Legislators in Argentina have approved President Javier Milei’s divisive “omnibus” reform bill after days of debate, paving the way for a decisive vote in the Senate.
The lower chamber of deputies approved the package in principle by 144 votes to 109 in a vote on Friday. The sweeping bill, meant to start transforming the state and the economy, may undergo changes before heading to the Senate.
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While the vote took place, crowds of demonstrators gathered outside Congress to protest. Critics have said the government will use the bill to increase the exploitation of natural resources, benefit the private sector and cut resources for the environment and culture.
“We have two clear options – become the largest slum in the world, or continue this path towards prosperity and freedom,” said Lorena Villaverde, a lawmaker from Milei’s far-right Freedom Advances party in support of the bill.
Shortly before the vote, Milei said on social media that legislators had “the opportunity to show which side of history” they wanted to be on.
“History will judge them according to their work in favour of the Argentines or for the continued impoverishment of the people,” a presidential statement said.
Risks of reform
Milei, 53, won a resounding election victory in October, riding a wave of anger about decades of economic crises in the South American nation, where annual inflation stands at more than 200 percent and poverty levels are at 40 percent.
He began his term by devaluing the peso by more than 50 percent, cutting state subsidies for fuel and transport, reducing the number of ministries by half, and scrapping hundreds of rules to deregulate the economy.
His reform package touches on many areas of public and private life, from privatisations to cultural issues, the penal code, divorce and the status of football clubs.
But opposition deputy Leandro Santoro pointed to the economic and social crisis of 2001 as an example of the risks of free-market reforms.
“We Argentines already know what happens when the economic model focuses on adjustment and deregulation,” he said.
‘The nation is not for sale’
On Friday, police fired tear gas at crowds of demonstrators outside Congress while the vote took place.
Reporting from Buenos Aires, Al Jazeera’s Teresa Bo said that this bill is a big political test for Milei and his hopes to reform Argentina’s economy.
“Thousands of people have gathered outside to express concerns with Milei’s plans for Argentina,” Bo said, adding that people chanted, “The nation is not for sale”, outside Congress.
Vanina Biasi a left-wing Front lawmaker, told Al Jazeera that the rights that Argentians have are at risk.
“The bill touches fundamental issues that affect people,” she said.
These protests come just over a week after tens of thousands of Argentines took to the streets in a major challenge to Milei’s budget-slashing policies.
In a vote of confidence behind Milei’s reforms, however, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on Wednesday approved the disbursement of about $4.7bn to Argentina.