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Milei's radical agenda advances in Argentina's Senate as protesters clash with police

A car burns during clashes between police and protesters outside Congress  in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, June 12, 2024.
A car burns during clashes between police and protesters outside Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, June 12, 2024. Copyright AP
Copyright AP
By Euronews with AP
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The populist president has made plans to dramatically slash spending and boost his own powers, and has met with public outcry.

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After an all-night voting marathon, Argentina's Senate approved President Javier Milei 's sweeping proposals to slash spending and boost his own powers, as thousands of protesters clashed with police outside the building.

Senators voted 37 to 36 to give provisional approval to the two bills while thousands of protesters poured into the streets, burning cars and throwing Molotov cocktails as hundreds of federal security forces pushed back with rounds of tear gas and water cannons.

The vote — which was decided by a tiebreaker from Vice President Victoria Villarruel — delivered a major boost to Milei, whose efforts to reshape the government and economy have run into tough resistance in Argentina's opposition-dominated Congress.

Argentine Vice President and Senate President Victoria Villarruel speaks before casting the tie-breaking vote in favor of a bill promoted by President Javier Milei.
Argentine Vice President and Senate President Victoria Villarruel speaks before casting the tie-breaking vote in favor of a bill promoted by President Javier Milei.AP

“Tonight is a triumph for the Argentine people and the first step toward the recovery of our greatness," Milei posted on X, calling his bills “the most most ambitious legislative reform of the last 40 years.”

But critical elements of the wide-ranging legislation still have to survive an article-by-article vote in the Senate. After that, the bill heads back to the lower house, where lawmakers must okay any modifications before Milei can officially claim his first legislative victory.

Lawmakers from the right and the left have clashed over numerous parts of the 238-article state reform bill, including the declaration of a one-year state of emergency and the delegation of broad powers to the president until the end of Milei's term in 2027.

Other controversial measures include an incentive scheme that would give investors lucrative tax breaks for 30 years.

Milei is a political outsider with just two years' experience as a lawmaker, and his three-year-old party, Liberty Advances, holds just 15% of seats in the lower house and 10% in the Senate.

Police line up during clashes with anti-government protesters outside Congress where lawmakers debate a reform bill promoted by Javier Milei in Buenos Aires. June 12, 2024.
Police line up during clashes with anti-government protesters outside Congress where lawmakers debate a reform bill promoted by Javier Milei in Buenos Aires. June 12, 2024. AP

Milei has been unable to pass a single piece of legislation in his six months of presidency, raising questions about whether he can execute his ambitious project to trim the deficit and spur growth. Instead, he's used executive powers to slash subsidies, fire thousands of public employees, devalue the Argentine currency and deregulate parts of the economy.

The spending cuts and currency devaluation that Milei has delivered have — at least in the short term — deepened a recession, increased poverty to 55% and sent annual inflation surging toward 300%.

“If this law passes, we are going to lose so many of our labour and pension rights,” said 54-year-old teacher Miriam Rajovitcher, protesting ahead of the vote alongside colleagues who say they’ve had to reconfigure their lives since Milei slashed school budgets and devalued the currency. “I am so much worse off.”

Analysts say the promised benefits of Milei's reforms — a stable currency, tamer inflation, fresh foreign investment — won't materialise without a political consensus to convince foreign investors that his changes are here to stay. Milei's administration has said it wants to strike a new deal with the International Monetary Fund, to which Argentina already owes more than €40 billion.

“Everyone is in a wait-and-see mode,” said Marcelo J. García, Americas director at geopolitical risk firm Horizon Engage. “Investors say, ’Yes, we love what you’re saying, but we need to see that this is sustainable.”

Milei's allies said they had made tough concessions. Liberty Advances has agreed not to sell off the country's post office, the flagship airline Aerolíneas Argentinas, or the public radio service, leaving just a handful of state-owned firms, including Argentina's nuclear power company, on the block for possible privatisation.

An anti-government protester holds an Argentine flag by police near Congress where lawmakers debate a reform bill promoted by Argentine President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires.
An anti-government protester holds an Argentine flag by police near Congress where lawmakers debate a reform bill promoted by Argentine President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires.AP

Milei's original pitch late last year to privatise more than 40 state-owned Argentine companies met with uproar, particularly among the country's powerful Peronist-dominated labour movement.

That anger was audible ahead of the Senate vote Wednesday in downtown Buenos Aires, as bankers, teachers, truckers and thousands of union members and activists converged around Congress, chanting: “Our country is not for sale!”

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