Argentina’s Crossroads Election Reminds Us to Never Underestimate the Far Right

Argentina goes to the polls today to decide between the centrist candidate Sergio Massa and far-right libertarian Javier Milei. The stakes could not be higher.

The far-right Argentine presidential candidate Javier Milei threatens to take a chainsaw to the state budget during a rally on September 25, 2023, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Tomas Cuesta / Getty Images)

Argentines and the world were shocked when far-right libertarian Javier Milei swept the August 13 primary elections, seemingly guaranteeing victory in the general election taking place on Sunday, October 22. However, in a further twist, the candidate for the governing Peronist coalition, Sergio Massa, ended up squeaking out a narrow victory over Milei, setting up a nail-biter runoff election on Sunday, November 19.

Massa’s win in the general election may have tempered some of the more pessimistic forecasts of a far-right takeover in Argentina; however, the fact remains that a free-market paleolibertarian is still a narrow favorite in most polling. There needs to be, in other words, a more honest reflection on the rise of the far right in a society long regarded as inoculated against just this kind of reactionary turn.

Historically, the Argentine far right has been excluded from the halls of power. Until months ago, Milei’s Avanza Libertad (Freedom Advances) was a virtually nonexistent political force with no party structure, provincial candidates, senators, or governors. Pointedly, Argentina’s electoral system was designed to prevent the entry of just these kinds of outsider forces.

Thus, the Argentine political class underestimated the tectonic shifts taking place in society and failed to track their political repercussions. Understanding the eruption of a vigorous far right amid Argentina’s social democratic consensus requires going below the surface.

Upon deeper inspection, Milei’s ascent is clearly related to what is truly the bellwether event of this political juncture: the once-in-a-lifetime crisis of Peronism, the big-tent, populist formation around which the Argentine political system has been orbiting since 1945.

Some will argue that Peronism was resuscitated with Massa’s victory; others will claim that only a candidate as bizarre as Milei — whose mental health has come into question in recent weeks — could give the wildly unpopular minister of economy a fighting chance, thus undercutting the idea of a far-right threat. The truth, however, is that both phenomena — Peronist collapse and the rise of the far right — are very real and deeply interrelated.

An Earthquake Hits Peronism

The Peronists are unlike any other political party. Peronism’s presence in all spheres and levels of social life, its proximity to state structures, its on-the-ground influence through party militants and patronage networks, and its close link with labor and social movements make it a political force whose resiliency invites few modern-day comparisons.

Between 1946 and 1983, Peronism never lost a competitive election (it was, however, banned for decades). In presidential elections, its electoral floor always hovered around 40 percent of the vote. Peronism’s worst result was in 2015, when it reached 38 percent — and that was because a competing Peronist candidate won 14 percent.

By contrast, on August 13, Peronism went to the polls completely unified and saw its vote share reduced to 27 percent. Now, for the first time, Peronism is on the verge of losing its majority in the Senate and is ceding control of governorships in provinces historically considered Peronist strongholds (Santa Cruz, San Juan, and Chaco are notable examples).

Since the restoration of democratic rule, Argentina has been rocked by several major capitalist crises (in 1989, 2001, and 2019). Each time, Peronism emerged as the “party of order,” the one force capable of providing the social ballast to keep the state from collapsing and restore governability. In that same sense, the current crisis of Peronism is very much a crisis of the Argentine state itself.

However, the tremors of the current political earthquake have been felt beyond the Peronist camp. Amid massive discontent with the incumbent Peronist government, the traditional right wing had until recently considered itself the heir apparent to the Casa Rosada. Now, with the appearance of Milei, the conservative coalition Juntos for el Cambio (Together for Change) is staring down the possibility of its own collapse.

Patricia Bullrich emerged as the winner of the Juntos primary. Were it not for the appearance of Milei, it would have been Bullrich — the most openly reactionary Juntos candidate — who would have attracted all the attention: for the first time since Argentina’s democratic restoration, a mainstream party was putting forward an openly ultra-right-wing candidate to compete in the general election.

