The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He raffles off his salary. He could be Argentina’s next president.

Javier Milei celebrates his election to Argentina’s Congress with supporters in Buenos Aires on Nov. 14, 2021. (Amilcar Orfali/Getty Images)

BUENOS AIRES — When Javier Milei ran for Argentina’s Congress last year, he made pledges that seemed unlikely to win many votes in this historically profligate South American nation.

The 51-year-old economist, a self-described anarcho-capitalist, said he would break up the ruling class, slash government and shut down the central bank, whose poor monetary policy, he argued, “steals” money from Argentines through inflation.

But one promise appears to have made an impact: If elected, Milei said, he would raffle off his monthly pay. “To me, that is dirty money,” he said. “From my philosophical point of view, the state is a criminal organization that is funded through taxes taken from people by force. We are giving back the money that the political caste has stolen.”

Since Milei took office in December, 2.4 million Argentines have registered for a chance to win his $3,200 paycheck in drawings that are streamed live on social media. Of perhaps greater consequence: The previously obscure politician, whose ideas fall mostly outside the political mainstream here, is the leading candidate in early polls for next year’s presidential election, with support from voters across the spectrum.

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This nation of 45 million is deeply polarized between the left-wing Peronism of President Alberto Fernández and the center-right coalition founded by his predecessor, Mauricio Macri. The sides have delivered an economy beset by anemic growth, thin job creation and rampant inflation. Analysts say the rise of Milei suggests a new openness among beleaguered Argentines to a third way.

“Milei articulates people’s anger better than anyone else,” said Lucas Romero, the director of the Buenos Aries consulting firm Synopsis. “His verbiage against political leadership helps him build support grounded on poor economic results over the past decade.”

“... The ideology of a state-centric economy that has been so dominant in Argentina for over two decades is finally crumbling,” Romero said.

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Librarian and bookseller Jorge Flores, 49, looks forward to voting for Milei for “cultural change.” He says the lawmaker’s emergence has lifted him spiritually. “Before he came along, an anarchist used to be an outcast who would be met with laughter,” he said. “But now, Milei is saying these things out loud: destroy the state, enter the system and blow it up from the inside.”

As president, Milei says, he would cut spending dramatically so he could reduce taxes. He would strengthen ties with the United States and other Western powers and draw support from allies who oppose the ideas of the left now rising in the region.

“Latin America has a way out only if it embraces ideas of liberty once again,” Milei told The Washington Post. He has said he would “cut off his own arm before raising taxes.”

Milei is perhaps the most radical member of a group of libertarians who made gains in 2021 midterm elections. It was the first time in decades that the limited-government philosophy drew sizable support, a surprise in a country long ruled by variants of left-wing Peronism.

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For publicist Thomas Finsterbusch, 42, it’s the only solution. “Many people believe that the state has to take care of everything,” he said. “But in the end, all it does is step on our heads with all its weight. It is time for a counterrevolution.”

Milei’s rise has been aided by widespread feelings of pessimism and apathy. The country has completed a deal with the International Monetary Fund to avert the latest in a series of defaults, but monthly inflation of 6.7 percent in March suggests that price pressures are only worsening. Polls indicate majorities of Argentines think the economy will be worse a year from now and expect their children to be worse off in the future.

“Today, Milei is a repository of people’s frustrations,” said Mariel Fornoni, the director of the Buenos Aires polling firm Management & Fit. “Expectations are incredibly low. Every single political leader that we measure has a very bad public image, and that is something that I’ve never seen in ages.”

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Milei has drawn support from across the political spectrum — even among low-income Argentines, who traditionally have been a reliable base for the Peronistas. In Barrio Padre Mugica, a shantytown in Buenos Aires, his Freedom Advances coalition drew as much as 17.2 percent support last year.

But with no segment have Milei’s ideas caught on as with the young. He draws crowds to public lectures and social media, where influencers spread and amplify his ideas.

Flores, the librarian, was surprised a couple of years ago as he saw boys as young as 11 buying books that Milei recommended on television. “It is the first time that I see children buy texts of [Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich] Hayek as if they were fanatic philosophy readers,” he said. “These are all dense books, extremely hard to read. I have rarely seen that level of enthusiasm.”

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It’s unclear whether support for Milei will hold through the election in October 2023. The economy could stabilize. His aggressive, abrasive manner could wear thin. The economy could improve.

“I am among those who think that Milei’s chances are real,” said the political scientist Ana Iparraguirre. “And what worries me the most is that this virulent speech, with anti-democratic strains, could produce long-term scars that are more serious than whoever wins.”

Martín De Bernardis voted for Fernández in 2019 and Macri in 2015. Both disappointed him. Now the 24-year-old insurance company worker is considering emigrating. But first, he’ll cast a ballot.

“I can’t see a future for me in Argentina,” he said. “Politicians just remember us when it’s time to vote. For me, it is either Milei or a one-way ticket. He is my last hope.”