The hard right captivates the Argentine electorate
The Argentine election brought a seismic shift on Sunday, August 13. The extreme right-wing libertarian candidate—and outsider of traditional politics—Javier Milei won first place, with 30 percent of the votes. The liberal-conservative opposition came second, with fewer votes than expected at 28 percent, and Peronism, for the first time in history, came in third, with 27 percent.
The open, simultaneous, and mandatory primaries (known as PASO) constitute a kind of sui generis election: in theory, they allow each party to choose its candidates, but in practice, since the whole electorate votes, they are a pre-first round that sets the climate for the real election that will take place on October 22. Therefore, the PASO has two implications: on the one hand, determining who wins each internal election (if there is competition), and on the other hand, revealing the correlation of forces between the different parties and coalitions.
Regarding the former, the victory of former security minister Patricia Bullrich over the mayor of Buenos Aires, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, from the party Juntos por el Cambio (JxC), stands out. It is a victory, in short, of the "hawks" against the "doves" in the main opposition force; of Bullrich's "If it’s not everything, it’s nothing" against Rodríguez Larreta’s gradualist proposals. Bullrich's campaign was endowed with all the ingredients: it simultaneously had a matter-of-fact style and a strong emphasis on deploying an iron fist against both insecurity and social protest. Her triumph in the internal elections provided Bullrich with a good chance of reaching the Casa Rosada. A militant of revolutionary Peronism of the 1970s, Bullrich later turned to the hardline right. She maintains, however, liberal positions in other areas, reflected in her support for the decriminalization of abortion and approval of marriage equality.
In terms of the primaries themselves, there were no surprises in Milei's wing, since he was the only contender within his platform, La Libertad Avanza.
Finally, for Peronism, the “unity” candidate Sergio Massa, an ultra-pragmatic centrist supported by former president and current vice president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, won by a wide margin. However, Juan Grabois, a left-wing populist close to Pope Francis, won the vote of several left-wing Kirchnerists who were reluctant to vote for Massa. Grabois's voters tended to see him as a sort of “Kirchner purist" who revived part of the narrative and legacy of the original Kirchnerism, especially its Cristinista version. This represents a somewhat strange dynamic, insofar as Fernández de Kirchner herself had bet on Massa, the current economy minister. The "Jefa" (“boss,” as she is known) backed Massa after current minister of the interior Eduardo "Wado" de Pedro withdrew his candidacy. De Pedro belongs to La Cámpora, the political youth group established by Fernández de Kirchner’s son Máximo Kirchner and the most important of the Cristinista structure. After a group of governors asked Massa to be the candidate, Fernández de Kirchner gave the go-ahead. In this sense, Grabois's ideological proposal constituted a "Cristinismo without Cristina"—an ideological current without the real support of the figure they invoked.
In short, the only true primary was that of JxC, in which the right-wing candidate won.
Never before has the far right obtained so many votes in Argentina: between Milei and Bullrich, they accounted for almost half of the electorate.This last point leads to a more general reading of the election. Never before has the far right obtained so many votes in Argentina: between Milei and Bullrich, they accounted for almost half of the electorate. The election was marked by the August 9 death of 11-year-old Morena Domínguez in a violent robbery much like so many other such incidents that shape the daily lives of residents of Buenos Aires’ urban periphery, known as the Conurbano Bonaerense. More broadly, the election was marked by an endless economic crisis epitomized in a more than 100 percent annual inflation rate. In this context, Bullrich capitalized on the security crisis while Milei capitalized on the economic situation, betting on a dollarization proposal that harks back to the era of the neoliberal Peronist Carlos Menem (1989-1999), when the value of the peso was tied by law to the value of the dollar. Within this framework, the Left that remains outside of Unión por la Patria (Peronism and its allies), grouped in a Trotskyist front, also suffered a hard setback.
In this election, there was something of a "retorno de lo oprimido," or return of the repressed, of 2001, a turning point in Argentine political history. Despite the looting, massive protests, and President Fernando De la Rúa fleeing by helicopter from the roof of the Casa Rosada, progressive discourses prevailed and ultraliberal solutions were on the menu during those days of 2001, attracting significant support. Not coincidentally, in the 2003 elections, Carlos Menem proclaimed the need to move from “convertibility” to the outright dollarization of the Argentine economy, historically marked by persistent inflation. The paradox of this whole story is that Bullrich, De la Rúa's most unpopular minister at that time, has been reborn in these elections as a phoenix, as a sort of savior of the nation.
The person who has most connected with this climate of dismantling old structures, which today has no masses in the streets but a lot of social frustration, is Milei. The libertarian imported not only the paleolibertarian ideology of U.S. economist Murray Rothbard—whose anarcho-capitalism leads Milei to defend the purchase and sale of organs—but also the denunciation of "caste," taken from the Spanish left-wing party Podemos. Milei, who received the support of Jair Bolsonaro, did not shy away from using national rock songs previously sung by the Left, such as those of La Renga or Bersuit Vergarabat, and even the "anthem" of 2001: the refrain "Que se vayan todos...que no quede ni uno solo" (Out with them all...let not a single one remain), which resounded thunderously in his closing campaign event.
But Milei's libertarianism has another dimension, which used to go unnoticed by progressives: his idea of "freedom" resonates in a popular and lower-middle class world at risk, where the demand for public services coexists with quite radical forms of anti-statism, associated with the moral economy of informal "entrepreneurship."
