50.50: Feature

Young people’s anger fuels far-right populist as Argentina’s election nears

Libertarian Javier Milei is turning economic hardship, cynicism and rage at the political class into votes

Juan Elman
Juan Elman
9 August 2023, 12.52pm

Followers of Javier Milei, Argentine presidential pre-candidate for La Libertad Avanza Alliance, at the Movistar Arena in Buenos Aires, 7 August 2023


Luis Robayo / APF / Getty Images

The star of Argentina’s ongoing election cycle is a libertarian economist who has proposed complete dollarisation and claims climate breakdown is a “socialist lie”. Every TV channel covers him. His name is brought up in taxis and hair salons, by both those who think he is the last hope for the country’s troubled economy’s and those who are panicked by his proposals.

Beyond dollarisation, Javier Milei proposes an end to free and compulsory education, which he would replace with a system based on school vouchers; a gradual privatisation of the healthcare system; deregulation of the arms market; and scrapping mandatory sex education, which he views as a ploy to destroy the family. Many of his proposals have left him mired in controversy, such as when he expressed support for a free trade in human organs, regulated by only the market.

Five years ago, 52-year-old Milei wasn’t even a politician. Now he consistently polls third in the run-up to Argentina’s presidential election on 22 October. Key to understanding his rise are the country’s young people – and their anger.

“We needed to get into politics. My generation has a duty to change what’s going on in this country. Since we were born, we have never seen Argentina fine,” said 24-year-old Mila Zurbriggen, who was raised in the northern Formosa province and now lives in Buenos Aires.

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Zurbriggen jumped into the libertarian space after leading Pro-Life Youth, a group created to resist the 2018 bill that attempted to decriminalise abortion (the bill was rejected but another that legalised abortion up to 14 weeks was approved in 2020).

From there, she went on to lead the youth wing of Milei’s party, Freedom Advances (LLA, by its Spanish acronym). Zurbriggen left LLA in February, denouncing the alleged exchange of sexual favours and money for leading places on electoral lists. She claims she has suffered harassment and threats by Milei’s followers ever since. “Milei ended up being another byproduct of the ‘[political] caste,’” she told openDemocracy.

Still, she understands – and agrees with – the reasons why many young people follow him.

“My generation’s outrage is very deep. It has a profound disgust for politicians. I think Javier [Milei] has been able to channel this rejection very well. He exists because of the politicians disconnected from the reality of my generation and unaware of the damage they have done,” she explained. “They have turned a blind eye to our needs and are taking us for a ride.”

Milei, who identifies with far-right leaders Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, or Spanish politician Santiago Abascal, presents himself as an outsider who will uproot the “political caste”. He seems to have had some success in this: never before has there been so much debate about Argentinian politicians’ salaries and privileges.

Before entering politics, Milei was an economist who worked as a consultant and adviser for large financial companies, the World Economic Forum and the G20. Ten years ago, he began frequently appearing on TV shows as a commentator and talk show panellist, cultivating an aggressive style that often led to him shouting at other guests, especially if they were progressive.

In 2021, Milei won a seat in Congress, having gained 17.3% of the vote in his native Buenos Aires City. His campaign sealed an alliance with conservatives, particularly Victoria Villarruel, a lawyer known for supporting officers convicted of human rights abuses during the last military dictatorship (1976-1983), who entered Congress in the same year. Villarruel is now running on Milei’s presidential ticket, as his proposed vice-president.

On 13 August Argentina will hold primaries (known as PASOs) to whittle down the number of candidates running in the presidential and congressional elections. Voting is mandatory – making the PASOs useful for predicting the outcome of elections – with members of the electorate being required to vote in the primary of one political party or alliance of their choice. The candidate that receives the most votes in each primary earns that group’s nomination and will be on the ballot for the general election, provided the group received more than 1.5% of the total vote share.

Presidential hopeful Javier Milei at his campaign rally, 7 August 2023

Presidential hopeful Javier Milei at his campaign rally, 7 August 2023


Luis Robayo / APF / Getty Images

Milei, the only presidential candidate of his party, has shaken up the centre-right primaries landscape. Unlike in past years, when political alliances had no real internal competition, this time there are battles for the nominations of the two main groupings: Union for the Homeland, the Peronist centre-left alliance that is currently in government, and Together for Change, the centre-right opposition alliance founded by former president Mauricio Macri.

