Milei’s Populism in Argentina: Mirage of Hope in the Desert of Uncertainty
A disgruntled liberal democratic society can produce a surge in populism as people are desperate for a quick alternative in midst of growing uncertainties. Sergio Massa of Argentina is a notable example of how populism can find its place within a democratic society. The way Massa denounces the national establishment and to certain extent globalization itself is a key to understand the success of contemporary populism.
Around the early 21st century, liberal democratic system has been considered by some as the most preferable and ideal political system. The strength of such an argument lies in the fact that liberal democratic values have always emphasized on the importance of personal freedom, public participation in politics, and the rule of law. And yet despite having those qualities, dissatisfaction toward the system persisted in democratic countries which later on gave birth to populist figures among democratic countries. The populists, believing that liberal system caused multiple setbacks in their country, have tendencies to deliver more radical changes within the government to the point where the main core of liberal values itself came under scrutiny (Fukuyama, viii). This phenomenon of populism, despite its multiple authoritarian consequences, has always found its audience among the masses, regardless of whether they are leftists or rightists. To understand this, we will also take a closer look at Argentina’s election and how a populist named Javier Milei successfully gained a huge amount of public support through democratic mechanisms.
If some random person heard the term “populism” for the first time, I believe that many might have perceived the idea as a positive thing because of the way it described itself as a way to serve the population or the masses. Indeed just like how the term “populism” managed to wrap itself as for a common good, one could see how language got turned into a key for the benefits of populists. One of the main themes used by populist politicians was on how they were able to use the banner of “the people” throughout their political campaigns (Morelock & Narita, 137). But if practically all politicians constantly describe themselves as servants to the people, what is the difference between populists from other mainstream alternatives and why do people keep voting for radical game-changers rather than some more predictable and moderate leaders?
To answer that question we need to look into Argentina. First of all, Argentina is not an ordinary backwater republic, it is the eighth largest country in the world with more than forty million people residing within its territory, and has always been one of the most important countries in South America. With this fact in mind, it is without any doubt that Argentina currently holds an influential presence for the region, so much so that even BRICS shares a great interest to invite the country into the economic bloc. Despite such advantages, Argentina is not a country of milk and honey. Argentina throughout its history is no stranger to economic debacles which often caused the country to fall into deep recession. Currently, the nation’s economy currently experiences some of the worst economic debacles with a staggering 124 percent of inflation rate, 20 percent of currency depreciation, and a staggering 40 percent of the population fell below the poverty line (Reuters). From this chaotic background, we are introduced to one of the presidential candidates, Javier Milei, a right wing ultra-conservative.
Why Javier Milei? Firstly, Milei is relatively new to politics and used to be an underdog but managed to climb to prominence due to his unique political communication. It is absolutely clear by now that basically all Argentinian citizens feel anxious about their economic well being and some may be furious toward the incumbent government. All candidates know about how unpopular the status quo is, and try to offer alternatives to appease the masses through their own methods. Despite the common mission to take disgruntled voters out of crisis, Milei and his Libertarian Party manage to take the campaign way further than others. If a person says that politics should have been filled with honor and respect, Milei believes that using a chainsaw is a better tool than a microphone in front of the masses. Also to Milei’s advantage, his campaign targets the younger generation through social media and hardly uses any billboard (BBC).
However, the rapid growth of Milei’s popularity does not rely only on a creative campaign team, Milei also uses some of the harshest words to describe his opponents and the current system. One of the most major themes of his narratives involves how he believes that incumbent politicians are looters and thieves of Argentina. In addition to that, he also tells the masses that the status quo system in their country as fraudulent and is used by many to steal money from Argentinians. Other than his bold arguments, he also promises multiple radical promises such as reducing state powers, dolarising the economy, and even to shutter the central bank. In foreign affairs, Milei takes an even more radical stance, he criticizes Brazil and the US previous elections as shams, believes that China kills Argentina’s economy, and denounces Pope Francis as “leftist”(New York Times). And yet despite his radical views, a significant portion of Argentinian still holds great faith in him as the bringer of change and many do not even mind his controversial comments as a source of concern.
From here, some of us may assume that Milei’s supporters are reckless because of the way they straight forward ignore the risks of electing a leader who wants to alter the country’s system. However, contrary to such opinion, voters have always been rational regardless of their choices, and as in the Argentinian case they always take a great amount of concern on economic security. So from here to understand populism one should not look into the voters “irrationality”, but rather on the reason why they believe in their preferences. And here is where populism plays its part. Populism does not rely on clear policies, it only needs to rely on harnessing the discontent in a state. What any populist politicians including Milei have been doing can be seen as an attempt to give a perception that their voters can regain power in their country, whether it is to regain prosperity or even national pride. This hope of redistributing power creates the assumption that if Argentinians support Milei, they would be participating in a revolt against the evil members of the elite. From here one should understand that populists are able to mobilize the disenfranchised voters in a more radical way compared to the more moderate politicians.
If that is the case, what is the correlation between populism and international relations? Just like how the Milei shared multiple scepticisms on the system, populists have tendencies to ride on disgruntlement and fear among the society to start the blame-game against others. The most general scapegoat used here is surprisingly not the “domestic traitors”, but rather the globalization itself. Why globalization? First, no one possessed control of its flow, no matter how powerful a country is, and thus causing some degree of anxiety among the populace. Second, globalization moves at a rapid pace that many people wishing for an old time of a relatively more fixated society may find themselves lost. Third, globalization alters certain old identities to the point that some may be afraid that their identity may disappear in the near future. And fourth, populists are able to frame economic downturn as consequences of globalization, whether it is because of international trade, outsourcing of industries, or even a liberal immigration policy (Cox, 14). Populists like Milei have been known to prioritize sovereignty above all else even though such measures may inhibit the nation’s relationship with others. In this way, Milei managed to build its image on preserving the nation’s sovereignty against foreign intruders and so called “corruption”.
By the time of this Gazette being written, Milei won 55 percent of the national vote, beating his rival Sergio Massa in a runoff election. With this victory, it is without any doubt that Argentina will enter a new era of politics. For now, it remains a mystery on whether or not Milei’s radical narratives throughout his campaigns will be fully implemented throughout his presidency. Regardless of how Argentina will transform itself, the tale of Milei’s unlikely victory shows that a democratic system can be turned into a breeding ground for radical, unconventional, and eccentric populist ideas. As for Argentina’s foreign policy, Buenos Aires will more likely take a more protectionist stance for its international relations due to Milei’s general skepticism towards globalization. So will Argentina’s populism alter the geopolitical pattern in Latin American countries? Only time can tell the depth of Milei’s impact crater in regional politics with all hands crossed on his administration’s maneuver and overall stability of Argentina itself.
Timothy Sandro Yusuf is a member of Research and Development of ISAFIS and currently studying at International Relations major of Universitas Indonesia. While studying global politics, he also takes a deeper look into the interests of great powers toward developing countries, especially Argentina. For more discussions, please contact him through firstname.lastname@example.org
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Fukuyama, F. (2022). Liberalism and Its Discontent. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Morelock, J.& Narita, F. Z. (2018). CHAPTER 7 Public Sphere and World-System: Theorizing Populism at the Margins. In J. Morelock (Ed.) Critical Theory and Authoritarian Populism (pp. 135-154) . University of Westminster Press.
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