“Today the reconstruction of Argentina begins,” declared radical outsider Javier Milei after his shock presidential election victory, which will be celebrated by the global populist movement.
The leather-jacket-wearing, gun-loving TV celebrity-turned politician won close to 56 per cent of the vote ahead of the 44 per cent secured by his rival, the centre-left finance minister Sergio Massa.
Even Milei himself, who was relatively unknown before winning the primaries back in August, described his victory as a “miracle”.
It is a “miracle” which signals drastic change ahead for South America’s third most populous country.
The 53 year-old libertarian – and self-described “anarcho-capitalist” – has pledged to take a “chainsaw” to the state, slashing spending by up to 15 per cent of GDP. To stamp out inflation, he also vowed to introduce the US dollar as Argentina’s official currency and to abolish the central bank in order to stop it printing more money.
Milei has also declared he will cut ties with Argentina’s two biggest trade partners – Brazil and China. His reasoning? He doesn’t do business with “communists”.
Aside from his radical economic policies, Milei has stirred controversy throughout the campaign by pledging to ban abortion (which was legalised in 2020), by labelling climate change a “socialist hoax” and by branding the Argentine Pope Francis “a filthy leftist”.
El Loco (the madman), as he is known by critics, has also enraged millions of Argentinians by appointing Victoria Villarruel as his vice-presidential running mate – a longtime defender of Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship under which an estimated 30,000 people were killed by the military regime.
Milei’s victory will bolster populists across the world. Indeed, upon hearing the results, former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro gushed, “Hope is sparkling in South America once again”. Former US President Donald Trump had a similarly celebratory message for the new leader: “I am very proud of you. You will turn your country around and truly Make Argentina Great Again.”
Yet the election outcome is almost certainly less to do with Milei’s radical social policies and much more to do with the financial calamity that has left two in five Argentines living in poverty and pushed inflation to over 140 per cent.
A former professor of economics, Milei sought fame through his television rants in which he would criticise the left-leaning Peronist governments for doubling the size of the public sector over the past two decades.
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Argentina was once one of the most prosperous nations on Earth – as rich as the U.S. per capita at the turn of the century – and Milei has vowed to return it “to the place in the world which it should never have lost.”
The incoming president will take office on 10 December. There is no guarantee that his radical economic reforms will work. They may well prove disastrous. Equally, the fact that his party only holds a small number of seats in Argentina’s Congress means his proposed changes could be hard to force through.
But the status quo has left a large swathe of the population so desperate that they are willing to take a plunge into the unknown.
“I know how to exterminate the cancer of inflation,” Milei proclaimed during last Sunday’s final presidential debate. Now Argentinians are giving him a chance to prove it.
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