Argentina, a country of 46 million people, is heading to the polls in a presidential election that could potentially reshape the country’s political landscape. The leading candidate in this high-stakes race is Congressman Javier Milei, a 52-year-old libertarian economist who has sent shockwaves through Argentina’s political establishment with his promises of radical change. His meteoric rise is often compared to the populism of former U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and it is a phenomenon that has captured the attention of both the nation and the international community.
Milei, who is admired for his no-nonsense approach and his appeal to those disenchanted with the status quo, stormed onto the political scene with a surprise win in the August primaries. He has based his campaign on dismantling Argentina’s entrenched political “caste,” a message akin to Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp.” His proposed policies are nothing short of revolutionary, including shutting down the central bank, dollarizing the economy, and implementing severe spending cuts. He has also pledged to reduce the number of government ministries from 18 to just 8, advocating for radical free-market principles to rule the nation.
Milei has harnessed the power of social media and viral TikTok videos, combined with rock concert-style rallies, to connect with a younger generation struggling to find work in an economy plagued by inflation. These young Argentines were the ones who, in 2019, handed power to the Peronista ticket of Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner with hopes of economic improvement. However, the economy has deteriorated further under their leadership, driving voters to seek an entirely new path forward.
Milei’s supporters see their support for him in the election as an act of rebellion against the establishment because they believe that Milei represents the collective anger of Argentinian society. Recent polls indicate Milei as the front-runner among the five candidates. His main competition includes Sergio Massa, an economy minister in the leftist government presenting himself as a moderate within Peronismo, and Patricia Bullrich, a former center-right security minister gaining popularity with her tough-on-crime stance.
Notably, the incumbent president, Alberto Fernández, and former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner did not run for reelection. To secure a win in the presidential election, a candidate must receive 45 percent of the vote or obtain 40 percent with a 10-point lead over the runner-up. If no candidate meets these criteria, the two leading candidates will face off in a runoff election in four weeks.
Should Milei secure the presidency, Argentina will enter uncharted political territory. In the country’s 40 years of uninterrupted democracy, it has never had a president so clearly outside the political establishment.
Milei built his following through television appearances, where he often insulted opponents. Elected to the federal Chamber of Deputies from Buenos Aires in 2021, he made headlines by raffling off his congressional salary each month. His anti-establishment rhetoric has led to comparisons with Trump and Bolsonaro, but he differs from them in his lack of political infrastructure and support. He would become the first president without political allies among Argentina’s provincial governors and little backing in the legislature, raising questions about his ability to govern.
The overarching issue that any incoming government must address is the rampant inflation that has plagued Argentina. Milei’s calls for dollarization and his vehement criticism of the peso as “excrement” have roiled the nation’s economy. Following his primary victory, the peso’s value plummeted and inflation surged, prompting panic buying, gas shortages, and looting.
In a country where 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, the constant fluctuation of prices has become the new norm. To illustrate the consequences of drastic spending cuts, President Fernández offered Argentines the option to decline subsidies for public transport and accept a tenfold increase in ticket prices.
With the unofficial exchange rate soaring above 1,000 Argentine pesos to $1 and the widespread feeling of being caught in an economic downward spiral, voters face a tough choice. The consequences of voting for a Milei-style economic overhaul remain uncertain but potentially dire.
As Argentina heads into this pivotal election, the specter of Milei’s rapid ascent looms large. Some worry about the fervor and anger he stirs among his supporters, drawing parallels to the U.S. Capitol attack on January 6, 2021, and the 2023 assault on federal buildings in Brazil. For many, history seems to be repeating itself, and the world watches with bated breath as the Argentines decide the path their nation will take.
In the midst of this uncertainty, one thing is clear: the outcome of the election will have far-reaching consequences, not only for Argentina but for the entire region. As Argentines prepare to cast their votes, they hold in their hands the power to shape the nation’s future and determine its place on the world stage. The world watches, and the choice is theirs.
Taut Bataut – is a researcher and writer that publishes on South Asian geopolitics, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.