Nevertheless, Juntos por el Cambio has experienced an electoral setback even worse than in 2019, when former president and Juntos leader Mauricio Macri was roundly denied a second term. The traditional Argentine right wing, once confident of returning to power, is now closer to extinction after losing the general election to Milei by a substantial margin.

The Economy and Its Discontents

As the Argentine economy continues to stagnate and inflation hovers at around 140 percent, the rise of the extreme right raises the possibility of the kind of neoliberal shock therapy that the social opposition has kept at bay. What is at stake, in the figure of Milei, is an attempt to smash the resistance that has kept Argentina from backsliding into the austerity politics of earlier decades; in other words, Argentina is facing what Antonio Gramsci called “an organic crisis” of the state, in which a political and social stalemate is overcome by economic and extra-economic force.

One explanation of the Argentine situation stands above all others: the long stagnation of Argentine capitalism beginning in 2011, which saw a recession become an open crisis in 2018. Through inflation, the purchasing power of wages in Argentina experienced a 25 percent decrease between December 2017 and 2023 — a reduction that was even more dramatic for informal workers. Although the most critical decline was recorded in 2018, during the Macri government, the downward trend continued under Peronism and saw the gap between formal and informal workers widen even further (a difference that became more pronounced with the pandemic).

During that period, Argentina saw a loss of formal private employment and an increase in informal employment. In other words, informal workers saw their purchasing power decline while, at the same time, they comprised a larger share of the overall labor force. This new labor landscape has been especially devastating for Peronism, which has overseen a growing crisis while also hurting its own social base through successive austerity measures. The ongoing deterioration of the working class under the country’s two main political coalitions laid the foundations for growing social unrest that finally turned into a general crisis of legitimacy — in the form of Milei.

While devastating, the current economic crisis is anything but unexpected. In fact, it is part of a history of recurring cycles. Argentina’s constant political and economic instability is caused by, among other things, the relative strength of its working class. The strength of organized labor in Argentina has acted as a breakwater against a far-reaching capitalist restructuring that would depress wages and resolve the country’s macroeconomic imbalances.

Argentina’s economic turmoil is also related to the transformations in global production in recent decades. The country’s tendency towards economic and social decline began almost half a century ago with the crisis of the Peronist welfare state. That crisis took place against the backdrop of the internationalization of production and the crisis of postwar national development models.

Since then, Argentine society has experienced historic leaps in poverty and inequality indexes. The country went from a 4 percent poverty rate in the 1970s to 40 percent in recent years, showing a trend of almost uninterrupted social regression with few parallels in the world. Although there would be precipitous drops followed by partial recoveries, at critical junctures the decline in standards of living was answered by massive social upheaval.

The Peronist-affiliated movement of Kirchnerism, named after Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, emerged in 2003 as a political response to the economic crisis and subsequent social uprising of 2001. One of the defining features of the present situation is the dismantling of the very formation that emerged to manage the successive crises of the last two decades. Although the political crisis is most acutely affecting Kirchnerism, it is spreading to the broader umbrella of Peronism, with effects that are only just coming into view.

Critically, for the first time in its history, Peronism is tasked with dealing with the country’s crisis from a position of power. That seemingly minor detail is of inestimable importance: the extreme right cannot thrive unless a rupture between the popular classes and their traditional political representation has already taken place. Out of power and commanding the loyalty of large parts of the working class, Peronism has historically played a stabilizing role in mitigating the country’s recurrent tendency towards crises; the current political crisis within and without Peronism, which sees the populist formation in power but adrift from its base, is opening the door to a political crisis of greater magnitude.

A Popular Right-Wing Ideology

Early interpretations of Milei’s electoral success focused on the idea of a “protest vote”: that voters were rejecting the two establishment parties based on their chronic inability to tame inflation and revert stagnation. This does indeed explain part of the “Milei phenomenon”; a substantial electorate has expressed a “fluid” unrest and found in Milei the most effective instrument to make its discontent known.

