By Fernando Brancoli and Tamires Alves
Abstract: Javier Milei, a former talk show presenter turned politician, has shaken up Argentina's political scene as a far-right contender for the presidency. Representing the "La Libertad Avanza'' party, Milei's anti-establishment and economic reform rhetoric has garnered significant appeal, especially among young voters. This surge in far-right popularity in Argentina, embodied by Milei, underscores the nation's changing political dynamics and raises concerns for vulnerable communities. The article explores Milei's rapid rise, his core support base, and the wider implications of a far-right presence in Argentina.
“Milei's Roar”: From Talk Shows to Argentina's Presidential Stage
The sound system boomed with loud rock music, and 10,000 people in attendance cheered enthusiastically. Flames framed a roaring lion on the screen. A man dressed in leather sprang onto the stage, and shouted "I am the lion!" as the noise level spiked. It wasn't a rock star performing: it was Javier Milei, a hardline right-wing politician aiming for Argentina's presidency, at his latest campaign event.
Milei, of the "La Libertad Avanza" party, converted himself from talk show presenter to a victorious presidential contender on August 13th. He won a "blanket" primary in which Argentines picked their preferred candidates for the 2022 presidential and legislative elections. The candidate with the highest vote total from each party proceeds to the main election round, which is set for October 22nd. Given that primary voting is mandatory, this selection process serves as a significant indicator of potential presidential winners.
Milei, who aligns himself with international far-right leaders like Jair Bolsonaro, Santiago Abascal, and Donald Trump, positions himself as an outsider aiming to dismantle what he likes to label as the political “caste" – a stronger term than “elite” – to condemn Argentina’s entrenched political classes. In this regard, he's been successful: the topic of politicians' salaries and privileges has never been more debated.
Before venturing into politics, Milei was an economist consulting for major financial firms, the World Economic Forum, and the G20. A few years ago, he began appearing on TV shows as a commentator and panelist, where he adopted a confrontational demeanor: he often ended up in heated exchanges, especially with progressive individuals.
Milei's rhetoric, which promised to "explode" the political status quo and enact dramatic changes, found resonance with a public frustrated with the country's chronic economic dysfunction. Argentina is dealing with an alarming annual inflation rate of 116% as well as capital restrictions that have created a massive illicit market for US dollars, Argentina's preferred savings currency. Against such circumstances, Milei's aggressive initiatives, such as dollarizing the economy and significantly slashing expenditure, are more appealing to many, despite other more contentious proposals such as prohibiting abortion and legalizing gun ownership.
Milei's ascent has unsettled both of Argentina' s dominant political factions: the ruling Unión por la Patria and the conservative opposition, Juntos por el Cambio. His critical message of both parties resonates with a public who are disillusioned with the political status quo. At his campaign finale, he emerged in an auditorium to the roar of supporters, delivering a scathing critique of the political elite and accusing them of pilfering the public’s money.
With Milei's surprising political momentum in mind, the demographics of his followers are one of the most remarkable parts of his ascent.
The Popular Support for Javier Milei and the Phenomenon of Young Rappi
At events and political meetings related to the "La Libertad Avanza" movement, the predominance of young males from middle and lower sectors of society is evident. These young men, who identify as libertarians, make a point of distancing themselves from the image of more elite young militants. Instead, they see themselves as a more "spicy" version of libertarianism, a kind of Peronist counterpart within this ideology.
In a 2022 statement by consultant Alejandro Catterberg, a famous political analyst in Argentina, described with some irony Milei's supporters as "young men who work as Rappi delivery drivers," generating a wide reaction on social media under the hashtag #RappideMilei. This classification was adopted by the far-right politician's supporters: with youth unemployment reaching 20%, many in Argentina feel the weight of economic hardships. In this context, the “young Rappis” see in Milei a rather uncritical reflection of their own resilience and entrepreneurial spirit. However, by clinging to self-entrepreneurship rhetoric, they might neglect the complex structural dimensions contributing to such alarming figures. Focusing solely on individual entrepreneurship as a solution can inadvertently convey the message that those who don't succeed are merely lacking in determination, ignoring systemic barriers and inequality.
These young individuals' political engagement was prominently evident on the streets as early as 2020, during protests against regulations set forth due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many began their political journey during these demonstrations, while others fondly remembered their involvement in protests during Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's second term. Throughout the pandemic's lockdown and social isolation, these youths consistently made their presence felt on the streets, defying the government's "stay at home" advisories, even as other political factions abided by the guidelines.
