Argentina’s two remaining presidential candidates, Sergio Massa and Javier Milei, made their final pitches to voters in a spicy debate on Sunday, just one week before the country goes to the polls for the run-off.
The rivals, who finished in the top two slots in the October 22 first round to qualify for the November 19 run-off, began by clashing over key economic policies, before addressing foreign policy, education and healthcare, security, human rights and democratic coexistence.
However, there was little in the way of concrete policies as both opponents focused their time on attacks rather than policy proposals – both accused the other of being a “liar” while Massa implied Milei was “mentally unbalanced.”
Ruling Unión por la Patria candidate Massa starred in the first section, surprising Milei with an interrogation of his most controversial ideas and forcing him to confirm he would dollarise the economy and close the Central Bank.
Massa sought to paint Milei as an unstable, unprepared and aggressive figure whose economic policies would hit Argentines hard in the pocket.
"The Argentines have to choose who has the temperance, the mental balance and the contact with reality to be able to take Argentina forward," he said.
The economy minister also suggested that the libertarian lawmaker's “capricious” nature and temperament made him unsuitable to represent Argentina on the global stage.
In the second section, the honours were shared: they moved away from the topics on debate and there were crossed accusations and allegations about each other’s past. However, there was agreement – and rare praise – on how to tackle crime and insecurity. Inflation was the big missing issue.
Often smirking as his rival talked, Milei pitched himself as "a specialist in issues of economic growth with and without money" told voters that if elected he could turn around Argentina’s economic woes, which the La Libertad Avanza candidate blamed firmly on the government.
Blaming the “political caste” for the country’s problems, he repeatedly implied that Massa was corrupt and highlighted his failure to eradicate inflation while serving as economy minister.
The first to speak was Massa, who walked out from behind his lectern to address voters directly. Maintaining the calm tone that has characterised the final stretch of the campaign, he proposed “a great change” that includes the “construction of a great agreement with state policies, dialogue and agreement, and above all, respect for those who think differently.”
Milei, for his part, presented himself as "a specialist in issues of economic growth with and without money" and promised to “end poverty and extreme poverty.” In a notable turn of phrase, he also vowed to “end the cancer of inflation.”
"It is impossible to have an Argentina with the same old people," declared the libertarian, who was supported by candidates from his party at the event.
Members of the opposition PRO party who have backed the libertarian in the run-off – such as Patricia Bulirich and Mauricio Macri – were not in attendance.
In a new attempt to detach himself from the ruling party, Massa told Milei towards the end of proceedings that this election has nothing to do with former presidents Mauricio Macri or Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Instead, said the minister, “it’s between you and me.”
Lies and veracity
Aggressive exchanges dominated the opening part of the debate as Massa repeatedly laid down challenges to Milei, telling him to tell the people the truth about his plans. Temperatures were raised, but did not boil over.
Lies and veracity were the key themes as the ruling coalition candidate and libertarian lawmaker both accused each other of being dishonest.
"You can't be more of a liar,” Milei told Massa at one point. “They told me you were a liar, but every day you get better," he added, to which his opponent responded: "Macri wrote it for you” – in reference to the former president’s decision to back the libertarian in the run-off.
The debate, held at the Law Faculty of the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), began with lengthy exchanges on the economy, Milei’s home turf.
The libertarian, however, failed to score points against Massa and found himself repeatedly pinned back as his rival repeatedly pushed him to clarify his controversial economic proposals.
While the libertarian confirmed that he would dollarise the economy and close the Central Bank if elected, the economy minister sought to corner him with yes or no questions as he accused Milei of lying about the cutting of government subsidies for energy and transport.
Angered, the La Libertad Avanza candidate snapped back: "You are not going to condition me if I answer yes or no.”
"We are going to dollarise the economy, eliminate the Central Bank and put an end to the cancer of inflation," he added.
Attempting to explain how Argentina entered into economic decline, Milei blamed state intervention and political management.
Accused of being a “liar” by his rival, Milei became increasingly aggressive as he accused Massa of “robbing the population.
Seeking to assume control, Massa ‘advised’ his presidential rival to remain calm.
“Stop lying,” snapped back Milei, who said that he was not angry but only expressing rage at the policies that had led Argentina to the “misery” it exists as today.
Thatcher and the Pope
In the second bloc, dedicated to foreign policy, Milei rejected Massa’s claims that he would entirely cut ties with countries such as Brazil and China and said international trade would be handled by private firms, outside of diplomatic relations.