However, the protest vote is not enough to explain the “Milei phenomenon.” First, the specific forms in which social unrest expresses itself are never completely innocuous. Milei’s fluctuating and heterogeneous electoral base should not obscure the consolidation of a popular right-wing ideology — an ideology that Milei has strengthened by bringing in social sectors ordinarily beyond the reach of the traditional right (some of them ordinarily the constituency of the Kirchnerist center left).

Moreover, the “liquid state” of Milei’s electorate is being shaped by a political process that is very much in motion, as his rise generates retroactive effects on his base. As Ernesto Laclau used to say, the “representative fulfills an active function” over the represented: political leaders are not just the result of public opinion and social relations but also shape and influence them.

But what does Milei represent? Milei’s rise poses some interesting parallels with the global populist reactionary movement while also revealing some important Argentine differences. Crucially, the windmills that he is tilting at are distinct from those of reactionary nationalists in Europe and abroad.

It’s true, on the one hand, that the incumbent Peronist government maintained the orthodox austerity measures of the previous Macri government, while it’s also the case that President Alberto Fernández adopted a socially progressive approach to issues like the legalization of abortion, the promotion of inclusive language, the implementation of job quotas for trans people, among others. In other words, the governing coalition’s apparent “neoliberal progressivism” could have made it the object of the same kind of nativist ire that has taken hold in Europe.

Peronism’s main difference with European social democracy is ideological: paradoxically, Peronism has embraced austerity in the name of the struggle against austerity. This is what Argentine sociologist Pablo Semán means when he refers to Peronism’s “mimicry of the state”: the incumbent government has branded itself a strong interventionist state, but only as an ideological cover for the progressive stagnation of state benefits, papered over by weak “income redistribution” measures and ineffective campaigns for “social justice.”

Thus, the current right-wing backlash in Argentina has taken a stridently anti-statist tone lacking in figures like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and Giogia Meloni. While the latter were at least verbal critics of neoliberal globalism, Javier Milei is a flamboyant anarcho-capitalist who dreams of the complete elimination of the state. The deterioration of living conditions under a government that sells itself as progressive and redistributive has created a space for anti-statist politics to find a new base, crucially among those who depend significantly on state subsidies.

Combining a rhetoric of redistribution with harsh austerity measures has sown confusion among the Argentine working class. On the one hand, it has led them to forget the source of financial orthodoxy in the Macri years. On the other, it is breeding disenchantment with the values themselves — now seen as hollow or corrupt — normally associated with the Argentine social state: progressive income redistribution, the active role of the state in industry, human rights, and social mobilization.

Milei garnered support across all social classes and age groups. Studies indicate that approximately one-third of his voters are avowedly ultraright; another third are classic free-market-oriented voters, while the remaining third come from the popular sector. It is, in other words, undeniable that there is an electoral base for the extreme right; it is equally true that this base remains fluid and unstable.

This fluid and mostly popular constituency has been the source of some misguided optimism. Resigning themselves to an eventual Milei government, many argue that it is a matter of time before Milei starts to hemorrhage that electoral base as he fails to deliver economic stability. But many things — a stabilization plan, the demoralization of the more combative popular sectors, and the political disaffection of the working class — could lead to an opposite situation closer to what happened with Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. The former captain lost the 2022 elections in a very close second round but managed to consolidate his own base at the cost of Brazil’s traditional parties.

Worse still, this mindset, which argues that a Milei government will lack political support and crumble under the pressure of popular mobilization, has led certain fractions of the Left to cast a “scratch” or “voto en blanco” in the past. It would be a grave mistake to lodge a protest vote in the current circumstances.

The Bizzaro Right Must Be Taken Seriously

Some of Milei’s more outlandish proposals create a sense of disbelief and even denial: his call to allow the unregulated sale of human organs, to create a market for the buying and selling of minors, to privatize all the country’s streets, etc. Naturally, no one thinks these measures can be implemented. Even his bread-and-butter proposals, like the abandonment of the Argentine peso in favor of the US dollar, are hardly feasible.

