Javier Milei offers easy answers to Argentina’s problems - GulfToday

Javier Milei offers easy answers to Argentina’s problems

Javier Milei

Javier Milei

Elizabeth Shackelford, Tribune News Service

Argentina has been pummelled by one economic crisis after another for a generation. It has the third-highest inflation rate in the world and a bad habit of defaulting on debt, and 40% of its population is living in poverty. The country’s political class has failed to find a way out, and its people are angry. It’s no wonder that a radical outsider pulled more votes than any other candidate in the recent presidential primary.  Javier Milei, an anti-establishment libertarian economist and former TV commentator, shocked the nation by securing 30% of the vote. In the October election, he will face the two other candidates who secured enough votes to qualify, and a likely runoff thereafter will determine the president.  

Milei is a capitalist extremist who wants the government totally out of the economy. He wants to adopt the dollar as Argentina’s legal tender, close the central bank, and privatise public education and health care. He’s even argued for legalising the sale of human organs and, unsurprisingly, claims climate change is a lie.

His pitch to privatise might make sense since so many of Argentina’s financial problems lie in unaffordable government services. The country has heavy subsidies on health care, energy, universities and public transportation. A global economic slowdown and the COVID-19 crisis only magnified existing economic troubles. Slashing public benefits isn’t so popular, though, when poverty is high and people are struggling to make ends meet. Simply reining in spending wouldn’t have secured this enthusiasm.

Milei’s appeal is more a vote against the establishment than a vote for anything in particular. And it draws attention to an acute problem facing democracies around the world: Good governance and good politics don’t always align. It’s hard to make the case for hard, long-term solutions in a soundbite. Compromise and checks and balances throw breaks on rash, emotional decisions, but that slows everything down. Sometimes, voters are sympathetic to a slow pace. When they’re angry, they aren’t.

Milei is just the latest populist to ride this wave of anger. It’s what drove Donald Trump to the White House in 2016 and is the source of his enduring appeal to part of the US population today. Recep Tayyip Erdogan rallied that anger to continue his rule despite Turkey’s own economic slump. Then-United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson rallied the masses against the constraints of European Union membership without offering anything in return.

In Argentina, since no one is offering real solutions, Milei is even more appealing in comparison. This is particularly true with the younger population, where he finds much of his support. Youth unemployment is nearing 19%, far higher than that of the rest of the population. The members of this angry constituency have no stake in a system that has been broken their entire lives, so they aren’t concerned about the consequences of blowing it up.

The establishment offers two options, neither promising a credible path to a better future. The governing coalition is Peronist, a political movement that also had populist origins and has dominated politics in Argentina for decades. Its candidate, Economy Minister Sergio Massa would likely continue the modest reforms that have been insufficient to turn the country’s fate around. It finished third.

Centre-right opposition candidate Patricia Bullrich presents a shift, but her coalition looks quite establishment by comparison to Milei.  Milei’s surprise win in the primary will undoubtedly mobilise those who fear his extreme policy proposals. But will it be enough to wake up Argentina’s political and governing class?

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