Argentina: Leaping Towards The Unknown

Javier Milei’s election win opens a new chapter in Argentina’s political history

By: /
3 January, 2024
The Casa Rosada or Pink House in Buenos Aires - the official office of Argentina's presidents. Image by Herbert Brant/Pixabay The Casa Rosada or Pink House in Buenos Aires - the official office of Argentina's presidents. Image by Herbert Brant/Pixabay
Edmundo González
By: Edmundo González

Many believe that the victory of Javier Milei, with 55.76% of the votes, over the Peronist Sergio Masa, who obtained 44.23% in the last Argentinian presidential elections on November 19, shook the country’s political chessboard. And this is a fact that not only confirms the aspiration for change that had been installed in society but also the frustration of broad sectors that were determined to end a period marked by what they considered failures and an uncontrollable economic inheritance. 

Once again, the extent of Milei’s electoral victory contradicted all the polls that did not anticipate this scenario, which gives the new president a considerable degree of legitimacy. Indeed, Milei received the highest number of votes of any incoming president since the return of democracy in 1983. However, paradoxically, he also has the lowest parliamentary representation, taking  only 34 of 257 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and seven of 72 seats in the Senate. All in all, it is still a remarkable defeat for Peronism. And this is the most critical thing, politically speaking.

Thus, with a difference of more than three million votes, Milei caused what some analysts consider an actual “political tsunami” by winning most of the 24 federal entities, including the capital, Buenos Aires. Even in the province of Buenos Aires, the central electoral bastion of the country (37% of the electoral roll), historically a fiefdom of Peronism, the Kirchnerist candidate opposing Milei, Sergio Massa, only won by a minimal difference of 1%. 

It is worth remembering that Peronism in Argentina is something like a religion. Also called by some “a national sentiment.” Indeed, it has dominated the political scene for several decades. But at the same time, it is a “patchwork quilt” in ideological terms, in which several dissimilar factions or currents converge. Peronists have been the Montoneros (the guerrilla movement of the 1970s), the Triple A (Alianza Anticomunista Argentina, an extreme right-wing parapolice lodge whose founder was José López Rega, a Justicialist leader with the most potent confidence of Juan Domingo Perón and particularly of María Estela Martínez de Perón), the liberalism of Carlos Menem or Kirchnerism, the latter being a conspicuous ideological ally of Chavism in Venezuela. Peronists are also the La Cámpora movement, led by Máximo Kirchner, representing that organization’s left sector.

Milei’s victory is not only seen as the end of 12 years of Kirchnerism in the context of four decades of democracy but also as the result of disenchantment with a political class blurred by corruption and bad practices in government. 

This victory also has effects at the regional level, especially with Brazil, with whose government, during former Argentinian president Alberto Fernández’s time, an “Action Plan for the Relaunching of the Strategic Relationship” was drawn up, covering various sectors while establishing a policy of collaboration in international policy matters. All this was based on the ideological affinities between Lula da Silva, Fernández and Néstor Kirchner, the latter’s predecessor.

In other words, the idea was to strengthen an alliance between two privileged partners aimed at improving Mercosur, supporting Argentina’s entry into the BRICS, establishing a common currency, promoting energy agreements, and specific measures to encourage bilateral trade, among other matters. All of the above aimed not only to provide Argentina with more economic stability but also to strengthen its profile on the international scene. However, these initiatives clashed with Milei’s conception of global policy, especially regarding the role of the State. 

Nevertheless, Brazilian authorities view matters with caution and trust that once in the Casa Rosada or Pink House (Government House), Milei will tone down the rhetoric and resume the institutional channels that have driven the special relationship that both countries have maintained. The presence of Milei’s then-foreign ministerial candidate in Brasilia and the ratification of Daniel Scioli, appointed by the previous administration as Argentine ambassador to Brazil, are seen as steps in that direction.

Still, Milei, who is not a traditional politician, focused his campaign on a combative, provocative, radical discourse often directed at Argentina’s “political caste.” With this anti-party message, he defeated Patricia Bullrich, Mauricio Macri’s candidate (who served as president from 2015-2019), in the first round, and then Sergio Massa, the Peronist candidate. 

His message during the inauguration on December 10 was a crude description of the economic and social reality of the country. There was no allusion to international issues or foreign policy. His speech referred only to the domestic situation with references to Argentina as a “world power” and a “beacon of light of the West,” which was destroyed by politicians, whom he blamed for the current failure of the country.

Indeed, in very harsh terms, he blamed his predecessors and the wastefulness of the political class for “the monetary mess…the social nightmare…the insecurity…the violence…and the miserable real wages” of Argentines who must endure an unprecedented crisis, with “an economy that has not grown since 2011 and that has ruined our lives…generating 45% of poor and 10% of indigents.”

Faced with this dramatic picture, the new Argentine president said there was no alternative but to implement “shock” policies and that, if emergency measures were not taken, “Argentina [would] be in a situation comparable to the Venezuela of Chávez and Maduro.” This was the only allusion to the outside world in his 35-minute speech in which he added that the new social contract that Argentineans had chosen would be based on promoting private property, free competition, and free markets without state intervention.