The libertarian’s proposals would put almost two million jobs at risk, warned the economy minister.
"I believe in a free Argentina, that you can trade with whomever you want," said the libertarian. “Not like those who want to regulate trade to get a few advantages,” he added, accusing Massa of favouring his “friends who import” corruptly.
Nevertheless, he later admitted that under him, Argentina “will not have relations with those who do not respect liberal democracy, individual rights or peace," Milei said.
He highlighted the United States, Israel and “the free world” as his potential allies while criticising Mercosur.
Massa meanwhile promised “multi-polarity” would define Argentina’s approach to the world and to open its arms to any country that could improve the situation.
He then went on to attack Milei for previous remarks criticising Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church who was born in Buenos Aires, as “evil” and demanded he apologise. The libertarian did so, saying it was fine to admit to errors.
In an exchange designed to draw attention to Milei’s previous comments on the disputed Malvinas (Falkland) Islands and Argentina’s sovereignty claim, Massa asked his rival if he thought the islanders had the right to self-determination
Getting annoyed again, Milei rejected the claim and told Massa to stop doing “cheap nationalism.” Massa responded by asking about Margaret Thatcher, who Milei once said was one of his heroes.
“Thatcher had a significant role” in history, stumbled the libertarian.
“Thatcher is an enemy of Argentina,” responded Massa firmly, asking his rival to clarify his views on the islanders’ right to self-determination.
The libertarian then knocked the “poor quality” of the debate and told his rival to get serious. “Stop scaring people,” said Milei.
“It’s clear Argentina isn’t important to him,” concluded Massa with his remaining second of the round.
Entering the third section, education and healthcare, Milei rejected government scare tactics that he would privatise both systems.
Massa, as expected, vow to protect and defend the status quo and promised investment and improvements to both systems.
Undercutting the approach, Milei asked him why these policies had not been introduced before given they were now in office and ragged on the state of the national education system.
Massa pushed on with social mobility, quoting his family history as an example of what can be achieved and criticising Milei’s lack of social awareness.
“You only think about yourself and not the 46 million Argentines,” said Massa.
Milei’s psychological make up was regularly touched upon as the minister sought to show him as unstable.
Earlier in the night, the ruling coalition hopeful had touched on Milei’s career history, asking him at one point why a spell during which he had worked at the Central Bank had not been extended.
"I understand that you are angry with the Central Bank and that is why you want to destroy it. It's not about feeling rejected and attacking what rejects you, it's about embracing what rejects you", he said.
Massa also questioned him about not having agreed to take psychological tests in order to assume the presidency.
The ill-tempered mood continued onto the section on production and labour, in which their two opposing views were laid out.
Massa, warning that millions of jobs could be lost if Milei’s plans to open up the economy were waved through, said Argentina had already lived through a neoliberal government before and had no wish to return to those days.
Agreement on security
As the debate entered the section on crime and insecurity, viewers were treated to the rare sign of the two candidates concurring – and commenting on their shared history.
Milei had started fiercely, arguing that Argentina’s state intervention had led to the country today being “a bath of blood.”
“We don’t believe the perpetrator is a victim,” he declared, saying that too many trials did not end in conviction.
But when Massa talked up his experiences in Tigre as mayor, stating how he lowered crime, Milei admitted that his rival had improved things in the district.
“I recognise that what you did in terms of security in Tigre was good,” he said.
The duo even referenced Milei’s visits to the offices of Massa’s party, Frente Renovador, in previous years, as an economic advisor.
Providing further evidence that the debate had fizzled out, Massa failed to effectively challenge his rival’s views on the 1976-1983 military dictatorship and human rights in the subject dedicated to the topic and democratic coexistence.
In his final pitch to voters, Massa defended state support and said it was time to put an end to polarisation and construct a government of national unity. Asking voters to reject the path of hate, he said he wanted to be president to leave a better country behind for his children and fellow countrymen.
Milei, playing up the importance of the election, told voters that it was time to choose if they wanted to continue on “in misery” or choose a change and put an end to the “political caste.”
“When you go to vote, I ask you to do it without fear,” he asked voters.
“A better Argentina is possible, but this future exists only if Argentina is liberal,” he concluded.
As the debate came to an end, a chorus of Milei’s backers began singing their now-famous refrain, “La casta tiene miedo.” As the TV feed from the UBA Law Faculty went black, the chant could still be heard.