But the extravagant proposals paper over another package of measures that are very real. These more closely resemble the policies of ultraliberal finance minister Paulo Guedes in Bolsonaro’s government: fiscal austerity led by the privatization or closure of public companies, the dismissal of state workers, and a large-scale attack on public education and health, among others. Moreover, the extreme right will clearly want to go on the offensive against gender equality and LGTBQ rights (by criminalizing abortion, eliminating sex education, implementing a trans quota, etc.) in a manner similar to Bolsonaro in power.

Such a shock policy will require an authoritarian hardening of state structures: the judicial persecution of social leaders, an endorsement of police violence, unregulated access to and carrying of weapons, the revitalization of the reviled armed forces, an attempt to weaken the influence of trade unions in the workplace and, above all, the fight to undermine the strength of Argentina’s social movements in poorer neighborhoods. In short, if these measures were to be successfully implemented, it would mean a strategic defeat for the working class.

It will also require some durable social base, which, again, some sectors of the Left have put in question. Here, though, it is critical to understand that Milei’s rise is taking place amid an economic crisis that brooks no comparison with those of other countries where the far right came to power. A catastrophic economic crisis can provide the excuse for drastic measures, as history has shown: Argentina’s hyperinflationary spiral of 1989–1991 allowed Carlos Menem to take office with a blank check to restore order by any means necessary. What followed was the fire sale of all the country’s state assets and one of the most savage neoliberal restructurings on historical record. As Perry Anderson once said about such stabilization plans in Latin America, “There is a functional equivalent to the trauma of the military dictatorship, inducing a people through democratic and non-coercive means to accept the most drastic neoliberal policies: hyperinflation.”

The extreme fragility of the Argentine economic situation puts Milei’s rise in a different category from the global wave of ultraright governments. A more fitting parallel would be Peru in the 1980s. There, after a similar decade of stagnation, a hyperinflationary peak arrived in the late 1980s. It was in that context that Alberto Fujimori took office with a marginal political force and with no great social or business support. The economic catastrophe provided him with the legitimacy to apply shock therapy: a stabilization plan, privatization of public companies, and the liberalization of the economy, capped by the closure of Congress. The neoliberal restructuring of Peruvian society and the massive violation of human rights under the Fujimori dictatorship constituted a historic turning point from which the Peruvian working class has still not recovered.

The interlocking dynamics of inflation and authoritarian government have not been given sufficient attention, especially in a country where monthly inflation rates are in the double digits and the net reserves of the central bank are negative. Nor can a large-scale banking crisis be ruled out, especially since Milei seems to be aware of the potential benefits of triggering panic by announcing radical “pro-market” proposals with catastrophic effects in the short term (such as an abrupt end to the country’s system of currency controls, the elimination of export taxes, dollarization, etc.). Milei’s victories have already led to panic in the “markets”: falling bond prices, an increase of the “country risk” status, and the stagnation of stocks. But the disastrous effects of those short-term measures could actually be part of an attempt to pave the way for long-term restructuring.

And the Argentine Left?

For years, Kirchnerism served as the breakwater that kept the Right at bay and maintained the poor in a unified anti-neoliberal bloc. But years of orthodox austerity under Peronism have altered the landscape and confused matters politically. To a certain extent, it is now the Argentine popular classes that are reacting against the austerity of Peronism — albeit in a decidedly confused manner.

The left must do everything it can to keep Milei from coming to power, but it must also prevent the slogan “all against the right” from becoming a disciplinary tactic that ends up justifying the orthodox policies pursued by the traditional political forces. In other words, the Argentine left must prevent the “extreme center” from finding in the extreme right the perfect antagonist that allows it to demobilize radical opposition while holding onto power.

Argentina has witnessed the cohering of a great social movement against the ultraright in the weeks before the election. This could play a fundamental role in changing the outcome of the contest. Indeed, a polarization between a democratic mass movement and the extreme right is key to altering the electoral outcome, particularly because no one is more disempowered than the government itself to sound the alarm “against fascism.” And even if the extreme right were to come to power, it is essential that it do so against a backdrop of broad democratic mobilization, which will be the fulcrum for the social and political battles to come.