News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Southern Cone Argentina’s Far-Right President-Elect

The international media often labels Javier Milei a radical libertarian, but he’s as far-right as they come



Julia Almeida,

Javier Milei’s closing campaign rally at the Movistar Arena in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 18 October 2023. Photo: IMAGO / SOPA Images

In a historic election, the self-styled “liberal libertarian” and opposition MP Javier Milei became the new president of Argentina after capturing 55.7 percent of the vote and winning 21 of the country’s 24 provinces. The centre-left Union for the Homeland coalition led by Finance Minister Sergio Massa, which took 13 provinces in the previous round, could only win three, claiming 44.3 percent of the vote. Turnout remained steady at 76.3 percent, but the election saw a historic number of blank ballots, 1.55 percent, another milestone in this historic election that will reshape Argentina’s political map.

Julia Almeida is a lawyer and a member of the Center for the Study of Violence at the University of São Paulo.

Having captured only 30 percent of the vote in the first round, Milei’s 55.7 percent represents a significant gain. This increase can be attributed in part to social discontent with the present government, but also to a strategic alliance with the Republican Proposal (PRO) party led by Mauricio Macri, the right-wing president who governed Argentina from 2015 to 2019, and the endorsement of another losing candidate, Patricia Bullrich, who polled 23.85 percent in the first round.

Milei’s campaign relied on the mobilization of young people — especially men — around the slogan “¡Viva la libertad, carajo!”, or “Long live freedom, damn it!” He put forward a radical neoliberal programme, including dollarizing the Argentinian economy and closing the Central Bank of Argentina, along with an “anti-political” discourse, stressing the idea that Argentina’s problems are due to its politicians, which he derides as the “political caste”. In the second round last Sunday, he used slogans such as “freedom or the political caste” and “change or continuity”, hammering home the idea that Massa’s campaign lied about Milei’s political programme to instil fear in voters.

Some international media have sought to portray Milei as a “liberal libertarian” or “radical” — not part of the global far right, but rather of the liberal or neoliberal camp. The reasoning behind this depiction is that Milei’s campaign did not adopt the usual talking points (anti-feminism, anti-LGBTQI+, racism, militarization, gun rights, etc.) that define other far-right movements. But the reality is that Javier Milei and his vice president Victoria Villarruel are located squarely in the South American far right, and typical neo-conservative and authoritarian ideas form the basis of their ideological and political principles.

Argentina’s Crisis Election

The Argentinian elections took place in a context of economic and social crisis, against the backdrop of a devalued currency, hyperinflation, foreign debt, and growing poverty and precarious employment. The forces of the Right blamed this situation on the centre-left government led by Alberto Fernández of the Peronist Justicialist Party, and on Argentina’s long tradition of Peronism and the workers’ movement in general.

Alongside the crisis, another major issue shaping the political agenda in recent years was the legalization of abortion in 2020, which saw huge women’s mobilizations by the feminist movement, as well as intense conservative opposition — including from the Catholic Church, which now opposes Milei.

The far-right strategy of appropriating the symbols of freedom is nothing new — fascism and Nazism also gained mass support by flying this flag.

These two elements combined with a third factor, namely the uptick in political violence in the streets and on social media, which peaked with the attempted assassination of Vice-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2022. Milei himself enjoys great leverage on social media and, like many candidates and figures of the global far right, focused a large part of his campaign there.

The Spectre of Anti-Politics

The development of an authoritarian social fabric was also essential for Milei’s rise. Indeed, the conditions for the growth of the far right existed before any candidate emerged capable of embodying it.

Important surveys conducted by the Laboratory for the Study of Democracy and Authoritarianism (LEDA) showed that a significant segment of Argentina’s population believes the economic crisis is partly related to maintaining a “political caste”, a view that could be seen in surveys as early as 2021. Such an understanding of the causes of the economic crisis is also linked to the rejection of restrictive policies during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially among young people.

Another highly relevant finding from research by the Multiannual Research Project (PIP-CONICET) is the growth across Argentinian society of a belief that social justice is a privilege enjoyed by select groups who drain resources from the state, revealing a general weakening of the social solidarity paradigm. Thus, when Milei says that social justice is theft, he is especially backed by the younger generation that rejects social security policies because they associate them with unfair distribution of resources.

In other words, the notion that politicians and state policies as a whole are part of the problem, rather than expressions of democracy, has been building in Argentina for some time.

The Radical Neoliberal Agenda

Although the far right’s relationship to economic policy varies around the world depending on the social and economic specifics of each state and its respective position in the global economy, the broad neoliberal agenda — generally characterized by fiscal austerity, privatization, and labour deregulation — has been the main economic programme of the far right in peripheral, dependent countries.

Milei is no exception: he won the presidency by proposing to dollarize the economy, ditch the Argentinian peso and the Central Bank, and promising a minimal state with only eight ministries, including major changes in social security policies, the privatization of health and education, and even trade in human organs.

Milei used a chainsaw as a symbol of his campaign to say that he would lay waste to the country’s political caste, but the chainsaw stands for more than just that.

