Argentina has been genuinely democratic since the murderous military regime collapsed after it started and lost the Falklands war forty years ago. There were intervals of democratic rule even earlier in its history. Yet the country has an almost unique ability to make the worst possible choice in its elections.
Take the current presidential election, which began with three leading candidates last month. The conservative candidate, Patricia Bullrich, was probably the favourite of the International Monetary Fund, because she seems least likely to default on the $44 billion that the IMF is lending the country. (Argentina’s last default was only three years ago.)
But Bullrich fell at the first hurdle, leaving Sergio Massa, economics minister in the ruling ‘Peronist’ coalition, to face a run-off election this month against ‘anarcho-capitalist’ Javier Milei, who is a product of the same bioreactor that incubated Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and assorted other luminaries of the populist hard right.
Except that, this being Argentina, everything political is a bit weirder than elsewhere. ‘Peronist’ refers to Juan Perón, a military dictator who seized power in 1946, was overthrown in 1955, regained power in 1973, and was succeeded by his wife when he died the following year. (That wife was not ‘Evita’ of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical but a later incumbent.)
His Peronist movement combined old-fashioned socialism with ultra-nationalism in a form that never worked economically but is still the ‘Peronist’ style fifty years after his death. “Everything for a friend, not even justice for an enemy,” he once said, and that too was an approach that has stuck. (Perón also admired Hitler, but we don’t talk about that any more.)
If you don’t fancy Sergio Massa’s pedigree, how about Javier Milei then? Like Trump, he came into politics via showmanship on television (tantric sex coach, not pretend self-made businessman). Milei is pro-guns, anti-abortion, he has an amazing hairdo and he says that climate change is “a socialist lie.”
But Milei goes much further than Trump. He calls Pope Francis a “Communist turd” and “the representative of the Evil One on Earth.”
He promises to dynamite the central bank, replace the peso currency with the US dollar, close down free public health services and abolish free public schools. Sometimes he waves a chainsaw as he talks.
He calls Massi’s Peronist coalition “a criminal organisation” and blames it for the 140% inflation that has plunged almost half the population into outright poverty, but he hasn’t forgotten about the poor. He promises to change the law to enable cash-strapped Argentines to sell their internal organs for cash.
You could never attract large numbers of voters with this kind of vicious nonsense in a normal country, but Argentina left normal a long time ago. People in the United States worry about the future of their country after six years of extreme polarisation and division; in Argentina that kind of division goes back generations.
The price Argentina has paid for this kind of politics is very high. In 1895 it was, per capita, the richest country in the world, and even as late as the 1920s it ranked among the top five. Now it ranks 66th, below Mexico and just above Russia and China.
Perhaps even more aggravating is the fact that Argentina has also fallen behind its neighbours: GDP per capita in Uruguay and Chile is 60%-70% higher. Moreover, the divisions between rich and poor in Argentina are probably wider than in either of its peers.
Other poor countries handle their poverty with some dignity and seek rational ways to escape it, but they haven’t fallen so far from such a great height. Argentines are not fools, but many of them are very angry about what has happened to their country – and that traps them in exactly the kind of politics that did the damage in the first place.
The result is that they are very likely to vote Javier Milei into the presidency on Sunday. It will probably be close, but recent polls show him ahead of Sergio Massa by a margin of around 5% of the vote.
And then, after a couple of years, like all the would-be national saviours before him, he will crash and burn, taking another chunk of the country’s economy and its self-respect with him as he goes. The vicious circle Argentina is caught in must be broken one day, but it won’t be this time around.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.