Argentina’s political system is braced for an earthquake after parties on the extreme left and right made big gains in weekend midterm congressional elections, putting an end to decades in which the country’s populists and conservatives wrestled for power.
Sunday’s vote saw the Peronist Front for Everyone coalition of President Alberto Fernández lose its majority in Congress for the first time in almost 40 years and lose its stronghold of Buenos Aires province to the center-right coalition Together for Change.
Nationally, the Trotskyist Leftist Worker Front (FIT) won the third largest share of the votes, but it was the sudden rise of the far-right libertarian Liberty Advances party that dominated local coverage of the results.
The party’s wild-haired leader, Javier Milei, has refused to be vaccinated against Covid, denies climate change is real, and describes himself as a “lion”.
Milei rose to fame last year with on-air boasts of his sexual prowess, eventually converting media notoriety into votes and peeling away support from Together for Change, the conservative party of former president Mauricio Macri, who hopes to return to the presidency in 2023.
“Free souls; thank you for your roar,” Milei said after wining 17% of the vote in the capital city of Buenos Aires – previously unheard of for a third party in the nation’s capital. “This is a historic event. Being a liberal is no longer shameful in Argentina.”
As if to confirm the party’s maverick image, a victory celebration on Sunday night was overshadowed by the behaviour of an armed party bodyguard who flashed his weapon at a heckler.
The party’s congressional seat winner, Victoria Villarroel, looked on impassively as the bodyguard stormed on to the stage before her, pulled back his coat and unclipped his holster in what appeared to be a threat, before he was removed by party officials.
Villarroel, who campaigns for the release of the jailed torturers and murderers of Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship, said: “They’ve taken the bread from our mouths, they’ve stepped on our heads with taxes and regulations. Today is the victory of the common people.”
The party’s success was hailed by far-right groups across the region which have found growing political success with a mixture of climate-skeptic, Covid-denialist, nationalist and militarist messages.
“The triumph of Javier Milei in Argentina is great news for Latin America. Argentina is a great country and for decades it has been ravaged by populism and incompetence. Enough of abuse and corruption!” tweeted José Antonio Kast, the far-right candidate in Sunday’s presidential elections.
The arrival of new far-right and far-left faces in congress is likely to add further uncertainty to a scenario in which President Fernández has lost his quorum in the senate.
Fernández’s Peronist Front for Everyone and the conservative Together for Change coalition ran neck and neck in Argentina’s main electoral district, the province of Buenos Aires with 15 million of Argentina’s 45 million inhabitants, both obtaining 15 seats in the lower house of congress. Another far-right party led by the economist José Luis Espert won three seats and the leftwing FIT two.
FIT meanwhile emerged as the third political force nationwide, with about 6% of the national vote, previously unheard of for a leftist party, gaining congressional seats in a number of provinces.
“There’s been a growth on both the right and on the left,” said Myriam Bregman, elected as a lower house legislator for the city of Buenos Aires. “It’s evident that there is a sector that is starting to see the left as a way out of the economic and social situation, because the left is now the third national political force,” Bregman added.