If the opinion polls are to be believed, Javier Milei has a sporting chance of becoming Argentina’s next president. As tends to happen these days, his rise tells us less about his own personal merits than the defects which are attributed to his rivals who, like him, are in hot pursuit of the country’s top job.
Milei is the electoral equivalent of “none of the above.” Among the Peronists, Alberto Fernández is regarded as an easily bullied non entity who would be incapable of running a village shop, Sergio Massa as the man most responsible for the surge in inflation which is battering much of the population and, though Cristina Fernández de Kirchner still has plenty of admirers, many people consider her a self-obsessed crook who has done immense harm to the country.
As for the main opposition candidates, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta comes across as too soft and Patricia Bullrich as so tough that, were she to take over, the streets would soon be littered with the blood-stained corpses that well-known visionary, Aníbal Fernández, saw when he peered into the near future. Some hope that, as happened to the British classicist and Tory politician Enoch Powell, after he alluded to a line in Virgil’s Aeneid about “the river Tiber flowing with much blood” when speaking against immigration, his prophetic pronouncement will do his cause great harm, but this is most unlikely.
In any event, there can be no doubt that Milei strongly appeals to people who are fed up with politics and, to quote The Communist Manifesto, feel we live in an age in which “all that is solid melts into the air” so that, in Argentina at any rate, “man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life.” They like Milei’s rambunctious way of going about things, his willingness to treat those who disagree with him like dirt and his ferocious hostility to the status quo. Hardly anyone, apart from a few erudite scholars, pay much attention to his well-publicised fondness for economists of the Austrian School such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, whose works are well worth studying, but the vague notion that he stands for something radically different which has a respectable intellectual lineage helps save him from being written off as yet another loquacious charlatan.
Mauricio Macri and others say the arrival of Milei has been highly positive because he represents a way of thinking which, despite having been influential enough in North America, Europe and East Asia, has long been virtually absent here. Extreme liberalism, or “libertarianism,” may be impractical in modern societies, but it can be a very useful corrective when social democrats, let alone fervent populists, get carried away by their desire to solve all problems by ladling out more and more money and, after tax revenues falter, resorting to the printing press and getting ever deeper into debt.
They may be right when they credit Milei with enriching the national conversation by expressing views that until he came along few dared even hint at. Even his punkish behaviour – which certainly is not what one would expect from a man leading what could be described as a conservative revival – is having a paradoxical effect by exciting young people who are desperately seeking something different from what in Argentina is the traditional order. At least it makes them aware that Peronist populism has shot its bolt and the same can be said for its many variants, whether the ones espoused by a series of military regimes or those favoured by large chunks of the main opposition coalition which, until Milei came along, took it for granted that it would win big in the upcoming elections.
The coalition’s strategists are now less confident than they once were. Some fear that Milei will steal enough votes to let the Peronists retain power. Others, having taken a look at what is happening in the Buenos Aires Province slum belt, suspect that, after knocking out the Peronists, they could face a second-round run-off with Milei. That would raise the possibility that the wild man could actually get voted into the presidency. And then? Would he be able to form a government, let alone govern? All bets are off.
Milei’s weakness has less to do with his proposals, which include replacing the peso with the US dollar and eliminating the Central Bank, than with his lack of anything resembling a nationwide political organisation. He is on his own. At best, he would have a small handful of deputies in the lower house Chamber of Deputies and no senators at all. Though he says that he would solve that particular problem by holding Swiss-style referenda whenever a polemical measure got blocked in parliament, trying to stage one or two a week, as could well prove necessary, would surely lead to turmoil as, on occasion, it did in Athens when democracy, with all citizens entitled to play roles which are now entrusted to their elected representatives, first got under way.
Milei is the outsider’s outsider. Unlike Donald Trump, who took over a major party after showing its bosses he could provide it with a huge number of votes, he has shown no interest in joining the multi-party opposition alliance which, in his view, is just the relatively civilised part of the rotten political “caste” he says he is determined to send packing. This thoroughly revolutionary sentiment appeals to many, which is why, according to some polls, Milei is the most popular politician in the land, but a programme of government based on nothing more than contempt, whether deserved or not, for almost everything that already exists would be most unlikely to make life better for the country’s inhabitants. On the contrary, it would in all probability be just a prelude to a generalised collapse. Much as Milei may dislike the idea, democracy needs political parties. Without them, it could only degenerate into a free-for-all which would last until someone, who could be extraordinarily unpleasant, came in to restore order by putting an end to the anarchic mayhem a one-man administration would be almost certain to preside over.