The surprise victory of Argentina’s Libertarian candidate Javier Milei — an admirer of former President Trump and former Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro — in the Aug. 13 primary elections was just the latest symptom of growing public disenchantment with the leftist-populist tide that has swept Latin America in recent years.
I’m not sure that Milei will end up winning Argentina’s October elections, but the fact that he received the most votes in the primaries defied all pollsters’ predictions.
Milei is the most right-wing politician with a shot at the presidency in Argentina’s recent history. In an interview, he told me that he admires Trump and Bolsonaro, and that if elected, he would dollarize the economy, strengthen ties with the United States and Israel, and denounce communist dictatorships.
It’s hard to tell whether Milei’s rise to political stardom is another sign of Latin America’s shift to the right or, rather, the latest example of an ideologically mixed anti-incumbent trend that has marked recent elections in the region.
But it definitely reflects a new reality: Latin America’s shift to the left of late — which pundits called the “Pink Tide” — has lost much of its steam. Many of its leaders have either left power or have become weak presidents in their countries.
Only a year ago, Gustavo Petro was taking office as Colombia’s first leftist president in recent memory. Petro, an ex-FARC guerrilla and former mayor of Bogota, was seen as a potential leader of a newly invigorated Latin American leftist bloc.
President Gabriel Boric, elected in Chile, became the most leftist president in that country since Salvador Allende in the early 1970s. Peru’s former President Pedro Castillo was a union leader elected running on a Marxist party platform. Mexico’s leftist-populist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Brazil´s left-of-center leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva seemed stronger than ever.
But now, Petro has become a weak president facing an opposition Congress and beset by political scandals. His son Nicolás Petro’s public admission that he took dirty money for his father’s campaign is the focus of a Colombian justice system investigation, and the president is on the defensive.
In Chile, Boric has lost a national vote to adopt a new Constitution that he supported. Recently, his most trusted aide was forced to resign from the Cabinet amid charges of improprieties. In Peru, Castillo was ousted by Congress in a constitutional vote after he tried to stage a coup by dissolving the parliament.
In Mexico, Lopez Obrador continues to be popular, but his party faces a formidable challenger in the 2024 elections, Sen. Xóchitl Gálvez. A computer engineer born in poverty from an Indian family, she can defy Lopez Obrador’s claims that his political rivals are oligarchs.
In Argentina, Milei not only got more votes than any other candidate, but the center-right Juntos por el Cambio (Together for Change) party coming in second, surpassed the leftist-populist ruling party of former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
The massive vote for Milei in the primary election may not have been a blanket support for libertarian or conservative ideas, but a protest vote against the ruling party, and the country’s traditional politicians. Milei’s most effective campaign slogan has been his claim that what he calls a “political caste” — that is, all politicians but him — is responsible for Argentina’s collapse.
The country’s annual inflation rate is of more than 116%, one of the world’s highest, and poverty has risen to more than 40%.
It’s not certain that Milei will be a sure winner in October. Some of his voters may get scared by his rivals’ claims that he could end social subsidies for millions of people. Many may shift to center-right candidate Patricia Bullrich.
It most likely will be a three-way race, in which, if no candidate gets more than 40% of the October vote, the two leading candidates will go to a runoff on Nov. 19.
What’s clear from Argentina’s primary elections is that the country’s public mood has shifted to the right, and Latin America’s until recently solid bloc of leftist-populist ruled countries seems increasingly weaker.
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