The scheme of poverty subsidies and even the so-called "popular economy" work quite well as a protective umbrella in times of crisis, but they do not build desirable futures, which today are more associated with "individual effort." In the 1980s, liberal conservatives tried to set up a popular Thatcherism. This was especially the case of lawmaker Adelina Dalesio de Viola, but her party appeared too elitist and her endeavor ended up co-opted by Menemism, which managed to assemble Peronism and privatizing structural reforms.
But Milei achieved surprisingly good results in popular neighborhoods, including in traditional Peronist areas such as La Matanza and even more in the provinces. In fact, he came first in 16 of the 24 provinces and swept two, including Salta, in Argentina’s Andean north.
As usually happens with other radical rightists nowadays, Milei ended up serving as the name of a rebellion. In fact, many of his voters do not want to abolish the state, buy or sell organs or children, torpedo the Central Bank, or do away with public education or health care. But, as was seen in the street polls conducted by the sensationalist channel Crónica TV, for young people and precarious workers, as well as gig workers, the name “Milei” ended up being a sort of empty signifier in a moment of national polycrisis.
Contrary to what some progressives believe, Milei was not a product of the economic establishment or of the media. The business class became interested in him when he started to grow—he was always seen as unpredictable. The media gives him air time because he gives them ratings. In other words, they have made use of his popularity more than they contributed to creating it, although obviously the hours of screen time ended up increasing his performance. An exception is the channel of the newspaper La Nación, LN+, which functions as a sort of reactionary local Fox News-style powerhouse.
Milei and Bullrich, unlike Larreta and obviously Massa, embody a strongly anti-progressive, refoundational discourse—similar to, but the ideological inverse of, the discourses of the Pink Tide of the 2000s. A weapon in the hands of the voters to blow up the "system," whatever that means for each of them.
On the side of Peronism, Fernández de Kirchner's strategy led to a dead end. As the unity pre-candidate, Massa faced, in practice, rejection from a large part of the Peronist militancy who saw him as a traitor due to his recent anti-Kirchner past. In spite of “Operation Clamor” led by a militant base, Fernández de Kirchner not only did not give in, but, after briefly supporting De Pedro’s failed candidacy, she decided to support Massa, who many Kirchnerists consider right-wing. While the slates for Congress are full of party faithfuls, uneasiness reigns among the most “believing” Kirchnerists. It is the third time (2015, 2019, 2023) that, despite Fernández de Kirchner being one of the most important politicians in the country, Kirchnerism has not had its own candidate for the presidency. In the Conurbano bonaernes, two elections are being held in parallel: the Peronist vote of these populous localities should serve to boost the presidential candidate, Sergio Massa, but also to guarantee the reelection of Governor Axel Kicillof, one of Fernández de Kirchner’s men. The problem is—as a strategist of the governor pointed out—among the potential bases of Peronism, despondency reigns.
For different reasons, in Peronism there is a climate similar to that of 1983, when defeat gave way to renewal. But what does renewal mean today?For different reasons, in Peronism there is a climate similar to that of 1983, when defeat gave way to renewal. But what does renewal mean today? How can the different planets of the Peronist universe—governors, mayors, unions, coalitions—be realigned? What role will be played by Fernández de Kirchner, battered by this result?
In a recent interview with Nueva Sociedad, journalist Martín Rodríguez pointed out that Kirchnerism is, above all, a "structure of feeling." As we pointed out in another article, this structure of feeling not only appealed to a good part of Peronism, but also attracted the remnants of different leftist political cultures: communists, socialists, leftist populists, autonomists of 2001, those nostalgic for the armed struggle of the 1970s, human rights activists. The 1970s-style discourse also managed to give historical meaning to the political and military defeat of the dictatorship: all that suffering, including a decimated generation, would have been worth it. The country was finally being re-founded.
As essayist Beatriz Sarlo pointed out in her book La audacia y el cálculo (Boldness and Calculation), the 2010 Bicentennial sealed the staging of a new "inclusive" country at the peak of Kirchnerism. But today that structure of feeling is seriously damaged. Before her “believers,” Fernández de Kirchner cannot explain her own decisions. And those believers, without political positions or aspirations to secure them, are not only the electoral but also the emotional basis of her political project. The vice president seems to have been trapped in a somewhat curious mixture of ideologism and pragmatism. The different Peronisms seemed to neutralize each other.
The country is moving forward, in a panic, towards the October 22 elections. There are more questions than answers: will Milei be able to use this result as a lever to continue growing, or will the vertigo effect of an anarcho-capitalist who wants to dynamite the state reaching the Casa Rosada activate some kind of emergency brake? Will Milei's "madness" allow Bullrich to appear more reasonable, as happened with Marine Le Pen against the far right Éric Zemmour in France? Will Peronism be able to show some reflex so as not to end up once again in third place?
Analysts are resetting their GPS.
Mariano Schuster is Nueva Sociedad’s digital platform editor. He was editor-in-chief of the Argentine socialist publications La Vanguardia and Nueva Revista Socialista. He collaborates with media such as Letras Libres and Le Monde diplomatique, among others. He is a contributing author to ¿Tiene porvenir el socialismo? compiled by Mario Bunge and Carlos Gabetta (Eudeba, Buenos Aires, 2013).
Pablo Stefanoni is editor-in-chief of Nueva Sociedad. He is coauthor, with Martín Baña, of Todo lo que necesitás saber sobre la Revolución rusa (Paidós, 2017) and author of ¿La rebeldía se volvió de derecha? (Siglo Veintiuno, 2021).