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Populism rules the day in Argentina

Argentine presidential candidate Javier Milei gives a speech in Buenos Aires on Aug. 7, 2023.

Argentine presidential candidate Javier Milei gives a speech in Buenos Aires on Aug. 7, 2023.

REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

Far-right eccentric economist Javier Milei surprised everyone in Argentina’s primary election on Sunday. Faced with 116% annual inflation, a 43% poverty rate, a plunging peso, and rising crime, voters responded at the polls by awarding Milei the most votes.

With more than 90% of the ballots counted, Milei has 30% while the conservative opposition bloc has just 28%, and the ruling Peronist coalition has 27%.

Elected to Congress in 2021, the fiery Milei was a television personality and economist before making the leap to politics. Often compared to former US President Donald Trump and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Milei is known as much for his controversial beliefs (he wants to legalize the sale of human organs, considers climate change a “socialist lie,” and says sex education is a ploy to destroy the family) as his brash style (he belts out rock songs at rallies and claims to have not brushed his hair in decades).

To tackle Argentina’s economic woes, Milei wants to follow Ecuador’s lead and dollarize the economy, implement a “complete reform of the state” by eliminating government ministries, shuttering or privatizing state-run companies, and slashing taxes and cutting spending by 15%.

Sunday’s vote determined which candidates will participate in the first round of voting on October 22 – with those who drew less than 1.5% of the vote ineligible. Analysts say Milei's better-than-expected performance makes him the likely winner of the upcoming election. But it could also lead to higher inflationary and foreign exchange pressures – not only because the government will spend aggressively to reverse results, but also because Milei's victory is the most destabilizing imaginable.

If Milei wins the presidency, however, Eurasia Group analyst Luciano Sigalov says he will face enormous governability challenges as he will lack the majority needed in Congress to pass aggressive pro-market reforms. Strong Peronism and social movements mean he will also find major resistance in the streets.


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