InsightsArgentina votes Milei

Argentina votes Milei

Light at the end of a very long tunnel?

It was a long night that culminated in a street celebration in La Recoleta, lasting until dawn. Residents, awakened by traditional drums and car horns, joined the revelry until sunrise over the Rio de la Plata. The cause? The ousting of the incumbent Perónist administration through a democratic election, a first in the country’s history.

Milei’s victory and political realignment 

Javier Milei’s victory was resounding, marking the most significant electoral triumph since Juan Domingo Perón’s ascendancy over 80 years ago. Leading the La Libertad Avanza party, Milei secured 55.71% of the popular vote, leaving his rival, former Economics Minister Sergio Massa, taking a “leave of absence” after conceding defeat at his campaign headquarters in Buenos Aires. Milei’s alliance with Mauricio Macri and Patricia Bullrich attracted votes, notably in Mendoza and Cordoba. In return, they are poised for cabinet roles post-Milei’s inauguration on December 10.

The shift in power promises change for Argentina. Concerns for the future echoed among the youth, expressing fear regardless of Massa’s potential election. Scenes from the centre of Buenos Aires revealed Milei’s supporters had been planning a victory celebration for days. A celebrant draped in the national flag mentioned, “we fear the disruption, but we are angry about economic policies that don’t work, many of which were constructed to buy votes.”

Everywhere there were placards with Milei’s picture already dressed in the sash of office of the President. Many partygoers were wearing football shirts of the victorious team which won the World Cup; a singular triumph in an otherwise lacklustre few years of record inflation.

The President-elect has already started developing his policies with a reconfiguration of ministers with new names like Infrastructure and Human Capital as well as the more traditional Interior, Foreign and Defence. Economics will be a key ministry and Milei has already said there will be no room for half measures in his policies, adding “today begins the reconstruction of Argentina” ironically echoing the chant of the first Perónist administration.

Amongst his flagship ideas are the abolition of the Central Bank and the national speed limits. No-one is quite clear what the former will entail but it is linked to his idea of replacing the peso with the US dollar. The latter is directly linked to his culture change denial and popularity with the urban young. According to social media posts, over the next few days there will be more ideas coming out and the codification of his election promises.

Foreign policy challenges and global dynamics

On foreign affairs, President-elect Milei has been forthcoming about the Falklands/Malvinas issue and suggesting that a way forward might be a Hong Kong-style lease. This has been tried before, of course, and was rejected by the Kelpers (as the Islanders are known) and whose views Milei says he will respect. Britain will engage with the new president and is keen to reduce tension in the South Atlantic. Milei has said force is not an option and when asked about the claim to the islands, simply quoted the national constitution, thus avoiding a Perónist trap. Even so, London will watch developments carefully.

But the South Atlantic has another more immediate challenge for Milei – the vast Chinese fishing fleet operating off Patagonia. An airline pilot, also celebrating in Buenos Aires, spoke of flying domestic routes to Ushuaia at the very south of Argentina and seeing a vast “fleet of lights at sea” as the Chinese attract squid to the surface to be hoovered up. Chinese fishing vessels bring in all important foreign exchange and buy supplies from the local market. This will not be an immediate issue that Milei will want to address.

Milei has already said that he “will not make deals with Communists” when pledging his support for Ukraine rather than the Perónist position of lukewarm condemnation of Russia’s invasion. The new president’s problem is the existing leases for port facilities in Argentina and the rights already given to China over sovereignty of those facilities. “If Argentina and other South American states are going to prosper, the short-term benefits of Chinese fishing fleet port calls have to be outweighed by the long-term destruction of marine life,” explained the airline pilot.

With no real maritime surveillance capability, Argentina is hampered with a policing role, and many see this type of operation – for common economic good – as an opportunity of working with neighbours and even the United Kingdom. Uruguay is in the process of signing a free trade agreement with China and has a difficult balancing act between trade and environmental concerns with the Chinese.

Military reformation: Priorities amidst strategic shifts

Argentina’s military overhaul initiated in 2006 by former President Néstor Kirchner is ongoing. The simple investment has taken a few years to put in place, but the air force received funding for recapitalisation in 2023 – including second hand F-16 fighters from Denmark and surveillance aircraft from the US – the navy in 2024 with maritime patrol aircraft from Norway and then the army’s recapitalisation of the three elite armoured cavalry regiments. Milei’s willingness to prioritise this programme amidst lacking existential threats remains uncertain.

Support from Western allies may shape Milei’s decisions. Washington and London have been consulting on ways to keep the Chinese from buying influence with cheap military equipment. London doesn’t see new tanks as being an issue but will closely watch the capital investment made by the Milei administration.

The F-16 issue vexed the British Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office because of the significant increase in Argentine capabilities, not helped by the local social media, which talked of sinking ships and shooting down the Typhoon air defence fighters of the Royal Air Force based in the Falklands/Malvinas. Britain had a veto over the sale because the F-16AD version is fitted with UK-made ejection seats. The Americans, conscious of the need for this air defence fighter capability to be enhanced, threatened to fit US-manufactured seats in the F-16s if London didn’t co-operate.

Ironically, it was the diplomats who opposed the F-16 transfer whilst the UK Ministry of Defence was content, knowing the respective capabilities and understanding the need to keep China out. In the last five years, the UK government blocked the sale of Korean FA-50 fighters and the transfer of Brazilian Gripen (designed in Sweden) to Argentina. “The pressure from Washington has grown too intense for the matter to be ignored anymore,” confirmed one source in London. China has already offered J-17 fighters and full training for a knock-down price to the previous administration.

Offshore surveillance has long been an issue for Argentina. Not just keeping tabs on the British and what it sees as the robbing of natural resources around the Falklands/Malvinas but also to watch the Chinese fishing; there are numerous reports of transgressions into the exclusive economic zone. Argentina has had to make accommodations using transport aircraft and calling on neighbours for assistance. The planned acquisition agreed with Norway will include P-3 Orion long-range maritime patrol airframes, training and support. Additional support and equipment will be provided by the US State Department although it is not expected that the maritime patrol aircraft will start operational service until 2025.

It had been expected that the US will provide new main battle tanks for the Ejercito Argentino, if asked, but this will now depend on the new President’s plans for relaunching the economy. “In the meantime, we will continue to play polo,” laughed an Argentine cavalry officer. Another capability in need of urgent upgrading is the helicopter force which requires more advanced machines to take the mountain troops higher into the Andes than possible with today’s equipment. So many wants and so little cash.

Enhancing the military overwater surveillance capability would aid oil and gas exploration offshore and in some inshore waters around the Beagle Channel, where Chile and Argentina nearly came to war in 1978. Proper exploitation of natural resources, including recently found lithium in a despot which stretches into Chile, will led to more funding for the government confers and the military hopes that some of that cash would come into its budget, if not immediately, then by the next election in 2027.

With Milei’s assertion that climate change is a hoax, there are entrepreneurs already in Buenos Aires talking to government. One oil development company employee from Canada commented, “Argentina could just be the next land of opportunity for us,” an encouraging signal that businesses will engage here if the economic conditions are right. Milei has a long way to go but perhaps he has started in the right direction.

About the Author

Paul Beaver
Paul Beaver
Paul Beaver is a broadcaster and commentator. His previous posts were as a war correspondent for television and the Editor-In-Chief of Jane's Defence Weekly.
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