Milei and the challenges of democracy


In last Sunday’s final round of the presidential election in Argentina, a clear majority of that country’s voters called the political order to order in a dramatic way. Call the election of Javier Milei a protest vote, a cry of distress, a last democratic manifestation of a desperate people or simply just an extremely risky political experiment – but what is true is that enough Argentinians have had enough of a democracy that no longer serves them does not stand

The result and Milei’s election are simply about the accountability of the political dispensation towards the citizens in whose service politicians, but also the system should stand. Nice theories about democracy, the rule of law and even the constitutional order mean dates if 40% of people live in poverty, inflation stands at 143%, the peso has lost 90% of its value against the dollar and factories stop production due to a shortage of foreign currency to import raw materials.

Francis Fukuyama writes in The Origins of Political Order on political accountability. According to Fukuyama, this basically boils down to a realization among rulers of their responsibility towards the people over whom they rule and the need to always put these people’s interests first.

The idea of ​​political accountability is a strong part of liberal Western democracy that arose in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Age of Enlightenment. In the 19th century, liberal democracy began to spread to the New World, although it is mainly since the end of World War II that liberal democracy has spread around the world. By 1992, Fukuyama had come to the conclusion, extremely naively, that with the rise of Western liberal democracy and the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, the end of history had also arrived and that liberal democracy was finally the world will dominate.

The assumption was always that liberal democracy would establish property rights, free trade, the rule of law and strong accountability by politicians which would consequently lead to economic benefit. In most cases it has always worked this way and several studies have shown that countries with a healthy democracy often also tend to experience higher economic growth and therefore more wealth creation.

The American founder and second president, John Adams, liked to refer to the necessity of a government of laws and not of men. Adams was a great supporter of a constitutional democracy in which the elected office bearer always had to function in the background and as a temporary guardian of order.

Adams would no doubt have been very uncomfortable today with his own country’s politics and the enormous emphasis on individuals and their capacities in most democracies. The American obsession with the charisma and personal popularity and influence of their political leaders has increasingly given rise to interesting political entertainment in recent years, but weak governments, which have eroded the democratic values ​​of the system.

According to Henry Kissinger, one of the greatest challenges facing political leaders today is the need to prevent the demands of the present from overwhelming the future. According to Kissinger, good political leaders’ personal characteristics and way of acting must not harm their ability to convince society of a vision of the future and take people with them.

Winston Churchill made his famous remark in 1947 that democracy is indeed the worst form of government, apart from all the other forms that have been tried from time to time. To this day the question remains – what is the alternative?

When, shortly after the end of the Cold War and the fall of communism, Fukuyama was under the impression that liberal democracy was the last remaining option, he did not realize how the weaknesses in the montage of his beloved liberal democracy by the 2020s would become a substantial challenge of democracies all over the world would lead.

Democracy and economy cannot be judged separately. Churchill also once remarked that democracy means that if the doorbell rings in the early hours of the morning, it is probably the milkman. In a well-functioning democracy, property rights, innovation, free trade, knowledge transfer and an established legal order should lead to healthy economic growth and wealth creation.

The Turkish economist, Çiğdem Kariş, published a study in 2020 on the relationship between economic growth and democracy. She concluded that democracy is the only proven political system that continues to achieve long-term sustainable economic growth.

Kariş goes further and emphasizes the interplay between healthy democratic dispensations and economic growth, and how one positively influences the other. However, if one weakens, the other is greatly exposed.

This brings us to Argentina and the risk to democracy in that country. Churchill was also outspoken against socialism. He described socialism as a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, the gospel of envy and the equal distribution of misery.

Between 1852 and 1930, Argentina was a typical Western liberal democracy. By 1910, the per capita income in Argentina was higher than in Japan and Italy, and comparable to the average income in France and Germany. Argentina has been ranked as one of the ten richest countries in the world. However, a military coup in 1930, socialist governments afterwards and also the dictatorship in the late 1970s seriously harmed the country economically.