In each election, young voters constitute over a third of the electorate, making their choices pivotal. In 2019, the "Frente de Todos" alliance captured 60% of this demographic's support. Yet, now rebranded as "Unión por la Patria," the coalition appears to be ceding ground to Milei. This shift is notable, especially given that Argentinians start voting at 16. Young people's gravitation towards Milei largely stems from economic frustrations. Young men are more inclined towards him than their female peers, possibly because a portion of young men identify with Milei's radical and anti-feminist stances. Following several years of successful feminist mobilization that have transformed public discourse and consciousness, Milei is tapping into an aggressive masculine backlash.
Surprisingly, Milei's popularity is more pronounced in the economically disadvantaged areas of Buenos Aires, especially in the southern regions. This popularity has raised concerns about his increasing sway in traditionally Peronist strongholds. Rooted in the ideals of former president Juan Domingo Perón, the Peronist movement emphasizes the state's central role in economic matters while advocating for social justice and equitable wealth distribution. While its tendencies often lean leftward, epitomized by the "Frente de Todos," the movement also encompasses right-leaning Peronists.
Many young individuals associated with Milei, particularly from the populous Province of Buenos Aires, are observed to come from lower-middle-class backgrounds. They often exude a rugged, rock-infused aura. Milei knows his audience, often appearing at events donning leather jackets with rock music blaring in the background. In different times, these young individuals would typically be aligned with Peronism, both in look and ideology. Milei's supporters stand distinct from other youth libertarian movements, seeming to craft a vision of the popular right. This vision is far removed from the optics presented by the PRO party of the former president, Macri. The intent is clear: make a statement, be visible, and be different.
The youth's increasing precariousness is evident, with many expressing deep dissatisfaction with past political regimes, often turning their disillusionment into palpable anger. For perspective, young Argentinians, especially those under 25, have been navigating a turbulent economy. The prolonged era of Kirchnerist governance, initiated by Néstor Kirchner and later by his wife Cristina Fernández, now the vice-president, has left the economy frayed. From 2013 on, the nation has grappled with an inflation rate that's now exceeded 500%. The Kirchnerist years were interrupted by an equally disastrous four years of a center-right neoliberal Macri government that once again saddled the country with the largest loan in IMF history.
In addition to making their presence felt on the streets, Milei's supporters seek to promote their agendas through social media and the media, actively participating in the Buenos Aires Book Fair, and challenging progressive ideologies in various areas, from opposition to the so-called "gender ideology" to resisting forms of "indoctrination" in universities.
While Milei's contemporary popularity and his appeal among the youth are undeniably significant, understanding this phenomenon requires a look back at the historical context of Argentina's far-right movements.
“Reemergence of the Far Right in Argentina”: Milei's Rise and its Implications for Vulnerable Communities
The far right in Argentina, although not a new phenomenon, has experienced a notable resurgence in recent years. This rebirth can largely be attributed to the rise of charismatic figures like Javier Milei, who have positioned themselves as spokespersons for a new wave of conservative and ultra-libertarianthinking.
Frequently, economic crisis periods are fertile ground for the rise of far-right movements. Such crises create dissatisfaction and distrust in established institutions, creating space for populist figures promising quick and effective solutions. Milei, known for his economic ultra-libertarianism, has positioned himself as one of these figures, combining his economic discourse with moral themes central to the country's "cultural wars."
In Argentina, repeated economic crises, combined with perceptions of corruption and the inefficient management of traditional political parties, have paved the way for the rise of a new right, removed from traditional economic and cultural elites. This new right, represented by Milei, promises to challenge and reform the system, presenting itself as an alternative to established policies.
The story of Javier Milei's meteoric rise in Argentine politics underscores not only the volatility and unpredictability of the political scene but also highlights the potential dangers for vulnerable communities during times of change. Mere hours after Milei's primary victory was announced, indigenous communities in the province of Jujuy faced harsh police repression. These native peoples had been holding roadblocks for nearly two months, protesting against a constitutional reform signed by Governor Geraldo Morales of the "Juntos por el Cambio" party, another right-wing faction. This reform paves the way for lithium exploration, allows for extractive use in indigenous lands, and even seeks to criminalize protests.
These developments underline the pressing need for a deep understanding of the many facets of the Argentine political spectrum. New voices, even those that challenge established norms, have the potential to resonate with a public disenchanted with the status quo. However, the pursuit of political and economic progress should never come at the expense of the rights of indigenous populations and minorities. These situations emphasize the ongoing challenge of balancing political aspirations with fundamental human rights and the need to safeguard those who might be most impacted by swift shifts in Argentina's political landscape.
Fernando Brancoli is Associate Professor of International Security at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He is a Fellow at the School of Social Science (SPSS) at the University of Princeton and an Associated Researcher at the Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara.
Tamires Alves is a researcher at the Center for Criminology Studies at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is a senior researcher at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation and an analyst for the UN System, having worked at UNESCO, UNICEF, and UN Women. Her studies focus on politics, crime, and gender.