Why women’s votes could make or break Milei’s victory in Argentina’s elections

The libertarian’s proposals include shuttering the Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity, putting abortion rights to referendum, and reverting progressive sex ed laws

“You shall not pass. The green wave is going back to the streets.” That’s the Argentine feminist movement’s message to libertarian economist Javier Milei. 

On Thursday afternoon, the Ni Una Menos feminist movement is leading a march down Avenida de Mayo to Congress, where they will hold their green handkerchiefs high to show that they will defend the right to legal, safe and free abortion, come what may.

Milei is leading Argentina’s presidential race after coming first in August’s primaries. The libertarian, an outsider with his far-right La Libertad Avanza coalition, has said he considers abortion “homicide aggravated on the grounds of the relationship” several times. He has even suggested a referendum to end legal abortion in Argentina if he’s elected. 

Milei’s vice presidential candidate, Victoria Villarruel, said during a debate last week that sex education “should be based on biological content, not on the teacher’s ideology.” Her comments are a rejection of Argentina’s progressive Comprehensive Sex Education law, known as ESI by its Spanish initials. 

The 2006 law establishes that schools in Argentina should teach children about not just the birds and the bees, but the cultural, social and identity aspects of sexuality, too. Campaigners and educators view it as essential to fighting gender-based violence and transphobia. Like Villarruel, Milei has spoken out against the ESI law several times. 

The Women, Gender and Diversity Ministry, created by the Alberto Fernández administration in 2019, would also be on the chopping block in a prospective Milei government. In a recent campaign video designed to highlight his scorched-earth approach to cutting the state, the ministry was one of eight with their names written on tags that he dramatically ripped off a board, saying as he did so: “Women, Gender and Diversity Ministry: out!” 

In characteristically abrasive style, Milei has said he “won’t apologize for having a penis” and that eliminating the ministry is part of the battle against “cultural Marxism,” a far-right antisemitic conspiracy theory that defends conservative values.

While most of the presidential candidates have not included specific proposals on gender and women, Milei deliberately attacks these issues, according to Eleonor Faur, a sociologist at the Economic and Social Development Institute (IDES, by its Spanish initials). Part of his identity, political analyst Tania Rodríguez adds, is leaving women out of his platform, and going straight for men’s votes.

Who votes for Milei and why?

In this light, it’s unsurprising that Milei’s success appears to have been delivered disproportionately by men. According to several recent surveys, most of Milei’s voters are men, and the age profile skews young: he is most popular among those between 18 and 49, according to an Opina Argentina survey published earlier this month.

Of the survey’s male interviewees, 41% said they would vote for Milei in the presidential elections, compared with just 26% of women. “In past elections, there wasn’t such a significant imbalance” between male and female vote for any of the candidates, according to Opina Argentina’s director, Andrés Gilio. “This puts him in the same place as [former Brazil President] Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, whose supporters were also mostly middle-aged men.”

A September survey from Taquion consultancy found that 64% of Milei voters were male and 36% were female. A June survey by Zuban Córdoba agency had similar results: 62% male, 38% female. An August survey by the University of Buenos Aires Psychology Faculty found that 43% of male respondents supported Milei, almost double the 23% of women who gave the same answer.

Why are so many men voting for Milei, instead of Juntos por el Cambio (JxC)’s Patricia Bullrich, who shares some of his proposals? “They are middle-aged men, with middle-class income, who have witnessed their quality of life worsen in recent years,” Gilio said. “They have no expectations that their material life conditions will improve, and that produces anger. Milei represents that anger very well. He provides them with a future perspective.”

For those worried about their plummeting purchasing power over the last 10 years, a decade during which both the Unión por la Patria (UxP) Peronist ruling coalition and JxC have had a crack at turning Argentina’s economic woes around, Milei’s dollarization proposal “guarantees social and economic progress in a way that speaks to [these men],” Gilio said.

In recent years, the feminist and LGBTQ+ movements in Argentina have gone from strength to strength. As a result of their tireless campaigning, many of the movements’ historic demands have been met, including legal abortion, same-sex marriage, and the right to live one’s own gender identity. 

“Feminism became common sense for the Argentine society, especially among women,” said Adriana Carrasco, a journalist who has been politically active in the feminist movement since 1985. In this context, many men — cisgender, straight men in particular — feel they have been left out and their needs neglected. And they’re angry. “They are furious, because women are not subjected to them anymore,” Carrasco added.

Rodríguez called this a “punishment vote” from certain male voters against other political sectors, like UxP, which has a progressive stance on gender. “Discourse against feminism pairs perfectly with voters who accumulate frustration, anger and unfulfilled promises,” she said. 

Blaming equality measures for the economic crisis is a tactic frequently used by these sectors, Rodríguez said. “It builds the idea that there are always other priorities before women and LGBTQ+ people’s rights, like inflation,” when in reality economic policies can have the power to redress inequality, the political analyst added.

Can women turn this around?

Only 70% of the electoral roll showed up to vote in August, the lowest presidential primary turnout since these elections were created in 2009. Electoral participation from 2011 — the first year that primaries were held in Argentina — to 2019 averaged 76%. Turnout was lower than this August only for the 2021 midterm elections when it dipped to 68% amid COVID-19 measures.

Voter turnout for general elections is usually closer to 80%. This raises questions about whether women who didn’t vote in the primaries will show up at the ballot box next month, how they’ll vote — and whether their votes could tip the balance.

In Argentina, presidential candidates need at least 45% of the vote, or 40% with a lead of at least 10 percentage points, to win in the first round. If these numbers are not met in October, there will be a run-off on November 18.

LLA came first in the primaries, with 29.9% of the vote. JxC followed with 28%, then came UxP with 27.2%. According to Opina Argentina’s survey, Milei is now leading with 34% of vote intention, and Sergio Massa, UxP’s candidate has risen to 29%, while support for Bullrich — trapped in the middle ground — has appeared to be wavering. While polls in Argentina are notoriously imperfect, these numbers suggest the vote will go to a run-off between Milei and Massa.

With just over three weeks to go until the elections, the political landscape could still shift. But one thing is clear: with Milei in the running, the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people will be on the ballot.

You may also be interested in: Javier Milei could win Argentina’s elections. But could he govern?

Cover photo credit: Anita Pouchard Serra


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