With the return to democracy in 1982, the Argentine economy was already in trouble and since then socialist governments have faced the challenges of huge public debt, an unsustainably large and expensive public service and welfare programs, high inflation, low productivity, limited foreign investment and in the end brought about repeated bankruptcies. Today, Argentina is a poor country that cannot repay its foreign debt, with runaway inflation, interest rates of 128% and immense poverty and unemployment.

It is clear that the economic crisis in Argentina can also threaten democracy in the country. However, it would be foolish to think that Milei’s election poses a threat to democracy in Argentina. His election is rather a reaction to a profound crisis where citizens are prepared to abandon democracy in the hope of a better life.

The presidential election in Argentina was in many ways a confirmation of the existing strength of democracy in the country rather than, as some commentators have claimed, marking the beginning of the end of democracy in Argentina. The election campaign was characterized by a robust debate about the future of Argentina. Ultimately, radical libertarian economic ideas, combined with conservative and right-wing political policy proposals on everything from education and welfare to abortion rights, triumphed over the established leftist and socialist order of the Peronist movement that had ruled Argentina for most of the past four decades.

Milei’s election stands in stark contrast to, for example, the political crisis that arose in Peru last year and which largely put democracy there on the back foot. However, this also confirms Kariş and numerous other economists’ point that democracy can hardly have a healthy survival in an environment of continuous economic decline.

In recent years, democracy has been eroded by the Peronists to such an extent that Milei not only has the task of fixing the country’s economy, but also of restoring trust in democracy. His peculiar personality, status as an outsider, radical, sometimes even extremist political ideas and his eccentric past, without any political vehicle in the Argentine Congress, will contribute to his uphill battle.

Outsiders are not without success. In 2017, Nayib Bukele was elected president of El Salvador. He was an outsider in a country that was desperate for a savior to solve the country’s crime and other problems. He has had great success ever since. The homicide rate has already dropped by 50%.

In Europe, too, we see how there is currently a search for a political knight on a white horse in several countries. In such political circumstances, eccentric individuals, outsiders and persons with strange, unconventional ideas naturally stand out. The search for a charismatic individual is the central theme. In Wednesday’s election in the Netherlands, there was more talk about the personalities of leaders such as Geert Wilders, Frans Timmermans, Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, Caroline van der Plas and Pieter Omtzigt than about the workability of their policy proposals.

Milei’s election, although democratic, free and fair, indicates a total rejection of the existing political order in Argentina. The 56% of voters who voted for him basically turned their backs on all existing political parties and these parties’ policies by taking a totally unknown, untested path. However, Milei is a democrat. He may be right-wing, libertarian and even eccentric, but it is clear that he believes in democracy in Argentina.

Should Milei’s radical economic proposals succeed, such as replacing the peso with the American dollar, closing Argentina’s central bank and shutting down more than half of the government departments, in four or five years there could be talk of the Argentine miracle. If Milei fails, it could also mean the end of democracy in Argentina.

The same threat faces South Africa, but also other developing countries with struggling economies and a political ruling class that over the years has eroded democracy and democratic institutions to such an extent that citizens are willing to take chances. According to the 2021 AfroBarometer poll, two-thirds (67%) of South Africans would be willing to give up elections if an unelected government could provide security, housing and jobs. The combination of a weakened democracy and desperate citizens struggling under the yoke of a frozen economy does not bode well.

Ultimately, the Milei project will follow one of three routes. This could produce a miracle, which could lead to renewed confidence in Western liberal democracy. It can fall into usual political wrangling and achieve small successes and no failures, or it can be a colossal failure that will mean the beginning of the end of democracy in Argentina. The same three routes may lie ahead for South Africa after next year’s election.

The British writer, John Dalberg-Acton, known as Lord Acton, once said: “The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to rule. Every class is unfit to rule.” The only hope for the survival of democracy and the economic benefits of a Western liberal democracy will not lie in charismatic individuals. Rather, it will lie in vibrant democratic institutions. Precisely because of this, the lesson for South Africans is to urgently strengthen our institutions so that they can withstand the storms of populism and other political dangers.