The radical libertarian Javier Milei seizes victory in the presidential election in Argentina

Javier Milei, a radical libertarian economist and first-term congressman, has won a decisive victory in Argentina’s presidential election, promising “drastic” changes to the country’s economic strategy amid its worst crisis in two decades.

Milei won 55.8 percent of the vote against 44.2 percent for Economy Minister Sergio Massa of the center-left Peronist government, with over 99 percent of the vote counted.

“Today is the end of Argentina’s decline,” Milei told a crowd of supporters at the Libertador Hotel in Buenos Aires on Sunday. “Today is the end of the model of an omnipresent state that impoverishes Argentines.”

He promised rapid reforms of the country’s fragile economy. “I want you to understand that Argentina is in a critical situation. The changes our country needs are drastic. There is no room for gradualism.”

Massa announced that he had called Milei to concede before the official results were announced, adding that he had promised to maintain “Argentina’s economic, social, political and institutional functioning” ahead of Milei’s inauguration on 10 December.

Milei’s campaign centered on a promise to take a “chainsaw” to the state — cutting spending by up to 15 percent of gross domestic product — and to dollarize the economy to stamp out inflation. Argentina’s annual price increases hit 142.7 percent in October.

After the results were announced, thousands of Milei’s supporters filled the area around Buenos Aires’ iconic Obelisk monument.

“I’ve been waiting for this all my life: no more Peronists, no more theft, no more lies,” said Leonardo Estarone, a 57-year-old physical therapist who was beating a drum in the street. “My children will get to live in a free country.”

A self-described “anarcho-capitalist,” Milei stirred controversy throughout the campaign, voicing support for ideas such as legalizing the sale of human organs and eliminating all gun laws.

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He also referred to China, Argentina’s biggest trading partner, as “murderous”, Argentine Pope Francis as “a dirty leftist” and climate change as “a socialist hoax”.

However, Milei walked back several of those statements in a bid to win over centrist voters in the weeks following October’s first-round vote, where he came second to Massa. Milei was helped by endorsements from former president Mauricio Macri and Patricia Bullrich, the candidate of the center-right coalition Juntos por el Cambio (JxC), who was eliminated in the first round with 24 percent of the vote.

Former US President Donald Trump – to whom Milei has often been compared – congratulated the libertarian outsider. “I’m very proud of you,” Trump in a post on his Truth Social platform. “You will turn your country around and really make Argentina great again!”

Sergio Massa
Argentina’s Economy Minister Sergio Massa waves to supporters after conceding defeat on Sunday © Gustavo Garello/AP

The victory for Milei, a former television commentator who became famous for railing against economic mismanagement and corruption among Argentina’s ruling elite, is a rebuke to Massa’s Peronist movement, which has dominated politics since the country returned to democracy in 1983.

Over the past two decades, leftist Peronist governments have doubled the size of the public sector and introduced expensive subsidies and tight regulation across the economy.

The Peronist model has come under unprecedented pressure this year amid rising inflation. Massa has resorted to money printing to fund spending and tightened strict trade and currency restrictions to protect scarce foreign reserves.

Milei’s critics had argued that he and his running mate – Victoria Villarruel, a longtime defender of Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship – posed a threat to democracy. Milei, who has no leadership experience, also faces questions about his ability to realize his agenda, analysts said.

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Ana Iparraguirre, an Argentine political analyst and partner at the Washington-based strategy firm GBAO, noted that Milei won more votes than any presidential candidate since 1983, albeit in a runoff. “That result gives Milei a strong degree of legitimacy, but he has a huge institutional weakness,” she said. “He will have to anchor his reforms in popular support.”

Mile’s La Libertad Avanza (LLA) coalition, founded in 2021, will hold only eight of 72 seats in Argentina’s Senate and fewer than 40 of the 257 in the lower house. It has no governors in any of Argentina’s 23 provinces.

While Macri has said the JxC coalition will support the LLA on “reasonable” reforms, other leaders in the coalition remain fierce critics of Milei.

Most economists in Argentina say Milei’s flagship plan to replace the peso with the US dollar is unfeasible in the short term, as Argentina has almost no dollars in its central bank and no access to international credit.

The official exchange rate is set at just over 350 pesos to the dollar, but the black market rate is as high as 900 pesos. The gap, which has widened dramatically as the parallel rate has fallen in recent months, has caused widespread price distortion.

Fernando Marull, director of Buenos Aires-based financial consultancy FMyA, said Massa would likely try to avoid an official devaluation before leaving office, while Milei’s victory would put further pressure on the black market rate.

“However, for government bonds and stocks, Milei’s victory will be positive despite the questions about governance and his plans,” he said. “This puts an end to this idea that Argentina never changes – Argentina just voted for a big change.”

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