From polarization to pragmatism

Milei further moderates his rhetoric as he contends with governability, economic concerns

It’s official. The formal election results released this week confirmed that Javier Milei will be the country’s next president. Formalities aside, Milei has wasted little time setting the wheels of his presidency in motion since his election on November 19. 

Those efforts have demonstrated, at least for the time being, a preference for pragmatism over dogmatism. Milei’s campaign was highly ideological. His viral rants often veered into the pedantic, even esoteric, as he lectured listeners on the academic theories underpinning his policy proposals. He strived to present himself as an impassioned technocrat. 

Recent as they are, those days now feel distant. 

Since the runoff, we’ve seen a different, more pragmatic Milei. The president-elect seems to have recognized that his relatively extreme ideas and polarizing rhetoric would complicate governance. Likewise, his probable political indebtedness to Mauricio Macri and Patricia Bullrich, whose voters played a major role in his win, has manifested in Milei’s reaching towards the center, or at least towards the pragmatic. 

Milei has spent the last two weeks making amends with past targets of ire. Pope Francis, China, Brazil, Juntos por el Cambio, and even a Peronist have received overtures of various kinds from the president-elect. 

So why has the poster-child of radical libertarianism pivoted so suddenly? The jury’s out on whether the move is genuine. But, as the person who will be running the country in 10 days, Milei likely has a number of concerns. 

Governability is one. 

Milei’s La Libertad Avanza (LLA) coalition controls just 38 seats in Argentina’s 257-seat Chamber of Deputies and eight senators in the 72-seat Senate. With the unified support of Juntos por el Cambio (JxC), Milei would have had a narrow majority in both houses. But two of the three parties that made up the now-defunct JxC have vowed to oppose the president-elect, meaning he might not reach a simple majority in either house. 

Additionally, Milei’s LLA controls no provincial governorships, which are crucial for implementing federal policy. In the short-term, given the nascent LLA’s shallow political reach, Milei will need to rely on support from outside his coalition. 

But the necessary pragmatic pivot has come to the chagrin of some of Milei’s libertarian allies. This week, after a trip to the United States, Milei tapped Luis Caputo to head his Economy Ministry. A close ally of Mauricio Macri, Caputo served as the former president’s finance minister, even briefly running his central bank. 

In the run-up to Caputo’s appointment, which had been swirling in the political rumor mill, economist and Milei ally Emilio Ocampo turned down the president-elect’s offer to lead the central bank and spearhead his flagship dollarization scheme. Now at the forefront of Milei’s economic policy, Caputo has reportedly downplayed the prospects of dollarization, at least in the near term. 

Also informing Milei’s shift towards collaboration is Argentina’s dire economic situation. The libertarian is inheriting an indebted country with scant foreign reserves and a hobbled economy. Having once vowed to cut ties with “communist” Brazil and China, Argentina’s largest trade partners, Milei has changed his tune. 

Milei thanked Chinese President Xi Jinping, leader of China’s “assassin” government, for the “congratulations and good wishes” following the run-off vote. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, once the “angry communist”, has now been invited to Milei’s inauguration. In the invitation letter, Milei markedly softened his tone, praising the strength of Argentina and Brazil’s bilateral ties (which, again, he had vowed to cut entirely just a few months ago). 

And despite Daniel Scioli’s being a Peronist, Milei has decided to keep him on as ambassador to Brazil. The notable decision to keep Scioli — a Lula favorite — betrays the fact that, for all his ideological talk, Milei recognizes that he’s got to work with the cards he’s been dealt. 

While he’s warming to the countries he once wrote off, Milei has taken pains to reassure the U.S. that he is all-in on realigning Argentina with the West and adopting liberal economic policies. Argentina’s incoming foreign minister, Diana Mondino, reaffirmed this week that Argentina would not join the BRICS group of major developing economies. And during his trip to Washington, Milei confirmed Caputo’s appointment as economy minister to U.S. and IMF officials before even doing so for the Argentine public, which had been waiting for weeks to know who Milei planned to select. 

All that aside, given Milei’s rhetoric on the campaign trail, one would be entirely within reason to doubt whether this is a permanent shift or one born out of necessity. 

With some time, we might see that this pragmatic “pivot” was a necessary if undesirable (for Milei) step towards the libertarian’s achieving his long-term ideological goals. Ultimately, only time will tell.


All Right Reserved.  Buenos Aires Herald