“Argentina just elected the first liberal libertarian president in the history of humanity”

Reading time: 3 mins approx.

The title of this post quotes Javier Milei’s victory speech. Argentina steps into uncharted territory by electing a president with no party structure, no subnational allies, and no political training – which is, precisely, the reason why he won. The Argentine people picked someone to govern them who is the opposite to all previous rulers. What could possibly go wrong?

Let us check.

Why did Milei win?

Three factors explain the electoral outcome. First, social demands: amid a collapsing economy and recurrent political scandals, the electorate ran out of patience. This was neither recognised by the political establishment nor by opponents on the left, both of which kept to their traditional scripts.

The second factor stems from there: the traditional opposition believed a dreadful economy would grant them victory, so wasted their position by waging open sky internecine wars.

The third factor was Milei himself, an unlikely antihero who jumped from the economic profession and TV studios into the political arena only two years ago. On Sunday 19 November, all three factors reached the boiling point.

Can Milei govern?

Initially, Milei will be a hyper-minority president. This means that his party will fall short not only of a majority in congress, but even of the plurality that would allow it to block an impeachment procedure. This is relevant because, in the last decades, presidential interruptions through constitutional procedures have become common practice in Latin America.

Some observers even equate presidential impeachments to parliamentary motions of no confidence, meaning that presidents do not need to commit a crime to be ousted; it is enough for them to become unpopular while lacking a legislative shield.

Fernando Collor de Mello and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, Abdala Bucaram and Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador, Martín Vizcarra and Pedro Castillo in Perú, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay and Carlos Andrés Pérez in Venezuela are cases in point, and they are only a few of the 26 presidents that were ejected by congress in the last 32 years.

A presidential impeachment is not inevitable though. Short of a legislative shield, the president has two strategies at hand: one is to feed a popular shield either by policy performance or by symbolic representation; the other is to build a legislative shield through party coalitions.

Milei has already hinted at the latter by accepting the support of former president Mauricio Macri, but this is still not enough to reach the one third threshold in either chamber. Since the Radical Civic Union (UCR) party, previously Macri’s ally, has decided not to follow his lead, Milei can only resort to dividing Peronism and attracting its conservative factions. The problem is that he will have little to offer, as his agenda includes the shrinking of the cabinet from twenty ministers to eight and huge budget cuts.

What is Milei likely to do?

The new president’s policy space will depend on two factors: the ideological preferences of his electoral base and the commitments made with his prospective allies. Many think that, if Milei’s conservative followers are absorbed by emotive cultural issues such as abortion rights, his capacity to focus on badly needed economic reform will suffer.

Others disagree: they believe that, by pleasing his followers with symbolic battles and political theatre, he will buy the necessary time for his economic reforms to deliver.

Sections of the press and public in Western democracies have received Milei’s victory with dismay, comparing him to Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. This is only partially right, as the Argentine is a card-carrying communist hater but not a nationalist. Indeed, Trump’s “make America great again” and Bolsonaro’s “Brazil over all” are not matched by Milei’s “long live f***ing freedom!”

Milei is less likely to lead Argentina into tyranny than into anarchy. This is not only due to his legislative weakness, which bodes ill for governability, but also to his political creed itself. After all, Argentina’s president-elect defines himself as an anarcho-capitalist. Do not say he did not warn you.

Andrés Malamud

Andrés Malamud is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon. A recurring Visiting Professor at universities in Argentina, Brazil, Italy, and Spain, he has been a Visiting Researcher at the Max Planck Institute of International Law in Heidelberg and the University of Maryland, College Park.

Thumbnail image: Mídia Ninja / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

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