Buenos Aires — With wild hair and brash sideburns — and sometimes a chainsaw — Argentinian libertarian economist Javier Milei has become the stand-out image of the South American country’s presidential election and made himself the candidate to beat.
A dark horse outsider until just months ago, the 52-year-old former rock musician and “shock jock” pundit sent shockwaves through the political arena by coming top in an August open primary and is now polling in first place ahead of the Sunday vote.
An aggressive and colourful campaign, ranging from a pledge to “burn down” the central bank to wielding a chainsaw at rallies to symbolise his plans to slash spending, has ignited droves of voters angry at inflation running at 138% and a painful cost of living crisis.
“He has managed to recover something that was lost in Argentine politics, which is that he offers hope,” said Juan Luis Gonzalez, an Argentinian journalist who wrote a book on Milei titled El Loco or “The Crazy One”.
Gonzalez, overall critical of Milei, said that he had successfully managed to portray himself as something new to uproot the political elite, whom voters blame for decades of economic malaise that has worsened sharply in recent years.
“He is an unstable leader for an unstable country,” he said.
Milei, whose brash showmanship has shades of former US president Donald Trump or Italy’s Beppe Grillo, proposes to dollarise the economy, end currency controls, close the central bank, and cut state spending sharply. He also favours laxer gun controls and tighter rules on abortion.
“He is the change that Argentina needs,” said 28-year-old Milei voter Ayrton Ortiz at a recent rally in Buenos Aires province in support of the candidate. Milei has clicked with the country’s youth voters, especially young men.
Milei, who entered politics just a few years ago citing a calling from God, will face off against Peronist economy minister Sergio Massa and former security minister Patricia Bullrich of the conservative Together for Change bloc.
His supporters often use the tag “Forces of Heaven” on baseball caps and internet memes, while Milei has talked up going on “spiritual journeys”. He has, however, also slammed the pope as a “socialist” and “representative of evil”.
Representing the libertarian Libertad Avanza coalition, he is riding a wave of anti-establishment sentiment sweeping the region.
“In terms of political logic, I am a mistake, because what I have come to do is in fact stamp out the privileges of politicians,” Milei said in a 2022 interview when he was starting to rise up the polls. “I don’t care who my rivals are on the ballot, I will beat them all.”
Dogged by economists
Milei has a small circle of confidants, including his sister Karina, who is now his campaign manager and he quipped earlier in 2023 could become his “first lady”.
His other closest companion was his dog Conan, whom he paid $50,000 to clone after his death in 2017, biographer Gonzalez said. He now has four dogs: Murray, Milton, Robert and Lucas, named after liberal economists such as Milton Friedman.
Milei spent most of his career as an economist in business and media. He worked for one of Argentina’s richest business leaders, Eduardo Eurnekian, who became an early supporter of his campaign but recently criticised him as a potential dictator.
Milei’s brash style of railing against critics he denounces as “communists” and “the political caste” has earned him millions of social media followers, but given critics fodder to say he is unfit for office.
Those working with his campaign say it is his authenticity that has made him so successful, especially with two-fifths of the population in poverty and looking for a new voice.
“You can like him or not, but he is himself,” said Fernando Cerimedo, a political consultant who works on Milei’s campaign.
Critics say Milei is a populist promising unrealistic solutions to complex problems, and that he will not be able to implement his plans, especially as his coalition will have few local government leaders and face a fragmented congress.
Fernando Morra, a Peronist former vice-minister of economy during the current government, admitted Milei has energised voters, but cautioned that many of his proposals are hard to implement or could make things worse, stoking voter anger.
“Milei’s voters are excited, some of the few going into the election with hope, but the problem is what’s going to happen if there is disappointment?” he said.
Many Milei voters say they are willing to take the risk.
“All my childhood, I saw how the money wasn’t enough. At the end of the month, you see how they count pennies and cry,” said Milei voter Valentina Brites, 18.
“Javier arrived and you could see: this is something different. Nothing they did before ever changed anything.”
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