The shadow of libertarian lawmaker Javier Milei looms larger each day over Argentina and the outspoken economist’s politics, proposed policies – and poll numbers – continue to spook the establishment.
Milei’s possibilities in the upcoming elections seem to be growing by the day and his appearance at the Foro Llao Llao business forum in Bariloche underlined his impact – for the rest of the day (and perhaps even the week), the unkempt economist’s face and declarations were all over the airwaves, sparking debate on radio and television stations and media outlets.
The La Libertad Avanza lawmaker has overshadowed the frontrunners within the opposition coalition, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and Patricia Bullrich, both of whom have been forced to harden their rhetoric in the face of sagging poll figures, as the libertarian continues to grow. Even former president Mauricio Macri appears to be falling under his spell, leading to talks of a potential – and unlikely – fracture in Juntos por el Cambio.
Buenos Aires’ financial district is also watching closely, paying special attention to Milei’s keynote policy of dollarisation. It isn’t clear whether his followers understand Austrian economics or the true consequences of his economic agenda, but he’s been able to capitalise on their anger, making him a perfect candidate in the times of polarisation.
According to Perfil journalist Santiago Escobar, market analysts are now starting to sound the alarm about the ‘Milei polling effect,’ noting that his climb in voting intention surveys is prompting some individuals to withdraw their dollar deposits from banks.
"For every point that goes up, the outflow of dollars from the banks increases," a source who asked not to be identified told Perfil. While capital outflows are far from being problematic, there appears to be a change in sentiment in the market, in part illustrated by the continued devaluation of the peso led by the blue-chip rate which continues to reach record lows.
The polls show that a Milei victory in October is gradually becoming a possibility. First, though, Argentines will have to cast their votes in the PASO primaries scheduled for August.
Consulting potential voters ahead of the primaries, 59.2 percent responded to a Management & Fit survey last week that they wanted a “total change” at the head of government – music to the ears of Milei’s campaign team which feeds on the concept of eliminating the “caste,” his scornful way of referring to traditional politicians.
The poll quizzed voters on their preferences depending on three scenarios: with Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in the race for the Casa Rosada; without the former president and with Interior Minister Eduardo de Pedro running in her place; with Economy Minister Sergio Massa standing with CFK’s support. In all three potential line-ups, Milei emerged with the highest voting intention, hovering between 23.7 and 24.3 percent.
The libertarian lawmaker benefitted here from the other coalitions having multiple candidates, with his unified vote topping his rivals. It is becoming increasingly likely that Milei will take a victory bow on the night of August 13, when he will be the most voted individual candidate. Yet, the big question is whether he’ll be able to absorb discontented voters from the other coalitions, especially Juntos por el Cambio which is ideologically closer to Milei.
A second survey, looking at all the candidates and their positive and negative weighting nationwide, put Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta on top with 40.4 percent voting intention, with Milei trailing on 37.8 percent. However, the libertarian’s tally featured the highest percentage of “secured” votes (i.e. those who said they were sure to vote for him, as opposed to potentially) with 16.1 percent. The survey had a 2.2 percent margin of error.
A third poll, conducted by the Circuitos consulting firm, quizzed residents in Buenos Aires Province, the nation’s battleground region. Backing up the findings from the Management & Fit survey, it also found that Milei’s voting intentions run higher if Fernández de Kirchner is not in the race.
With CFK, Milei finished fourth with 14.7 percent, compared to 16.2 percent for Rodríguez Larreta, 21.3 percent for Patricia Bullrich and 23.4 percent for the former president. Without her, Milei jumps into third on 17.1 percent, trailing both the City mayor on 19.4 percent and the former security minister on 22.6 percent, who tops the list.
"There is growth for Javier Milei. It is happening in the scenario in which Cristina [Fernández de] Kirchner is not present. When that happens, the deputy drops a little. Horacio Rodríguez Larreta has also been growing, although to a lesser extent, not enough to overtake Patricia Bullrich," said Circuitos diretor Pablo Romá.
The expert stressed that the splitting of the Kirchnerite vote is due to the ambiguities at play regarding the possibility of Fernández de Kirchner running or not.
Regardless, the true novelty is the rise of a far-right liberal candidate who will find himself with a substantial portion of the vote after the October election, where he’s looking to cut into the expected run-off.
Milei is an economist by trade who has focused on the so-called ‘Austrian school.’ He’s a fervent supporter of laissez faire economics, identifying the state and its size as the central problem for society.
Controversially, he has put forward a plan to dollarise the economy, which is music to the ears of a significant part of the population with fond memories of the 1990s era of convertibility, where a rigid peg allowed the peso to equal the value of the dollar.
Analysts aren’t that convinced. A report by the respected 1816 consulting firm concluded: "If the market perceives that Milei has any chance of governing, it is most likely that we will see a run against the peso. It could even generate a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, with peso-holders fearing dollarisation and trying to get rid of their holdings, [thus] creating the conditions for this dollarisation.”
Government-friendly economist Emmanuel Álvarez Agis cautioned this week: "If Milei makes it to the run-off, I would not leave my money in the bank."
Fellow-libertarian José Luis Espert also weighed in, expressing doubts where Milei could find the dollars for dollarisation and pointing out the importance of a country having its own currency like over 90 percent of the world’s nations.
Fellow libertarian, Carlos Maslatón, also slammed the idea, warning his former ally to “turn around before it is too late.”
The outspoken economist has also had an explosive impact on the existing coalitions. Speculation has been rife in recent months over the possibility of Milei joining Juntos por el Cambio for the PASOs, although the opposition’s main leaders – bar one – all seem to be against the idea.
Both Bullrich and Milei himself have ruled out the chances of him running in the opposition coalition’s PASO lists, with the libertarian saying such a turn of events could only happen if a new grouping was set up.
Nevertheless, Macri’s flirting with the La Libertad Avanza leader continues and unrest in the opposition coalition over Milei’s potential inclusion has spilled out into the open.
Voicing the unrest, Civica Coalición-ARI leader Elisa ‘Lilita’ Carrió last week accused Macri of “no longer wanting to be in Juntos por el Cambio,” adding that the centre-right leader wanted to “be with Milei.”
The former president, who has decided to stand aside this electoral cycle, has previously suggested Milei should join the coalition he founded in 2019 (as a new version of the Cambiemos alliance which took him to the Casa Rosada four years earlier).
Milei responded forcefully to the statement, accusing Carrió and Rodríguez Larreta of being "traitors." The feeling, undoubtedly, is mutual.
"One of the things I said to him is that I cannot be part of Juntos por el Cambio,” Milei said last week. “I believe that Mauricio Macri wanted to do things right. That's why I said that if that wing [of the coalition] decided to go outside and go to a primary, let the people choose and that if they won, I would accompany them", he revealed.
Regardless, Milei is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with and, as his polling figures suggest, he remains the narrative leader of the election to date.