Carried by a wave of supporters shouting and brandishing chainsaws in the open, the man of the moment moved closer to the front of the stage.
He looked around and shouted angrily: “Chainsaw! Chain saw ! » » – a war cry quickly echoed by his supporters calling for carnage.
All around him, screams, songs and horns ring out loudly.
This was not a WWE wrestling show, but the 2023 presidential race in Argentina, where political outsider Javier Milei is the leading candidate. His repeated appearances wielding a chainsaw at campaign stops – as he did at the rally described above in the resort town of Mar del Plata on September 12 – symbolize promises to drastically cut government spending, eliminate public subsidies and “break with the status quo”. ” ”
Milei, an economist and former political commentator, surprised Argentina’s political scene in August when he won the largest share of a coalition primary vote that most observers see as indicative of the upcoming presidential election, scheduled for October 22.
Argentine politics have largely been dominated by the same groups for the past 20 years, and Milei represents a new external force that is aggressively targeting traditional power brokers on both sides of the aisle. It’s a familiar story that draws comparisons to the rise of other far-right stars like former U.S. President Donald Trump and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
Like Bolsonaro, Milei rose to fame at a time of great economic crisis in his country: Argentina’s annual inflation reached 124% in August, its highest level in more than 32 years, and food prices in particular increased by 15% compared to the previous month, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses INDEC. And like Trump, Milei was able to channel a feeling of anger towards a political class perceived as distant and ineffective.
To the Trumpian slogan “Drain the swamp,” Milei’s supporters shout “Everyone, leave!” ! ” which translates to “May they all go!” ” – an expression of fury against politicians on both sides of the spectrum. Argentina’s left is currently in government, after being led by the right from 2015 to 2019.
Milei is running as the revival candidate – an offer that clearly struck a chord with people during the primary vote. The question now is whether his strategy will hold up until next month’s national elections.
“I will vote for Milei because I think he will change things,” said Eduardo Murchio, a taxi driver in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital. “I’m tired of the same faces, the same governors (…), I’m 40 years old and it’s still the same story,” he told Reuters.
Milei, single and living with five English mastiffs – one of them named after the neoliberal economist Milton Friedman – describes himself as a libertarian and an “anarcho-capitalist”. He promised to cut public subsidies and eliminate culture ministries; education; environment; and women, gender and diversity; among several others.
Perhaps Milei’s most significant proposal is to dollarize Argentina, a radical plan he says is the ultimate solution to the country’s chronic inflation problems. Replacing the peso with the US dollar and foregoing sovereign monetary policy would hardly be a new approach in Latin America, where Ecuador, El Salvador and Panama all use the US dollar – but this approach remains untested in a country as big as Argentina.
But Milei’s skills as a macroeconomic strategist are also untested; he worked as a financial analyst in the private sector before entering politics.
“Opening the economy without any protective barriers has never happened in Argentina,” said Javier Marcus, a finance professor at the Rosario National University in Buenos Aires. While other countries have effectively stabilized prices through dollarization, abandoning monetary policy would effectively mean giving up Argentina’s ability to influence its own country’s finances.
Marcus points out that dollarization would further expose Argentina to foreign economic problems – a significant departure from other populist leaders. “It’s a big difference because Trump and Bolsonaro always talk about putting their country first and supporting local manufacturing,” he says. “But if you look at Milei, you’ll see he’s always talking about opening Argentina to the world.”
Much less acceptable to many, however, is Milei’s tendency toward extreme personal attacks, often seen as sexist. In 2018, responding to a question about economic strategies from local journalist Teresa Fria, Milei shouted: “It’s not that I’m a totalitarian. I’m just saying you’re an ass and you’re talking about things you don’t know. You just talked like a donkey and what I’m doing now is taking you off the donkey!
His policies have put him on a collision course with Argentina’s powerful female electorate. During the election campaign, Milei said he would call for a referendum to abolish the 2020 constitutional reform that legalized abortion, although constitutional experts interviewed by CNN expressed doubts about the legality of such a move.
He also took political risks with his passion for targeting Pope Francis, even calling him “the messenger of Satan” in November 2020 – although Milei has distanced himself from these views in recent months. Argentina remains a deeply Catholic country with more than 60 percent of the population identifying as Catholic, according to the CIA briefing book.
Although Milei did not personally attack Pope Francis during the election campaign, a spokesperson told CNN that, for Milei, “Pope Francis represents sectors that prevent the progress of society.”
Facing Patricia Bullrich and Sergio Massa
But despite her headline-grabbing rhetoric and resounding success in the primary, Milei’s bid for president is far from over. Argentina’s presidents are elected under a two-round system that favors coalition building and aims to maintain extremism in the camps.
Recent polls show the vote split three ways, with Milei slightly ahead of traditional center-right candidate Patricia Bullrich and leftist Sergio Massa, the current economy minister.
Bullrich, a former security minister, told CNN en Español that she would let economists run the Finance Ministry and offer a firm, calm hand at the wheel in relation to Milei’s outbursts.
Massa, considered Milei’s main rival, is trying to position himself as a more pragmatic left-wing voice than the current government coalition. He has worked to distance himself politically from high-profile Argentine Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner without alienating her power base.
Neither Massa nor Bullrich is expected to deal with Milei at this stage of the campaign, and both traditional coalitions have been quick to criticize his lack of governing experience and the risks of unraveling Argentina’s existing economic structures.
Still, experts say there’s a clear appetite for change this year — and the winning candidate must find a way to capitalize on it. “This election is about change, even Sergio Massa represents a change in the continuity of government,” Claudio Jacquelin, deputy editor of Argentina’s main newspaper La Nación, said in an interview with CNN en Español on Wednesday.
On Sunday, the candidates will hold a first debate with compulsory participation. A first round of voting will follow three weeks later. If no candidate obtains 45% of the votes (or more than 40% with a gap greater than 10% with the next candidate in the total votes), the two best-placed candidates will proceed to a second round in November.
The second round, more competitive, after weeks of confrontation and comparison, will be the biggest test for Milei. Although his surprise rise has worked in his favor so far, the sometimes extreme novelty of his ideas could spook voters as the race continues, Facundo Nejamkis, director of the polling firm Opina, told CNN in Buenos Aires. Areas.
“The challenge (of Milei) – in view of the second round – is to avoid fear or uncertainty among the vast majority (of voters), who could end up voting for a candidate they had never thought of, just to prevent Milei from gaining power,” he said.