Carried by a wave of screaming fans brandishing a chainsaw in the open, the man of the hour approached center stage.
He looked around and shouted angrily “Chainsaw! Chainsaw! – A war cry quickly picked up by his followers who called for a massacre.
All around them, shouts, chants and traffic horns blaring 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 rallies – as he did at the demonstration described above in the coastal city of Mar del Plata on September 12 – symbolize promises to slash 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 majority of the coalition primary elections that most observers consider indicative of the next presidential contest, scheduled for October 22. .
Argentine politics has largely been dominated by the same groups for the past 20 years, and Milei represents a new outside force that is aggressively attacking the 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 such as former US President Donald Trump and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
Like Bolsonaro, Milei rose to prominence at a time of major 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 grew by 15% compared to the previous month, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses INDEC. And like Trump, Milei has known how 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 go away!!” which translates to “Let them all go!” – an expression of fury towards politicians on both sides of the aisle. The Argentine left is currently in government, after the right-wing government from 2015 to 2019.
Milei presents himself as the renewal candidate, an offer that clearly struck a chord with people in the primary vote. The question now is whether her strategy will hold up during next month’s national vote.
“I will vote for Milei because I think she will change things,” says Eduardo Murchio, a taxi driver in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. “I’m tired of the same faces, the same governors (…), I’m 40 years old and it’s always the same story,” he told Reuters.
Milei, who is not married and lives with five English mastiffs (one of them named after neoliberal economist Milton Friedman), describes himself as a libertarian and “anarcho-capitalist.” He has promised to cut public subsidies and get rid of culture ministries; education; atmosphere; and women, gender and diversity; among several others.
Perhaps Milei’s most significant proposal is to dollarize Argentina, a radical plan that, according to him, is the definitive solution to the country’s chronic inflation problems. Replacing the peso with the US dollar and giving up a sovereign monetary policy would hardly be a new approach in Latin America, where Ecuador, El Salvador and Panama use the US dollar, but it has not been tested in a country as large as Argentina.
But Milei’s skill as a macroeconomic strategist has also not been tested; He worked as a financial analyst in the private sector before entering politics.
“Opening the economy without any protective barrier has never happened in Argentina,” said Javier Marcus, a finance professor at the National University of Rosario in Buenos Aires. While other countries have effectively stabilized prices thanks to dollarization, giving up monetary policy would effectively mean giving up Argentina’s ability to influence its own country’s finances.
Marcus notes that dollarization would further expose Argentina to external economic problems, a significant break with other populist leaders. “That’s a big difference because both Trump and Bolsonaro always talk about putting their country first and supporting local manufacturing,” he says. “But if you look at Milei, you can see that he always talks about opening Argentina to the world.”
Much less acceptable to many, however, is Milei’s tendency toward extreme personal attacks, often seen as sexist. Once in 2018, responding to a question about economic strategies from local journalist Teresa Fría, Milei shouted: “It’s not that she is a totalitarian. I’m just saying you’re an idiot and you talk about things you don’t know. You just talked like a donkey and what I’m doing now is taking the donkey away from you!
His policies have put him on a collision course with Argentina’s powerful female electorate. During the election campaign, Ella Milei has said that she would call a referendum to abolish the country’s 2020 constitutional reform that legalized abortion, although constitutional experts interviewed by CNN raised questions about the legality of such a measure.
He has also taken political risks with his passion for attacking Pope Francis, even referring to the Pope as “an envoy of Satan” in November 2020, although Milei has distanced himself from those views in recent months. Argentina remains a deeply Catholic country with more than 60% of the population identifying as Roman Catholic, according to the CIA data book.
While Milei has not personally attacked Pope Francis during the election campaign, a spokesperson told CNN that, for Milei, “Pope Francis represents sectors that impede progress in society.”
Confrontation with Patricia Bullrich and Sergio Massa
But despite his headline-grabbing rhetoric and stunning primary success, Milei’s bid for president is far from a done deal. Argentine presidents are elected in a two-round system that favors coalition formation and is designed to keep extremism aside.
Recent polls show that the vote is divided into three parts, with Milei slightly ahead of the traditional center-right candidate Patricia Bullrich and the leftist Sergio Massa, the current Minister of Economy.
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 compared to Milei’s outbursts.
Massa, seen as Milei’s main rival, has been trying to position himself as a more pragmatic voice on the left compared to the current governing coalition. He has worked to distance himself politically from Argentina’s prominent vice president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, without alienating her power base.
Neither Massa nor Bullrich are expected to deal with Milei at this point in the campaign, and both traditional coalitions were quick to criticize his lack of government experience and the risks of unraveling Argentina’s existing economic structures.
Still, experts say there is 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 within the continuity of the government,” said Claudio Jacquelin, deputy editor of the major Argentine newspaper La Nación, in an interview with CNN en Español on Wednesday.
On Sunday the candidates will hold a first debate with mandatory participation. A first round of voting will be held three weeks later. If no candidate receives 45% of the vote (or more than 40% with a difference of more than 10% with the candidate next in total votes), the two highest ranked candidates will proceed to a second round in November.
The second round, more competitive after weeks of confrontation and comparison, will be Milei’s biggest test. While her surprise rise has worked in her favor so far, the sometimes extreme novelty of her ideas could scare voters as she continues the race, Facundo Nejamkis, director of the firm, told CNN. pollster Opina, in Buenos Aires.
“The challenge (of Milei), facing the second round, is to avoid fear or uncertainty among the vast majority (of voters), who could end up voting for a candidate they never thought about, just to prevent Milei from come to power. ,” he said.