Milei’s victory certainly brings effects that transcend Argentina and that will impact the region and beyond.  For example, the alliance with Brazil, an important commercial partner with whom a strategic plan had been designed, is cracked, and  to what extent remains to be seen. President Lula’s brief congratulatory message was addressed to the Argentine people without mentioning Milei. Lula did not attend the inauguration either despite the efforts made by the newly elected president to have him there, including the dispatch of the then incoming Foreign Minister, Diana Mondino, to Brasilia with a personal message for Lula. President Milei also broke with Nicolás Maduro, whom he publicly called a dictator and who was not invited to his inauguration. 

The relationship with the Vatican, with whose Pontiff and fellow Argentinian, he frequently criticized appears to be on better terms.  And relations between Buenos Aires and the Beijing regime appear to also be on track now, even though Milei said before the election he would balk at doing any more business with China, Argentina’s second-largest trade partner. However, Milei has suspended Argentina’s entry into the BRICS and officially requested accession to the OECD, a decision by  which the new president seeks to break Argentina’s international isolation. Finally, and despite the relevance of the Argentine-Chilean relationship, it is worth mentioning that this country was not discussed during the campaign. The appointment of the next ambassador in Santiago may give some clues as to the direction this relationship will take.

As for Mercosur, an issue that was the subject of disagreement between the two presidential candidates during the campaign, Milei argued that the bloc needs to be made more flexible, reformulated or even dissolved. He considers Mercosur “a defective customs union that harms Argentines” and is willing to dissolve it. It is worth mentioning, however, that an eventual exit from the block through the denunciation of the Treaty of Asuncion requires the parliament’s approval. Since the new government does not have a parliamentary majority, what would be realistic would be a distancing of its relations with the bloc, in line with the Uruguayan government’s position. 

Even though during the electoral campaign, foreign policy issues did not play a relevant role in the political discussion, some topics stand out in the new Argentine foreign policy agenda: the rapprochement with Israel, closer relations with the United States, the anti-communist discourse, and the pragmatism or “institutional distancing” with which ties with Brazil and China will be handled. Of course, the campaign debates included Mercosur, sovereignty over the Malvinas Islands, and relations with the Holy See. 

In line with his declared anti-communist stance, the new Argentine president is expected to distance himself from diplomatic relations with the countries of the so-called “Bolivarian axis.” Moreover, at a certain point, he expressed his willingness to break off relations with the governments of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Perhaps this is an extreme stance taken in the heat of the electoral moment, although there is no doubt that relations will be distant or formal at best.

Concerning Israel, Milei has made many positive gestures even before taking office, such as meetings held in New York with representatives of the Jewish community, his participation in the recent celebration of Chanukah in Buenos Aires and his abstention vote in the United Nations General Assembly on the resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. Argentina thus joined 23 other countries that abstained on a resolution approved by an overwhelming majority of 153 votes. To this could be added the eventual transfer of the Argentine embassy to Jerusalem and his promise to visit Israel. Finally, and although not yet confirmed, President Milei intends to appoint Axel Wahnish, Orthodox Rabbi of the Moroccan community, a sort of “spiritual guide” as Argentine Ambassador to Israel. 

Looking to the future, Milei will not have it easy: he sits atop a ruined country immersed in a deep economic crisis with annual inflation exceeding 140% , the third highest rate in the world; poverty levels of 40%; international reserves at minimum levels; a debt of $44 billion with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These are some of the data that warn of the terrible economic situation in which the country is immersed and the complicated inheritance that Argentina has become.  

Faced with this reality, the government announced a package of emergency measures that include a 50% reduction in the number of ministries and public positions, a 54% devaluation of the currency, elimination of subsidies to transportation and services, increase in import taxes, elimination of official advertising, and an increase in public transportation fares, among others. But the country’s situation is so delicate that it does not seem to be able to stand anymore. Other governments have tried gradualist solutions, but Milei concluded he had no other alternative, as he stated in his inauguration speech.

The new president will need much political support to sustain his package of economic emergency measures, especially to contain the trade union sector, historically the most combative. In addition, he will have to deal with an adverse Congress. Its parliamentary political makeup is the most fragile since the restoration of democracy in 1983 and  the radical measures, such as those mentioned above, require legislative approval. 

Historically, the trade union world is a critical factor in the country’s politics and has already announced its opposition to the measures, which is why some predict confrontations between the government and this sector. Nevertheless, it is not foreseeable that the new government will introduce abrupt changes in this matter in the short term.

On the other hand, it will need financial support from international organizations such as the IMF, the World Bank and others. Decisions in which it will not have the support of its main trading partners, Brazil and China.

In sum, confirming the definitive course of the new Argentine ruler’s foreign policy is still premature. Beyond his first signs of alignment with the United States and Israel and certain attempts at pragmatism in the relationship with Brazil, it will be necessary to await the course of the government’s actions in this new foreign policy agenda.

How will relations with the People’s Republic of China, Argentina’s second-largest trading partner, be handled? What will be the country’s position regarding the environmental agenda and climate change? What priority will be given to the Malvinas issue? These are some of the problems that require definition. A few days ago, President Milei also announced his decision not to designate Ambassadors to Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua of the harsh criticism towards those countries he maintained during the electoral campaign.

Besides putting the country on the path to economic recovery, and in the words of Diana Mondino, the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, the orientations and objectives of Argentina’s  foreign policy will be to work for the country’s insertion into the world to also recover the country’s relevance in the global agenda. Time will tell if Milei’s leap into the unknown is on the right track.

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