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Euroviews. The disquieting shadow of Javier Milei looms over Argentine democracy

Presidential candidate of the Liberty Advances coalition Javier Milei talks to supporters during a campaign rally in Buenos Aires, October 2023
Presidential candidate of the Liberty Advances coalition Javier Milei talks to supporters during a campaign rally in Buenos Aires, October 2023 Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
By Matías Bianchi
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

As the second round of the presidential elections approaches on Sunday, the prospect of Milei's presidency raises each and every red flag, posing a grave threat to Argentina's democratic institutions, Dr Matías Bianchi writes.

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As Argentina marks 40 years of continued democracy — the longest stretch in its history — a disquieting shadow looms over its political landscape. 

The emergence of Javier Milei, a libertarian economist-turned-presidential candidate with a rhetoric steeped in authoritarianism, presents a stark challenge to the nation's democratic fabric.

Milei's ambivalence towards democratic norms is evident. In a television interview, he questioned the efficacy of democracy, citing Arrow's theorem to argue against democratic decision-making. 

More troubling are his proposals that directly contradict Argentina's Constitution, such as the suggestion to outlaw public demonstrations — a clear infringement on civil liberties. 

“We are nearing the end of the caste model, based on that atrocious idea that, where there is a need a [human] right is born, but they forget that someone has to pay for it all. [And the] ultimate aberration [of this idea] is social justice,” a statement that openly references and then contradicts Article 14bis of the Constitution and its social protections. 

In a climate of discontent, Milei's message, which ostensibly challenges the establishment, has found resonance. But the change he advocates could potentially unravel the democratic gains painstakingly achieved over four decades.
Javier Milei, Liberty Advances coalition presidential candidate, holds a cardboard image of a 100 US dollar bill bedecked with an image of his face in Cordoba, November 2023
Javier Milei, Liberty Advances coalition presidential candidate, holds a cardboard image of a 100 US dollar bill bedecked with an image of his face in Cordoba, November 2023AP Photo/Nicolas Aguilera

Likewise, he and others like him propose promoting an unconstitutional law that would “prohibit public demonstrations.”

Argentina has long been grappling with economic mismanagement, escalating poverty, and a growing disenchantment with its political class. 

In a climate of discontent, Milei's message, which ostensibly challenges the establishment, has found resonance. But the change he advocates could potentially unravel the democratic gains painstakingly achieved over four decades.

Milei's authoritarian tendencies, a worrying prospect

As the second round of the presidential elections approaches on Sunday, the prospect of Milei's presidency raises each and every red flag, posing a grave threat to Argentina's democratic institutions. 

Even if he is not elected, his authoritarian ideas and style, like rallying while brandishing a chainsaw, may linger in the country's political discourse, challenging democratic forces to forge a renewed social contract that fosters and expands democracy.

Our think tank, Asuntos del Sur Global, recently conducted a study measuring the authoritarian threats to Argentina's democracy by systematising public declarations of presidential candidates. 

The study adopted the seminal work of Harvard scholars Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt's seminal work, "How Democracies Die". The findings are alarming: Milei's discourse and proposals exhibit clear signs of authoritarianism, a worrying prospect for Argentina's democratic future.

Perhaps most alarming is Milei's readiness to curtail the freedoms of opponents and the press. Threats of legal action against journalists and political adversaries reveal a disposition towards stifling dissent and criticism — a hallmark of authoritarian regimes.
Presidential hopeful of the Liberty Advances coalition Javier Milei brandishes a chainsaw during a campaign event in La Plata, September 2023
Presidential hopeful of the Liberty Advances coalition Javier Milei brandishes a chainsaw during a campaign event in La Plata, September 2023AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

One of the threats identified by the study is the denial of political opponents' legitimacy as a red flag of authoritarian behaviour. 

Milei's derogatory references to opponents, ranging from labelling them as "political diarrhoea", to outright verbal assaults such as “collectivist sons of bitches” or “I could crush you from a wheelchair”, fit this pattern disturbingly well. 

Such rhetoric not only polarises the political discourse but also undermines the very principles of democratic debate and dissent.

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Another indicator of authoritarian tendencies is the tolerance or endorsement of violence. Milei's response to the attempted assassination of former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — treating it as a mere criminal act rather than a symptom of a deeper societal malaise — coupled with his praise for repressive acts during Argentina's dark dictatorship era, signals a dangerous inclination.

Perhaps most alarming is Milei's readiness to curtail the freedoms of opponents and the press. Threats of legal action against journalists and political adversaries reveal a disposition towards stifling dissent and criticism — a hallmark of authoritarian regimes.

Erosion of Argentina's democracy is not just a local issue

The stakes are high. Argentina stands at a critical juncture, facing a choice between preserving its democratic legacy or venturing down a path that could erode its hard-won democratic foundations.

As Argentina navigates this key crossroad in its political history, the responsibility to safeguard its democracy does not rest solely on the shoulders of its citizens; it is a call to action that should resonate across the globe.

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For the Argentine people, the call to action is clear: participation and vigilance. Participation, not only in terms of casting votes but also in actively engaging in democratic discourse, is vital. 

Civil society, media, and educational institutions must work together to foster a culture of democratic values and critical thinking. 

This involves challenging authoritarian narratives, promoting transparent and fact-based political dialogue, and nurturing the next generation's commitment to democratic principles.

Internationally, there is a need for a concerted response. Democratic nations, international organisations, and human rights groups should closely monitor the situation in Argentina, ready to counteract any undemocratic shifts.
Javier Milei, Liberty Advances coalition presidential candidate, right, greets supporters during his closing campaign rally in Cordoba, November 2023
Javier Milei, Liberty Advances coalition presidential candidate, right, greets supporters during his closing campaign rally in Cordoba, November 2023AP Photo/Nicolas Aguilera

Furthermore, Argentinians must hold their leaders accountable, ensuring that any attempts to undermine democratic norms are met with strong, unified resistance.

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Internationally, there is a need for a concerted response. Democratic nations, international organisations, and human rights groups should closely monitor the situation in Argentina, ready to counteract any undemocratic shifts. 

Economic and diplomatic leverage can be employed to support democratic institutions and civil liberties. 

Additionally, international media must shine a spotlight on Argentina’s democratic challenges, raising global awareness and fostering solidarity. 

This international attention can serve as a deterrent against authoritarian tendencies and provide moral support to those fighting for democracy within Argentina.

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One nation's fate impacts the entire global community

Finally, it is essential to recognize that the struggle for democracy in Argentina is emblematic of a larger global trend where democratic values are being tested. 

As such, supporting Argentina’s democracy transcends national borders; it is part of a broader imperative to defend democratic ideals worldwide. In this interconnected world, the fate of democracy in one nation impacts the stability and values of the global community. 

Hence, the defence of Argentine democracy is not just Argentina’s concern it is a regional and global responsibility, demanding a unified and resolute response.

Dr Matías Bianchi serves as Director of Asuntos del Sur Global, a think tank dedicated to democratic innovation in the Global South. He earned his PhD in political science at Sciences Po.

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