BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — In a stunning outcome that few would have predicted even just a few months ago, libertarian economist and former soccer player Javier Milei was elected Argentina’s president, a result that in many ways can be seen as a referendum on the political and social agenda of Pope Francis in his home nation.
Milei, 53, won a resounding victory on Sunday with nearly 56% of the vote in a runoff against Sergio Massa. Milei, a Catholic, won the highest percentage of a vote in a presidential election since the South American nation returned to democracy in 1983.
The self-described anarcho-capitalist — who many have compared to former President Donald Trump — said in a victory speech that the “reconstruction of Argentina begins today,” said Milei.
“Argentina’s situation is critical,” Milei told a crowd of supporters. “The changes our country needs are drastic. There is no room for gradualism, no room for lukewarm measures,” he added.
Milei had also made headlines earlier this year for how he had described the pope, who was also born in Argentina and had once served as cardinal of Buenos Aires. In fact, the pontiff became a political lightening rod after Milei called Francis “a communist” and “leftist son of a b—-.”
Francis’ message against the accumulation of wealth — including criticism of an “economic system that continues to discard lives in the name of the god of money” — has been seen by some voters as an endorsement for Peronism, which some have argued is left-wing populism in the style of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Inflation, meanwhile, continues to skyrocket in a country where that issue isn’t new. Inflation has gotten so high this year — it has soared above 140% this summer — that people are using U.S. dollars to buy high-priced items and goods.
Massa, a member of the ruling Peronist party and a former Economy Minister, conceded defeat, saying Argentines “chose another path” in this election.
“This is a triumph that is less due to Milei and his peculiarities and particularities and more to the demand for change,” said Lucas Romero, who heads Synopsis, a local political consulting firm. “What is being expressed at the polls is the weariness, the fatigue, the protest vote of the majority of Argentines,” he continued.
Milei’s election highlights the Argentina-Francis divide. A 2019 national poll on religious beliefs showed the lack of favor for Francis, when only 27% described him as a global leader who denounces injustices. Some 40% said they were indifferent to the pontiff, according to the survey conducted by the CONICET institute.
In December 2020, Argentina’s abortion law was liberalized after the Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy Bill was passed by the National Congress. Evangelicals, a growing segment of believers in South America, had teamed up with Catholics to combat the bill — much like they have in the United States — but the pope was not involved in those very public debates.
Francis being averse to Argentine politics is understandable. In May 2020, the pope said that when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires more than a decade ago, the Argentine government wanted “to cut (his) head off” by backing false accusations that he had collaborated with the military dictatorship in the 1970s.
“The situation was really very confused and uncertain,” added Francis.
Pope Francis, meanwhile, had not yet publicly congratulated Milei. The Vatican’s own news organizations, Vatican News and l’Osservatore Romano had yet to publish any news about it on Monday. The pope has said he plans to travel to Argentina on an official visit next year.
Milei’s running mate, Victoria Villarruel, 48, is a traditional Catholic who, like the new president, is opposed to abortion.
But it’s the economy that helped Milei’s ticket win and his right-wing Together for Change coalition rise to power. Following October’s first-round vote, Milei struck an uneasy alliance with conservatives. He now faces a fragmented Congress, with no single party or bloc having a majority, meaning he will need to get backing from other factions to push through legislation.
“The model of decadence has come to an end, there’s no going back,” said Milei, who was particularly popular among young voters. “We have monumental problems ahead: inflation, lack of work, and poverty,” he said. “The situation is critical and there is no place for tepid half-measures,” he added.