Mr. Milei’s election should remind the Biden administration to pay more attention to Latin America’s unstable politics. Democratic norms throughout the region are weakening. A Latinobarómetro poll this past summer surveyed thousands across Latin America, finding that only 48 percent of respondents said democracy is preferable to any other form of government, the lowest share since the poll began in 1995. Some 54 percent said they would accept nondemocratic government if it could solve the nation’s problems.
Argentina’s vote feeds into a question coursing across the Americas, and indeed, the wider world: How will voter anger, justified and otherwise, transform politics? Facing low growth, rising crime and corruption — on top of the coronavirus pandemic, which hit South America particularly hard, disenchanted voters in Latin America clearly feel an overriding urge to kick the bums out. But can anti-incumbent animus give way to stable political equilibrium? Or is there a point when it threatens democracy itself?
The anti-incumbent mood has already shown that the “pink tide” of electoral wins by the left since 2020 did not amount to a durable sea change. Mr. Milei’s victory comes in the wake of a May election that saw the Chilean right defeat allies of leftist President Gabriel Boric for control over the drafting of a new constitution. (A referendum on the draft takes place in December.) In Colombia, left-leaning president Gustavo Petro was dealt a setback in October’s local elections. Also last month, the scion of the nation’s richest family, Daniel Noboa, defeated Luisa González, the candidate from the left, in presidential elections in Ecuador.
Known as “the madman,” partly because he brandished a chain saw on the campaign trail to suggest how he would cut the Argentine state, Mr. Milei made for an unusual candidate — and probably won’t be a conventional president. Still, Mr. Milei won more because voters rejected his opponents than because they support the specifics of his platform, which, alongside ditching the currency in favor of the dollar and nixing over half the country’s federal ministries, includes soft-pedaling the crimes of the 1970s-era military dictatorship, banning abortions and loosening gun regulations.
Though he styles himself a libertarian — or, as he puts it, “anarcho-capitalist” — Mr. Milei’s bombast makes some Argentines fear a turn toward authoritarianism. This is a man who has claimed an “almost natural affinity” with Mr. Trump, as well as Mr. Bolsonaro, an apologist for Brazil’s abusive military dictatorship. Then again, given how little support Mr. Milei’s upstart party enjoys in Argentina’s congress, the real danger might be ungovernability.
The region’s electoral swerves from left to right do not mean Latin American voters can’t figure out what they want. Actually, they do: security and freedom from fear, economic and social stability, a shot at prosperity, and end to organized crime and a beginning to honest government. Huge flows of migration, which has affected Latin American countries almost as much, if not more, than the United States, is shaking social compacts in countries unused to welcoming foreigners at scale.
Voters are cycling through their electoral choices in search of solutions. At least Argentines remain well-disposed toward democratic rule: 62 percent agree it’s the best form of government, according to the Latinobarómetro poll. Sixty-one percent are unsatisfied with how democratic government is working; but only 38 percent would accept a nondemocratic government that solved their problems.
These data give democracy’s friends in Argentina and the wider hemisphere something to work with. As it has done with other controversial candidates to which Latin electorates have turned, the United States should judge Mr. Milei by what he does in office, not what he said during the campaign. And it should support democracy in the region both directly and indirectly — including by maintaining and strengthening its own.
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Members of the Editorial Board: Opinion Editor David Shipley, Deputy Opinion Editor Charles Lane and Deputy Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg, as well as writers Mary Duenwald, Christine Emba, Shadi Hamid, David E. Hoffman, James Hohmann, Heather Long, Mili Mitra, Eduardo Porter, Keith B. Richburg and Molly Roberts.