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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 06-04-2024 06:39

Is President Milei growing in stature?

Argentina’s president is exercising power fully, even as he continues to learn how the dynamics of it works.

There isn’t such a thing as a school of presidents. Unless they are standing for another time and get re-elected, voters do not truly know how a politician will behave once he or she reaches the highest office when they cast their ballot. Argentina did not know what type of president the anti-system libertarian TV personality Javier Milei would be like once installed in the Casa Rosada. Maybe they still do not fully know. But by now, two things are certain: one, Milei is taking the job seriously; two, he seems to be enjoying every minute of it.

During last year’s campaign, for a moment, it seemed like Milei was about to lose it. Right after his somewhat disappointing result in the first round of the presidential ballot (30 percent of the vote, the same percentage he recorded in the August primary but almost seven percentage points behind Sergio Massa), Milei seemed so out of focus that many speculated he would quit the second-round race despite having the upper hand. He didn’t. And in the end, he won.

Since taking office four months ago, Milei has grown into the Presidency. He likes to call his position “just another job” and he seems to have given this job two main descriptions: one, to recreate the Argentina that existed at the turn of the 20th Century; and two, to install himself as one of the leaders of the global alt-right.

Milei is taking these two tasks very seriously. Unlike other fellow alt-right leaders, like for example Donald Trump, Milei is humourless. He is solemn when he executes the first part of his job description and intense and aggressive when performing the second. Maybe because some thought of him as a joke during the campaign, given his chainsaw-wielding rallies, the tales about him talking to his dead dog, his messy hair and his rants on talk-show television, the President appeared not to be sufficiently presidential.

As a result, he has now resorted to reading most of his speeches, and even in interviews, he only lets his true self loose occasionally, like he did this week when he described how he plays with his cloned dogs at the Olivos presidential residence every morning (he surprisingly mentioned his original English Mastiff Conan too, which was presumed to have died in 2017).

The lack of fun in Milei’s world, however, does not mean he is not enjoying being in the position. Milei is exercising power fully, even as he continues to learn how the dynamics of it works. An example of this is his relationship with provincial governors and foreign leaders, all of whom can fall victim to his verbal abuse on Twitter. But Milei and his political strategists are no fools or wackos: any presidential escalation is more often than not followed by an effort from officials to thaw, as was the case last week with Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro. The sticks seem larger than the carrots, but the carrots are there nonetheless.

Argentines are used to surprises when it comes to the character of their presidents. The late Carlos Menem, someone Milei admires, also looked like a joke to many during the 1989 campaign that took him to the Casa Rosada amid hyperinflation. Unlike Milei, Menem was ironic and even self-mocking when about his own limitations. And after achieving the sort of currency stability that Milei would die for right now, Menem became one of the longest-serving leaders in the country’s history (1989-1999).

Right after Menem, Fernando De la Rúa seemed like a natural fit for the Presidency. He had a flawless political career and looked so presidential that his campaign in 1999 had to challenge the notion that he was “boring.” But his time in office lasted less than two years and the country was anything but bored as he resigned in December 2001 amid the most severe political and economic crisis on record.

Milei is still establishing his presidential demeanour and the way his name will go down in history is far from being settled too. His staunchest opponents imagine him falling in total disgrace, hopefully being removed by Congress on the grounds of mental insanity – à la Peru. In fact, a splintered, radical Kirchnerite group called ‘Soberanos’ organised a round table this week under the question of “Are the conditions set for an impeachment of President Javier Milei?”. His most ardent supporters, on the contrary, picture him as a hero of global reach who will tame the hidden sources of socialism with his libertarian ideas. The truth is likely to stand somewhere in the middle, but Argentina does not always like middle-of-the-ground outcomes.

 

* Marcelo J. García is a political analyst and Director for the Americas for the Horizon Engage risk consultancy firm.

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Marcelo J. Garcia

Marcelo J. Garcia

Political analyst and Director for the Americas for the Horizon Engage political risk consultancy firm.

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