Argentina elects ‘shock therapy’ libertarian Javier Milei as president

BUENOS AIRES – Argentina on Sunday elected libertarian outsider Javier Milei as its new president, betting on an outsider with radical views to fix an economy battered by triple-digit inflation, a looming recession and growing poverty.

The official results have not been published, but his rival, Peronist Economy Minister Sergio Massa, acknowledged them in a speech.

His candidacy was hampered by the country’s worst economic crisis in two decades while he was in charge.

Milei promises economic shock therapy.

His plans include closing the central bank, ditching the peso and cutting spending, potentially painful reforms that resonated with voters angry about the economic malaise but sparked fears of austerity in others.

“Milei is the new thing, it’s a little unknown and it’s a little scary, but it’s time to turn the page,” said Cristian, 31, a restaurant worker, while voting Sunday.

But Milei’s challenges are enormous.

It will have to deal with empty government and central bank coffers, a $44 billion debt program with the International Monetary Fund, inflation approaching 150% and a dizzying array of capital controls.

Argentina elected libertarian outsider Javier Milei as its next president on November 19, 2023. AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

As many Argentines were not completely convinced by either candidate, some had characterized the vote as a “lesser evil” election: fear of Milei’s painful economic medicine versus anger at Massa and his Peronist party over an economic crisis that has left Argentina deeply in debt. and unable to access global credit markets.

Milei has been particularly popular among young people, who grew up watching their country lurch from one crisis to another.

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“Our generation is putting pressure on the Milei presidency so that our country stops being a pariah,” said Agustina Lista, 22, a student in Buenos Aires.

Argentina’s Economy Minister Sergio Massa greets his supporters after conceding the election. AP Photo/Gustavo Garello

Milei’s victory shakes Argentina’s political landscape and economic roadmap and could impact trade in grains, lithium and hydrocarbons. Milei has criticized China and Brazil, saying she will not deal with “communists” and favors stronger ties with the United States.

The surprising rise of the 53-year-old economist and former television commentator has been the story of the elections, which broke the hegemony of the two main political forces on the left and right: the Peronists and the main conservative bloc of Together for Change.

“The election marks a profound rupture in the system of political representation in Argentina,” Julio Burdman, director of the consultancy Observatorio Electoral, said before the vote.

Milei’s followers gathered in front of his campaign headquarters in Buenos Aires. AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

Supporters of Massa, 51, an experienced political negotiator, had tried to appeal to voters’ fears about Milei’s volatile character and his “chainsaw” plan to reduce the size of the state.

“Milei’s policies scare me,” teacher Susana Martínez, 42, said Sunday after voting for Massa.

Milei is also staunchly against abortion, favors looser gun laws, and has called Argentine socialist Pope Francis a “son of a bitch.” She used to carry a chainsaw as a symbol of the cuts she planned, but she put it aside in recent weeks to help improve her moderate image.

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After the first round in October, Milei forged an uneasy alliance with the conservatives, increasing his support.

Milei supporters celebrating after the election results were announced. Photo by EMILIANO LASALVIA/AFP via Getty Images

But he faces a highly fragmented Congress, with no bloc holding a majority, meaning he will need the support of other factions to push legislation forward.

Milei’s coalition also has no regional governors or mayors.

That may moderate some of his more radical proposals. Long-suffering voters are likely to have little patience, and the threat of social unrest is never far below the surface.

His supporters say only he can uproot the political status quo and economic malaise that has plagued South America’s second-largest economy for years.

“Milei is the only viable option to avoid ending up in misery,” said Santiago Neria, a 34-year-old accountant.

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