Far-right victory in Argentina

1 December 2023
Tom Sullivan

The turbulent political winds of Latin America blew to the far right in Argentina’s November presidential election. Javier Milei, a self-styled “anarcho-capitalist”, won 56 percent of the vote, while his opponent Sergio Massa, economy minister in the Peronist centre-left ruling coalition, secured only 44 percent.

Milei is the latest example of Trump-style far-right populism on the continent. A former TV personality who rose to prominence online, he supports a range of socially reactionary policies, including opposing trans rights and sex education, and extreme libertarian views: for instance, he only recently dropped a policy to legalise the sale of human organs. Former president of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro congratulated Milei on his victory, and Trump has announced he will soon travel to Brazil so the two can meet.

The current Peronist president, Alberto Fernández, did not run for re-election due to his unpopularity, but the party stood arguably its next least popular figure. Massa has overseen a failing economy: the inflation rate is 143 percent, and large sections of the population are impoverished.

The election process was anything but predictable. The primary election took place in August (when candidates must first qualify for the general election), and Milei, a relative newcomer to Argentinian politics, won a surprising 30 percent of the vote. Massa finished third on 28 percent, behind the traditional centre-right coalition.

However, the Peronist machine mobilised its substantial apparatus of bureaucrats and officials to run an anti-Milei scare campaign in the first round of the general election in October. They flipped the scoreboard: Massa won 37 percent and Milei trailed behind on 30 percent.

There was a widespread feeling of relief from people who feared Milei’s social conservatism, threats to massively slash social security and denial of the former dictatorship’s genocidal acts, and his plan to abolish the central bank and replace the peso with the US dollar.

To shore up support between the first and second round, Massa eliminated income tax for almost the entire formal workforce and offered welfare payouts to informal workers that would be funded by taxes on banks and other major companies.

Consequently, it seemed likely that an Argentinian-style Bolsonaro would be blocked from the presidency. It came as a big surprise on election night when the polls showed the exact opposite.

Milei was backed by the Argentinian elite, who might be concerned about his maverick persona and pledge to dollarise the economy but prefer him to the Peronists, who retain links to the trade union movement. The traditional right also supported Milei when it became a two-horse race between him and Massa—he was endorsed by the right’s presidential candidate as well as Mauricio Macri, their most recent president.

His main appeal to Argentinian and international capitalists is his promise to implement the scale of austerity the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has demanded of Argentina for decades, as well as sweeping privatisation of state-owned industries. Both the Peronists and the centre-right have taken on huge IMF debts in exchange for austerity; Milei claims he will cut even harder (he famously wielded a chainsaw during the campaign as a sign of the cuts he would make). Upon victory, he said, “There is no place for gradualism, there is no place for tepidness, there is no place for half measures”.

In the lead-up to the election, the Peronists warned of imminent economic collapse if Milei won the presidency. Yet the stock market rallied in the days following his victory. And despite his anti-establishment rhetoric, he has met with Macri to discuss a governing coalition and indicated he will nominate establishment figures to key ministries. This seems to have calmed the elites’ nerves.

But Milei will find it difficult to implement much of his agenda. His party, formed only in 2021, controls just seven seats out of 72 in the Senate and 38 out of 257 in the lower Chamber of Deputies. The Peronists will remain the largest minority bloc in both chambers. And despite Milei’s support for IMF austerity, Argentina is largely blocked from borrowing on international capital markets and is already running low on foreign currency reserves to repay its debts.

It’s likely that there will be serious confrontations between the new president and Argentinian capital on one side, and the workers’ movement and the left on the other. In recent years, Argentina has witnessed immense social and economic struggles, including the successful fight for abortion rights and numerous strikes. Argentina remains one of the few countries where the working class was not defeated by the neoliberal onslaught; it is still strongly unionised and home to a large and militant left.

Fortunately, the socialist left made gains in the election. The Workers’ Left Front-Unity, an electoral coalition of four revolutionary Trotskyist parties, secured a fifth congressional seat. The coalition won 4 percent of the national vote, which rose to 5-8 percent in the capital city of Buenos Aires and in provinces like Jujuy and Chubut that have been the site of major popular struggles.

Cele Fierro, a member of the Socialist Workers’ Movement within the coalition who will soon assume a seat in the Buenos Aires Congress, told Red Flag: “The triumph of Milei is the result of the disaster of the Peronist government, which co-governed with the IMF ... and that gave all benefits to the corporations. This situation led to great discontent and caused a section of the population to vote for a force of the far right”.

Fierro says it’s unclear just how far Milei is willing to go with his far-right platform, given that he has already started to moderate some of his attacks on public health and education. However, she said, “It’s clear he has an orientation that the ruling class needs, which is to put an end to gradualist policies and implement structural changes that include a blow to the working class”.

“All of our followers have to be ready with greater organisation and struggle to confront these policies”, said Fierro. “We need to be building a political alternative on the left. The debate cannot always be whether to support the ‘lesser evil’.”

It’s unclear how these different tensions will play out, but there is no doubt that Milei will try make workers and the poor pay for the crisis of Argentinian capitalism. His ability to do so will ultimately depend on the strength of the workers’ movement and its leadership.

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