improve the country’s economic prospects, one big question will remain: what will Milei do next?

Virginia Oliveros is associate professor of political science at Tulane University. Emilia Simison is post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Inter-American Policy and Research, Tulane University.


Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: Amilcar Orfali/Getty Images




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