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Argentina dances on the edge of the abyss

We understand as anti-politics every ideological narrative and articulated interpretative tool that aims to argue, on the one hand, the dispensability of organizations and institutions such as political parties and Parliament and, on the other hand, the centrality of technical rationality to the detriment of political rationality. Both from a symbolic point of view and from public management practices perspective.

The appearance of the figure of Javier Milei in Argentina, as an expression of a traditional politics rejection phenomenon, is not new in the country. If in 2001 the protest against the political system was expressed through the use of objects such as slices of ham or ballots with the figure of popular characters such as Clemente (“a doll without hands will not steal”) was the most heard phrase in 2001, the equivalent in 2023 seems to be Milei, the candidate for the group La Libertad Avanza (Freedom Moves Forward). The difference is that the libertarian leader appears today as a competitive option for the October presidential elections.

What explains Javier Milei’s rise?

The rise of the La Libertad Avanza leader could be explained by three fundamental factors. The first one is related to the regional context; the second, to the midlife crisis that Argentina’s democracy is going through; and the third, to the often surprising character that has characterized Argentine politics since 1983.

Regarding the first factor, the region has been a true testing ground for the emergence of anti-political leaders with different levels of electoral success. From those who came to power like Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, or Pedro Castillo in Peru, to very competitive candidates who were narrowly defeated in the second round like Rodolfo Hernández in Colombia or José Antonio Kast in Chile.

With regard to the second factor, the long cycle of 40 years of democracy confronts us with a very modest balance in terms of the satisfaction of social expectations. This has been a process of few achievements (a resilient democracy and the growth of the civil rights agenda of a different generation) and many frustrations in relation to the non-fulfillment of multiple demands. The hopes raised by Raúl Alfonsín’s campaign slogan in 1983 have not been fulfilled: “With democracy we can eat, we can cure, and we can educate”.

The result, after these four decades, is a state with strong limitations when it comes to providing all kinds of essential public goods such as health, public safety, education or justice at the national, subnational and municipal levels. Despite this, the official discourse tries to emphasize the idea of a present state, which shows a clear gap between the official narrative and the daily reality of citizens.

The third factor that explains Milei’s rise is the country’s vast experience in terms of the emergence of political actors, undetected by the radar of traditional politics, who quickly managed to become national political references.

At the beginning of the democratic transition, after the Malvinas debacle in 1982, Raúl Alfonsín was an unknown leader of the Unión Cívica Radical and, barely a year later, he became the new president of Argentina. Then, in 1988, a peripheral leader of the Justicialist Party, Carlos Menem, defeated the “natural candidate” of the group, Antonio Cafiero, and began his ascending path to the Presidency between 1989 and 1999. The same could be said of Néstor Kirchner, Mauricio Macri or Alberto Fernández as examples of the rich tradition of “tapados” (covered-up) in Argentine politics. The exceptions have been Fernando de la Rúa and Cristina Fernández.

Who will be the next “tapado”? Is Argentina before a future Lionel Scaloni of national politics or facing a collective frustration? 

Is the wolf coming?

Argentina is facing a dilemma that is difficult to resolve. On the one hand, a political class that is incapable of solving multiple problems on the public agenda ends up being part of the problem, or, at least, is perceived as part of it. On the other hand, amateur politics of quick solutions and easy slogans that, by connecting with the anger and disenchantment of a large part of the population, becomes a potentially bigger problem.

Last March 5 was the 10th anniversary of Hugo Chávez’s death. This should serve as a reminder of what happens when politics dances on the edge of the abyss. In Argentina, the disruptive leader may be just around the corner.

*Translated from Spanish by Micaela Machado Rodrigues  

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Cientista político. Profesor asociado de la Univeridad de Buenos Aires (UBA). Doctor en América Latina Contemporánea por el Instituto Universitario de Investigación Ortega y Gasset (España).

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