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Argentina’s shift to the right has implications for BRICS

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Picture: Screenshot / Peoples Dispatch – Argentine president-elect Javier Milei addresses supporters in the run-up to Argentina’s run-off presidential election, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

By David Monyae

A political tectonic shift has occurred in Argentina which may have far-reaching implications for the country and beyond.

The right-wing libertarian and Trumpesque presidential election contestant, Javier Milei, won 56 percent of the vote in last Sunday’s presidential election run-off to become Argentina’s president-elect. Milei is due to assume office on December 10.

The eccentric former television presenter who defeated his opponent, the left-wing Peronist Movement candidate who also serves as the economy minister, Sergio Massa, who got 44 percent of the vote. Massa had emerged as the frontrunner in the first round of the elections on October 22, having secured 36 percent of the poll ahead of Milei, who settled for second place with 30 percent of the vote. However, no one managed to reach the 45 percent threshold required to be an outright winner, thus necessitating the runoff.

The elections took place amid worsening economic conditions which saw 40 percent of Argentinians being condemned to poverty, spiralling inflation at 140 percent, increasing inequality, the prevalence of corruption and the breakdown of public service provision.

The electorate had grown weary of the ruling party and especially Massa’s failure as the economy minister to address the economic challenges confronting the people.

Milei amplified and emphasised his image as an outsider, anti-establishment candidate who is not part of the political elite responsible for getting the country into the economic mess it finds itself in.

He secured the support of the most prominent figures in the global right-wing movement, among them the former presidents Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro of the US and Brazil respectively. Trump posted a congratulatory message, saying he was proud of Milei and expressed confidence that he would “Make Argentina Great Again”, while Bolsonaro described Milei’s victory as a symbol of hope.

This was in contrast to a more muted response from the left-wing Brazilian president Lula da Silva, who acknowledged the election outcome without mentioning Milei’s name.

During his campaign, he promised to dollarise the Argentinian economy by getting rid of the peso as a panacea to the country’s runaway inflation. However, his opponents argued that adopting the dollar as a currency was tantamount to sacrificing national sovereignty since the country would not be able to formulate and implement its own monetary policy.

Many are doubting whether his dollarisation promises will see the light of day since he does not command enough legislative backing to get his proposals approved by parliament.

His party, the Liberty Advances, has less than 10 percent of the Senate seats and 15 percent of the seats in Congress, which is the lower house. In one of his most radical proposals, Milei proposed the abolition of the country’s central bank, which he blamed for the unfolding economic catastrophe.

True to his conservative credentials, the president-elect promised a smaller government by scrapping several ministries with the intention of reducing their number from 16 to eight. The privatisation of some parastatals, such as the energy firm YPF, and the public media outlets, the scrapping of several taxes which are seen as hindrances to business performance and economic growth, and a major reduction in state spending on social services are some of the key issues on the agenda of Argentina’s incoming president.

Among his other right-wing markers, Milei is a climate change denialist who also rails against abortion rights.

Further, just as much as Milei’s presidency looks set to turn Argentina’s domestic policy on its head, his presidency presents a potential turning point for the country’s foreign policy.

Milei declared during his campaign that his team’s approach to international relations would be aligned with the US and Israel and not with what he called “communists”, by which he may have been referring to Brazil, China and Russia, among others.

Milei and Da Silva’s well-known ideological differences may see friction develop in the relationship between Latin America’s two biggest economies. To make matters worse, Argentina’s president-elect may have been offended by the Brazilian government’s overt support for his opponent, Sergio Massa. This will certainly set back regional integration efforts in Latin America.

He has also likened China’s government to assassins and said Chinese people were not free, recycling an old Western narrative on China. The incoming president has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but has not issued definitive pronouncements on his vision of Buenos Aires’ relationship with Moscow.

Most interesting will be Milei’s approach to the BRICS grouping, especially considering that Argentina was one of the countries invited to join the group as a full member at its summit in August. It is difficult to see how Milei will be able to work with countries such as South Africa and Iran in the group whose ideological positions are diametrically opposed to his.

However, history has shown that statements uttered by populists on the campaign trail are a poor guide to their policies when they assume power.

The chances of Argentina cutting diplomatic ties with countries like China and Brazil are slim as that would be counter-productive and harmful to the country’s economic interests.

David Monyae is Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Science, and Director of the Africa-China Studies Centre at the University of Johannesburg.