Together for Change’s primary is particularly competitive. Fighting for the nomination are Buenos Aires’ moderate mayor, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, and rightist hawk Patricia Bullrich, the minister of security under Macri. The ‘Milei effect’ in shaping public discourse could secure a victory for Bullrich, who has already voiced her similarities with the far-right economist. But if Larreta wins the primary, some of Bullrich’s voters may migrate to Milei in the October general election.

The PASO will also be the first chance to measure the real popular support for Milei, with pollsters suggesting his vote share ranges from 15% to 25%. In a poll published by public opinion firm Zuban y Córdoba last month, 24.5% of respondents said they intended to vote for Milei in the PASOs – making him the second most popular candidate overall behind Sergio Massa of Union for the Homeland, though the combined vote for Together for Change candidates Larreta and Bullrich would put Milei in third.

But opinion polls in Argentina are known to lack accuracy and their results can vary greatly. All, though, agree Milei is set to win large swathes of the youth vote. The Zuban y Córdoba poll put him on more than 40% support among 16- to 30-year-olds – almost twice as high as his closest rival.

In an election where young people account for more than a third of the electorate, this matters. The left-leaning Everyone’s Front coalition won the election and 60% of the youth vote in 2019. The coalition, which has since been officially disbanded and rebranded as Union for the Homeland, seems to have lost a significant part of that support to Milei, who has also made inroads among new voters (in Argentina you can vote from the age of 16, and voting is mandatory from 18 to 70).

“The youth vote for Milei is boosted by the lack of economic prospects and a series of frustrations,” said Ignacio Muruaga, a researcher at Zuban y Córdoba. But Milei’s support is uneven: more than twice as many men support him than women, according to some polls. According to Muruaga, male voters are “attracted by his radical and anti-feminist discourse”.

Contrary to some suggestions that Milei’s success is down to wealthy voters, he fares best in the southern and poorest communes of Argentina’s capital. Several commentators have warned about the success of his libertarianism among voters in working-class districts with Peronist roots.

Peronism, based on the ideas and legacy of Argentine ruler Juan Perón, believes there is an important role for the state in the economy, advocating for social justice and income distribution. It is more commonly associated with the left, such as through the ruling Everyone’s Front alliance, though there are some right-wing Peronists.

Anthropologist Melina Vázquez, who researches youth political participation, spent several months interviewing Milei activists in Buenos Aires province, the most highly populated district in the country and the main electoral stronghold of Peronism.

“There are many young people from lower middle-class families who have a ‘masculine rocker aesthetic’,” she said. Milei appeals to these groups by wearing a leather jacket to campaign meetings and having local rock music as his soundtrack.

At any other time, added Vázquez, “these young people would be represented by Peronism, both in terms of aesthetics and in the slogans they use”. This is what distinguishes Milei's activists and followers from other liberal youth movements. “There is an attempt [by Milei and his followers] to envisage and build a popular right,” Vázquez said, explaining that this movement seeks to distance itself from former president Macri’s right-wing party, PRO. “They are trying to go out into the streets, use flares, and make themselves visible.”

Vázquez added that class plays a larger role in this cohort than among supporters of the traditional right, with many supporters being precarious workers in fields such as home delivery services.

Pablo Vommaro, a co-coordinator of the Policy and Youth Studies Group at the University of Buenos Aires, focuses on economic precariousness among young people and is aware of high levels of disillusionment. “There is a very strong sense of disappointment with recent political cycles, which often translates into anger,” he said.

That’s easily understood: anyone under 25 in Argentina is familiar with at least double-digit inflation rates and a growing sense of uncertainty about the future. After 12 years and three Kirchnerist/Peronist governments – led first by Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and then by his wife, Cristina Fernández (2007-2015) – the economy was stagnant. Since 2013, the halfway point of Fernández’s last term in office, cumulative inflation has exceeded 500%.

Macri’s administration (2015-2019) then worsened things further by most economic metrics. His performance is comparable only to the current Peronist president, Alberto Fernández, whose government has presided over more economic hardships. In the past year, inflation surpassed 115%, while poverty affects 40% of the population.

Vommaro considers the pandemic another crucial factor to understanding Milei’s rise. An extended lockdown, which many young people experienced while finishing high school or beginning college – both of which were forced online – took a toll.

