Who is Javier Milei and why is everybody talking about him? Because they are – the main issue at the April 28 Juntos por el Cambio leadership summit when he was imprudently excluded by name as a potential ally (“There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” as we were told long ago by P.T. Barnum from the circus world with which Milei might readily identify) while the far left in their May Day marches repeatedly warned against the crisis playing into the hands of “Javier Milei and his fascistoid right,” also insisting that “the most iron defender of this (neo-liberal) model is Javier Milei.” Quite apart from such close attention from both the centre-right and the far left, the libertarian maverick has also recently provoked a stream of media analysis from far more prestigious commentators than this humble columnist.
So Milei would thus seem to land bang in the middle of everything except that this ultra-orthodox economist is almost invariably tagged as an outsider – also the title of the novel winning the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature (L’Etranger by Albert Camus), it might be added since we are right in the middle of the Book Fair, a novel commencing with the words: “Mother died today.”
However counterproductive to give so much importance to a possibly overrated rival fishing in the same pond, it is easy to understand why that April 28 huddle of opposition leaders was so alarmed – if having Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as the archenemy has constantly bolstered the fragile unity of a fractious Juntos por el Cambio coalition, whose partners are as much internally divided as differing between themselves but unanimous against the quasi-totalitarian populism associated with Kirchnerism, the challenge posed by Milei is far more dangerous, insidiously exposing the cracks and undermining credibility.
Milei’s rising opinion poll ratings do not just mean an electoral rival whose strident slogans best tap the prevailing social pessimism and repressed rage of a frustrated populace with his onslaughts against the “caste” of mainstream politicians placing opposition and government in the same sinking boat – he ejects opposition leaders from their comfort zone by placing the onus on them to reach a consensus in order to define their platform and government agenda, something plainly beyond their grasp. Clearly disenchanted with Frente de Todos, the electorate will nevertheless hesitate to give Juntos por el Cambio the benefit of the doubt until they can produce a constructive alternative and concrete solutions for socio-economic woes. Yet this is impossible for reasons other than coalition consensus lying beyond reach – amid all the egos and minor rifts, there is a fundamental dispute between doves arguing that economic transformation is impossible without a broad majority and hawks insisting that such pluralism would dilute the reforms beyond any real impact. There cannot be a bottom line without a starting-point – as Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta has explained, 50 percent inflation at the end of 2023 would imply one plan, 100 percent another and 300 percent quite another still, not to mention multiple other variables, so no detailed plan worthy of the name can be spelled out.
Panic buttons are already being pressed but will the outsider ever be anything more than that? If he remains an outsider – by throwing his hat into the ring so early, he might be seen as just another noisy politician (or populist or even plain boring when he gets started on his Austrian school of economics lectures) come election day. By playing the bad cop his extremism might even help Juntos por el Cambio sell a reform package of shock economic policies which seem moderate when compared to blowing up the Central Bank or the Education Ministry while also being pushed to the right.
Some local pollsters and overseas media already tip him as a presidential dark horse, but does his support extend beyond an echo chamber for anti-system politics? The name recognition is there (nobody would confuse Milei with Miley Cyrus) but the only hard numbers we have so far are 17 percent of the City vote in the last midterms and 12,000 people in Mendoza lending an ear to the man in the bulletproof vest further afield – a nationwide presidential victory requires rather more. But not necessarily half or even 40 percent of the vote. A far from impossible split in both main coalitions plus Milei (with his capacity to rob votes from both, given his midterm success in low-income neighbourhoods alongside his appeal to PRO hawks) might well produce a scenario resembling the 2003 elections when five candidates polled between 14 and 24 percent – something within that range might just project Milei into the run-off, although even then he would probably be just another Marine Le Pen.
Anyway this column is not supposed to be yet another Milei profile but a comparison of past and present on the basis of my newsroom experience since 1983 so here goes with a brief list of outsiders since then. Not necessarily in chronological order because the first name which springs to mind is Elisa ‘Lilita’ Carrió, a key figure as a rhetorical and testimonial conscience of the Republic but never within reach of the presidency despite three bids (runner-up in 2007, fifth in 2003 and nowhere in 2011) – more ideologically diffuse than Milei (moving from centre-left to the right over the years with mystic overtones) but both voices in the wilderness while a magnet for protest votes. Ideologically closer to Milei would be Alvaro Alsogaray (third with seven percent in 1989), although less of an outsider as an ex-minister and co-opted soon enough.
Nor was the 1995 runner-up José Octavio Bordón, a former Peronist governor of Mendoza, much of an outsider despite competing against both the main parties while his merger with the Radicals along with the Peronist left and socialists in 1999 did not leave much room for third parties – ex-minister Domingo Cavallo notched a double-digit percentage but belonged to the innermost circles. All the five main candidates in 2003 had Peronist or Radical backgrounds while former economy minister Roberto Lavagna in 2007 was nominally independent but his 17 percent of the vote was almost purely Radical. All the underperforming rivals of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2011 came from established parties while Sergio Massa in 2015 was the most successful third-party candidate in history with 21.4 percent of the vote (just shy of Néstor Kirchner’s 21.65 percent in 2003). But who today would call the Congress Speaker an outsider?
Against that background, one has to admit that Milei, love him or loathe him, is unique – a reloaded Meursault for a latter-day existentialist novel.