1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Argentina: What to expect from populist President Milei

November 20, 2023

Right-wing populist and self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist Javier Milei has won Argentina's presidential election by a landslide. The country now faces an experiment with an uncertain outcome.

Javier Milei waving from a stage
Far-right populist Javier Milei won Argentina's presidential election by a landslideImage: Natacha Pisarenko/AP Photo/picture alliance

Former US President Donald Trump was one of the first to congratulate Javier Milei after he defeated Sergio Massa in the presidential runoff on Sunday: "I am very proud of you. You will turn your country around and truly Make Argentina Great Again!" Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform.

But Milei, the 53-year-old self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist, wants to do more than just turn the country around to "end Argentina's decline" and make it "a world power" and "a model of freedom" again.

"El loco," or "the madman" as he was nicknamed in his youth, plans to quickly get to work with his chainsaw, a symbol he also used in his election campaign, in order to apply neoliberal shock therapy to this economically devastated country with an inflation rate of more than 140% and a debt to the International Monetary Fund of $44 billion (€41.2 billion).

What's next after Javier Milei's victory in Argentina?

Milei wants to adopt the US dollar as a means of payment instead of the Argentine peso, which he described as the "excrement of the political class." He wants to abolish the central bank. And he wants to radically cut public spending and slash the number of ministries in the government, which he has deemed a "criminal organization," from 18 to just eight.

Weary of economic crises

The political outsider, who until two years ago was almost unknown in Argentina, struck a nerve with the 35 million eligible voters and defeated Economy Minister Sergio Massa in 23 of the country's 26 provinces.

There was widespread anger at the ruling Peronist party, which has governed for 16 of the last 20 years and failed to stop the Argentina's economic decline. There was great contempt for the "parasitic and useless caste," a term Milei repeatedly wielded at "those at the top" and the "establishment," beset by corruption scandals. And too great was the sense of hopelessness in a country that until the early 1950s was one of the world's richest per capita, and where today 40% of the population lives in poverty.

Worsening poverty in Argentina

Above all, the runoff vote was a settling of scores and a protest vote. Milei, a former singer in a Rolling Stones cover band, is adored like a pop star, especially among young male voters who know nothing but crisis.

Like former President Jair Bolsonaro in neighboring Brazil, Milei found success due to his social media campaign, which was managed by his sister Karina, a tarot card reader who only two years ago was selling cakes on Instagram. He has relied on increasing polarization in a country where adoration for soccer star Lionel Messi is just about the only point of unity.

Milei plans to roll back social policies

If anything, divisions are likely to grow, as Milei plans to roll back social policies in Argentina by decades. He has called for a strict ban on abortion, called climate change a "socialist lie" and even put forward the idea of allowing access to firearms, which he withdrew shortly before the runoff.

Argentina's future president has also cast doubt on the reported 30,000 people who disappeared during Argentina's military dictatorship.

His running mate, Victoria Villaruel, has repeatedly spoken of a mere 8,751 victims, and has relativized the atrocities by claiming that numerous casualties were also caused by left-wing terrorism. She has said the 17-hectare site of the ESMA Naval School in Buenos Aires, then the country's largest torture center and today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, would be better used to build the schools that Argentina so urgently needs.

Argentina: Military dictatorship memorial ESMA under threat

Few friends abroad or at home

Reactions to Milei's election victory from other South American countries suggest Argentina may also become isolated in terms of foreign policy. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whom Milei denounced as a communist during the election campaign, dutifully offered his congratulations without mentioning his name. Colombia's left-wing president, Gustavo Petro, said the victory of the "extreme right" in Argentina was "sad for Latin America."

There doesn't seem to be any enthusiasm for Milei's election victory within the South American economic alliance Mercosur, which includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. After the vote, it announced that Argentina would "follow its own path." 

Germany, and especially the EU, are also likely to keep a watchful eye on Argentina's development. The free trade agreement between Mercosur and the European Union, which has been planned for decades, would be far from easy with Milei at the helm.

This chainsaw-wielding radical, who even called the pope a "lousy leftist" only to later apologize to his compatriot in Rome, will face quite a few political hurdles in pursuit of his radical agenda. No president since 1983 has had as little support in the Argentine Congress, with less than 20% in the Chamber of Deputies and just over 10% among the senators.

The path ahead of Javier Milei is far from clear, or how he eventually might be remembered in Argentine history. "What's the difference between a genius and a madman?" he recently asked. His own answer was: "Success."

This article was originally written in German.

Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.