Radical libertarian Javier Milei elected president of Argentina

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Javier Milei, a radical libertarian economist and first-term congressman, has secured a decisive victory in Argentina’s presidential election, defeating economy minister Sergio Massa and pulling the country’s politics far to the right amid its worst crisis in two decades.

Milei won 55.8 per cent of the vote against Massa’s 44.2 per cent, with 93.4 per cent of ballots counted, according to the electoral commission. Pollsters had expected a very closely fought election.

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

Reforms to the country’s fragile economy would be swift, he added. “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.”

Before the official results were published, Massa, who hails from the moderate wing of the ruling, left-leaning populist Peronist movement, announced that he had called Milei to concede.

He added that the two had spoken and agreed on a transition that would take place ahead of Milei’s December 10 inauguration to ensure that “no one has any doubts about the . . . economic, social, political and institutional functioning of Argentina”.

Milei’s campaign centred on a pledge to take a “chainsaw” to the state — slashing spending by up to 15 per cent of gross domestic product — and to dollarise the economy to stamp out inflation. Argentina’s annual price rises hit 142.7 per cent in October.

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

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

However, Milei walked back several of those statements in an effort to win over centrist voters in the weeks following October’s first-round vote. He was aided by endorsements from former president Mauricio Macri and Patricia Bullrich, the candidate for centre-right coalition Juntos por el Cambio (JxC), who was eliminated in the first round with 24 per cent of the vote.

Former US president Donald Trump — to whom Milei has frequently drawn comparisons — congratulated the libertarian outsider in a post on his Truth Social platform on Sunday night. “I am very proud of you,” Trump said. “You will turn your Country around and truly Make Argentina Great Again!”

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

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

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

Inflation has put unprecedented pressure on the Peronists’ model this year. Massa has resorted to money-printing to finance spending and tightened strict trade and exchange restrictions to protect scarce foreign currency 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 executive experience, also faces major questions about his ability to govern and realise his agenda, analysts said.

His La Libertad Avanza (LLA) coalition, founded in 2021, will hold just 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 LLA in “reasonable” reforms, other leaders in the coalition remain harsh critics of Milei.

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

Argentina’s official exchange rate is fixed at just over 350 pesos to the dollar, even though black-market dollar traders charge 900 pesos. The gap, which has widened dramatically as the parallel exchange rate has plunged in recent months, has caused widespread distortion of prices in Argentina’s economy.

Fernando Marull, director of Buenos Aires-based economics consultancy FMyA said Massa was likely to try to avoid an official devaluation before leaving office, while the pro-dollarisation candidate’s win would put further pressure on the black-market exchange rate.

“But for sovereign bonds and stocks, Milei’s win will be positive, despite the questions about governability and his plans,” he said. “This puts an end to this idea that Argentina never changes — Argentina has just voted for a big change.”

This post was originally published on Financial Times

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