It is true that the far right does not possess a monopoly on the neoliberal agenda, as liberal candidates and parties also advocate such an agenda. However, at least in Latin America, the far right that has radicalized and taken the political leadership over this economic agenda in recent years. This political current and the social segment it represents has spearheaded the total appropriation of the state by sectors of the bourgeoisie, the most notorious example of which being the case of Brazil during the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro.

Although few Latin American governments have faced major confrontations with the interests of the core capitalist countries, the Latin American far right in the twenty-first century has sought to dismantle any structures capable of withstanding such a clash. It is no coincidence that it has unwaveringly defended the agro-export sector and policies in favour of financial transnational capital.

Military Rule and Authoritarian Freedom

There is also major concern around Milei and Villarruel’s relationship with the military and police and its conception of freedom. Villarruel has played a more traditional far-right role, making racist remarks such as claiming that the Argentinian identity is primarily one of European blood and downplaying the crimes of Argentina’s last dictatorship.

Villarruel claims that the military junta that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983 murdered or disappeared “only” 8,000 people, while human rights organizations maintain a figure of at least 30,000. Milei also cites the figure of 8,000 in his public statements on the matter. These claims not only contradict a growing body of research on the period, threatening the social consensus and advances made by human rights movements and movements of victims and relatives, but are of particular concern in terms of the composition of Milei’s cabinet. The Minister of Defence and Security will be appointed by Villarruel, who could place a military figure in the post. She has also mentioned the need to value the role of the armed forces in her government.

Javier Milei loves to shout “Long live freedom, damn it!” during his speeches. The far-right strategy of appropriating the symbols of freedom is nothing new — fascism and Nazism also gained mass support by flying this flag. The far right enjoys enormous support for a certain authoritarian sense of freedom, based on ultra-individualism and the idea that fundamental freedom is one that allows us to maintain our defence, survival, protection, and success — of course, all by ourselves. There is no solidarity, no community, and the state and individuals have no responsibility to each other.

This authoritarian discourse, dressed up as “libertarian”, constitutes the core of what has won over the Argentinian electorate.

Race, Gender, and the Climate

On questions of sexuality, race, and gender, Milei also hews close to well-established far-right narrative.

Along with the promise to repeal abortion laws, he argues that comprehensive sex education in schools and sexual diversity policies (i.e., tolerance for gender identities and sexual orientations) “deform children’s minds” and seek to destroy the family, an essential component of society. Although Milei himself is single and childless, he understands that defending the conservative agenda around the family, sexuality, and gender has the support of a significant part of the electorate, and acts accordingly.

For Argentines, the struggles and confrontations that will emerge with Milei’s election will be the most important since the end of the dictatorship.

In 2020, LEDA found that xenophobia was a major social problem in Argentina. The popular accusation that immigrants, especially from other Latin American countries, take away economic benefits from Argentines and do not contribute to the economy is one sign of this growing mood. Villarruel sought to capitalize on this trend by incorporating racist rhetoric into the campaign and denying the place of black and indigenous people in Argentinian national identity. Milei embodies this perspective of white, European supremacy perfectly.

Meanwhile, as in most dependent, peripheral countries, Argentina has witnessed major disputes over the exploitation of its natural resources and land, especially with indigenous peoples who struggle to defend their territories, as is their constitutional right. Argentina possesses crucial strategic mining and agricultural resources. It is the world’s largest exporter and third-largest producer of soy-derived products and the fourth-largest producer of lithium.

Milei used a chainsaw as a symbol of his campaign to say that he would lay waste to the country’s political caste. However, the choice of the chainsaw stands for more than just that: like Bolsonaro’s pistol gestures, the chainsaw is an important ideological representation of environmental devastation. Milei has said that he will not respect the 2030 Agenda or the Paris Agreement, as environmentalism is part of a “post-Marxist” agenda that seeks to wipe out its own population to protect the planet.

A Victory for the Far Right Everywhere

Milei enjoys significant influence among the young generation by taking advantage of new communication structures, especially TikTok. He is also part of a network of far-right movements that use social media as part of a sophisticated strategy perfected since the 2016 US elections, when the Cambridge Analytica scandal was uncovered.

Bolsonaro’s supporters successfully exploited this network in Brazil, rivalling the machinery of the traditional press. It is thus no surprise that on 17 October, Bolsonaro chose social media to present a video supporting Milei and asking people to vote for him, confirming his presence at Milei’s inauguration should he win. Such close ties had already been built by Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, who even appeared on Argentinian television on the day of the first round of the elections and was cut off for defending the liberalization of gun ownership.

Milei also has clear and public ties with the Spanish far-right party, Vox, underscoring his clear links to the global far right.

His popularity is due precisely to his capacity to articulate clear economic proposals (even if they are absurd) to solve the severe economic crisis, mobilizing a conservative undercurrent that never ceased to exist in Argentina, but now takes on a different shape and intensity in this new global moment.

Milei’s victory also marks a new development in the political conflict in Latin America, especially since the victory of billionaire Daniel Noboa in Ecuador and the high possibility that Trump will be elected in the US next year, which would affect disputes on the continent. For the Brazilian far right, Milei represents the victory in a neighbouring country of the same project defeated there in the 2022 elections. For Argentines, the struggles and confrontations that will emerge with Milei’s election will be the most important since the end of the dictatorship.

Translated by Catalina Saraceno.