Argentina as a Latin American bellwether

After Argentina’s election yesterday, opposition parties in Latin America have now won 19 of the past 21 presidential ballots. That trend provides a reference point for thinking about the region and the turn that its fourth-most populous country just signaled.

Given the choice between the sitting economic minister of a far-left government and a provocative libertarian backbencher to become Argentina’s next leader, voters opted for the unknown. That fits a pattern. The country has now tacked to the right after years of corruption and economic dysfunction (the inflation rate was 143% on Election Day). Yet a desire from voters for honest, effective governance echoes popular aspirations that have also swept a handful of leftists into power elsewhere from Honduras to Brazil in recent years.

“The single most exciting thing in Latin America right now is the strength of democracies,” Susan Segal, head of the Americas Society Council of the Americas, told Americas Quarterly recently. “Indeed, as we have seen time and again, when governments do not meet expectations, they are replaced in free and fair elections.”

The election on Sunday, a runoff between Sergio Massa, the ruling party candidate, and Javier Milei, the leader of a nascent fringe party, underscored the durability of Argentina’s democracy 40 years after the end of a brutal military dictatorship. One sign of that was reflected in Mr. Massa’s concession. When he cast his ballot earlier in the day, he spoke of a future of “goodwill, intelligence and capability but above all, dialogue and the necessary consensus.” He stuck to that hours later, offering in defeat “a message of coexistence, dialogue and respect for peace.”

Mr. Milei has prescribed major reforms to pull Argentina – an oil producer and food exporter – out of negative economic growth with a free-market approach. His proposals to dismantle the central bank, replace the peso with the U.S. dollar, and eliminate scores of government agencies raise eyebrows among many economists. He campaigned without grace, insulting opponents and alleging election fraud without proof after failing to win the first round of voting last month. He has vowed to roll back reproductive rights that took decades for women to achieve.

Even so, he swept 21 of 24 provinces and received a higher percentage of the popular vote than any presidential candidate since 1983. One reason was his appeal for breaking down the political “caste” of the left that has made Argentina one of the most unequal societies in Latin America. In an Americas Society Council of the Americas poll taken last week, voters ranked inflation and corruption as their top concerns. Valeria Brusco, a political science professor at the National University of Córdoba in Argentina, likened the results to “the voice of the ones that are never heard,” in an interview today with Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

During the campaign, the moderating effects of democracy could be seen in the alliances that Mr. Milei forged with more centrist conservatives – including former President Mauricio Macri. Once in office, the president-elect will also need to build coalitions to pass legislation.

The vote, Mr. Macri said, ushers in an opportunity for restoring shared confidence. Mr. Milei “knew how to listen to the voice” of young and impoverished voters, he said. Now, the new government “will need support, trust and patience from all of us.” If set on those values, Argentina will add momentum to a region’s deepening embrace of democratic ideals.

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