“There is a big crisis regarding how young people feel about the adult world listening to them. And in a context where there are fewer political groups that can appeal to young people, Milei stands out, as he has managed to empathise with that anger,” he said.

“If you’re angry because during the pandemic you couldn't see your friends or because you lost your job or because you're in precarious employment, Milei conveys that anger in Congress or on TV. He curses for you.”

Vázquez found something similar in her interviews. “The pandemic set the stage to resist many government policies, which involved a discourse that sometimes blamed young people. It sparked a sense of a need for freedom. Milei’s main slogan – ‘Long live freedom, damn it!’ – conveys this idea of the government as a dictatorship,” she said. “Scandals over parties held in the presidential house during lockdowns, and irregular vaccinations of people close to political power deepened this sense of unease with the [political] ‘caste’.”

But polls also show something striking: most of Milei's supporters, including young people, reject his bolder economic proposals. Their preference for him is more of an emotional attachment.

The king of TikTok

In his living room, 21-year-old marketing student Mateo Aronow scrolls through TikTok to make a point: Milei is the only politician who features on his homepage.

The first video he finds is a question and answer session between Milei and Iñaki Gutiérrez, the 22-year-old influencer who runs his TikTok account. Gutiérrez and his girlfriend, Eugenia Rolón, another 21-year-old influencer, are Milei’s main links to the ‘Gen Z’ world. Rolón identifies herself on her Twitter profile as anti-feminist and anti-communist, Gutiérrez as anti-communist. Both make clear they are right-wing. Their work seems fruitful: Milei has 1.2 million followers on TikTok, more than all the other candidates combined.

“The guy talks about the economy, and you buy it,” Aronow says of Milei. “On TikTok you saw him give his opinion on specific things – the dollar, the markets – and he was also scathing about [vice-president] Cristina [Fernández]. You’d listen to the guy out and he’d catch your attention. You’d say, ‘Wow, look at this guy. He’s got balls this big!’”

Aronow voted for Peronism in 2019, like all his family, but now he’s determined not to do it again. He is waiting for the PASO results to decide his final vote.

“Larreta disgusts me and I don’t believe anything he says. Bullrich disgusts me too, because of what she could do in [terms of social policies]. I don’t agree with Milei on everything he says, but he brings me a modicum of hope,” said Aronow.

He continued: “Kirchnerism has been in power for 20 years, and Macrism has had a mandate, and the truth is that I’m already upset, because I see that we’ve been the same for years... If I don’t go to vote I’ll be fined. Either I go and put a picture of Messi on the envelope, or I go and vote for Milei, who gives me 3% hope.”

Until 2019, when he left high school, Aronow used to go on feminist marches, encouraged by his classmates. He says it was “the fashion” at the time, though he believed in it too. Today, he has moved away from such activism, and says he sees some aspects of feminism, such as inclusive language as, “disgusting”.

“There is much more rejection of feminism today than there used to be,” he explained. “It's more associated with this government and populism; people identify feminism with pickets [street blockades, a popular means of social protest in Argentina], as part of the same package that sparks a lot of disgust.”

As Milei’s political career took off, other right-wing influencers such as Agustín Laje and Emmanuel Danann, known for their anti-feminist preaching, gained popularity on social media. Some of Aronow’s friends approached Milei after dabbling in other anti-progressive discourses. This wasn’t the case for Aronow, but it doesn’t bother him that Milei is accused of ‘machista’ (sexism). He simply doesn't care about those issues any more.

In an uncertain political climate, Milei has established himself as a black swan, potentially able to change the result of the election. But in the past few weeks, a scandal broke about him supposedly selling Congress and gubernatorial candidacies, which led to the conservative media targeting him for the first time.

The rise of Bullrich, another right-wing candidate, has also somehow eclipsed him recently. In several provincial elections this year, Milei’s candidates, mostly from old political dynasties – that is, from the very ‘caste’ he proposes to destroy – did not fare well.

Nevertheless, Milei remains a symptom of the state of Argentine politics, characterised by anger and apathy. This year saw a sustained drop in turnout and the spectre of abstention – a rarity in an electoral system with compulsory voting – hovers over the country for the first time since the return to democracy in 1983.

“My generation lacks the patience of the older ones,” said Zurbriggen, Milei's former youth leader. “If politicians keep pulling on the noose this is going to end very badly.”

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