Argentina’s presidential candidates went on the attack on Sunday night as sparks flew in the second debate of the election campaign.
After a relatively placid outing a week ago in Santiago del Estero, the candidates stepped up their rhetoric and attacks on each other, with opposition leader Patricia Bullrich (Juntos por el Cambio) and ruling coalition hopeful Sergio Massa (Unión por la Patria) striking a notably more aggressive tone.
Outsider libertarian Javier Milei (La Libertad Avanza), normally such an explosive figure onscreen, remained calm for the most part, limiting himself to rolling his eyes at the comments of others and a few charged exchanges with Bullrich.
The remaining two candidates, third-way hopeful Juan Schiaretti (Hacemos por Nuesta País) and left-winger Myriam Bregman (Frente de Izquierda y Trabajadores-Unidad), who are unlikely to be in the running come election night, delivered pointed interventions without shifting the dial.
Massa, who as well as being the running coalition’s candidate is Argentina’s economy minister, was the recipient of much of the aggression, given his responsibility for the country’s recent economic woes.
Consumer prices in Argentina are currently running at more than 124 percent over the last 12 months and inflation exceeded 12 percent in August alone. The economy is expected to shrink by 2,5 percent this year, according to estimates from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
The debate, which took place just two weeks before voters go to the polls on October 22, offered the country’s five presidential candidates the chance to pitch their wares to voters.
Staged at the Assembly Hall of the University of Buenos Aires’ Law Faculty, the encounter focused on three central axes: security; labour and production; and human development, housing and environmental protection (chosen by public vote).
The debate's more aggressive tone, in stark contrast to last week's clash in Santiago del Estero, reflects the proximity to election day and the desperate search for votes as the campaign enters its final stretch.
Bullrich, 67, had the most to gain and she went immediately on the attack, beginning with her opening speech. Trailing third in most polls – and with her traditionally outspoken rhetoric being outflanked by Milei’s own outrageous remarks on the campaign trail – she attempted to seize the initiative from the start.
In her opening remarks, Bullrich promised an end to Kirchnerism and vowed to eradicate corruption and the “mafias” ruling Argentina, pointedly mentioning the recent scandal involving former Buenos Aires Province Cabinet chief Martín Insaurralde which forced his resignation and has dominated the frontpages over the past week.
The Juntos por el Cambio candidate, who often spoke quickly and was treated by paramedics for conjunctivitis during the debate interval, attempted to tie Massa to the former provincial official and said it was impossible to have a serious security programme with "corrupt people" like Insaurralde, who resigned amid a scandal over a luxurious trip to Marbella with a model and corruption claims.
"With respect to Insaurralde, I asked him to resign from his post immediately, and I asked him to resign from his candidacy. And we are not all the same. You never asked Gerardo Milman to resign," countered the Unión por la Patria candidate, citing allegations being investigated by the courts that the PRO deputy was involved in the assassination attempt on Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on September 1 last year.
In the immediate lead-up to the debate, Bullrich had received the forthright backing of her former boss, Mauricio Macri – who posted a picture of himself and the candidate – and she seemed eager to capitalise on the momentum, speaking quickly and gesticulating in a bid to turn around the presidential race.
“On the 22nd [of October] we are with Patricia, because she has the strength and courage needed now to carry out the change that all Argentines are waiting for,” wrote Macri, whose relationship with Milei has been the subject of much speculation.
Massa: man in charge
Massa too adopted an aggressive approach, yet he was also keen to portray himself as paternal and controlled, the man with the correct plan for the country, if you will. Not such an easy task, given Argentina’s immediate outlook, and the ruling coalition candidate was regularly targeted by rivals for his recent stewardship of the economy.
His most pointed attacks were aimed at Bullrich and Milei, the frontrunner in the race, as he sought to polarise with both.
"Javier, stop disrespecting women,” Massa said after the libertarian had clashed with Bregman. “It seems to me that beyond the fact that they think differently, they have the right to think differently from you and it seems to me that they show your authoritarian trait.”
He also used his right of reply to refute the liberal candidate's economic development model, accusing his rival of proposing “a labour market where women have no chance of development, where young people have to go to the precarious labour market and workers lose the right to paid holidays and severance pay.” He described the model as “a regime of slavery” for workers.
But the Unión por la Patria presidential candidate, as the man currently in the hot seat, constantly found himself under fire. With Argentina's economy offering a fair bit of material to work with, Massa was regularly told that his partners were either inadequate or corrupt.
"You don't have the moral authority" to talk about security proposals, Bullrich quipped at one point.
He, in turn, clashed with Bullrich over the freeing of prisoners during her spell in office as Argentina's security minister from 2015 to 2019 and repeated that he wants to form a "government of national unity" by summoning "the best" leaders from each of the political spaces.
"There are some politicians who do not understand that on December 10, a new stage begins, and we need the best. It doesn't matter where they have participated in politics. Hopefully there will be liberal leaders who want to commit to the feminist agenda, hopefully there will be left-wing leaders who have a vocation to work on the fiscal surplus we want to build. I hope there are radical leaders who want to commit themselves to a better construction of justice and education in Argentina. The best, not the parties," he declared.
In the most notable policy proposal announced on the night, Massa said he would create a federal agency to fight organised crime in the style of the FBI in the United States.
"We are going to create a federal agency with the best of each of the four security forces," he said, stressing that it would be based in the interior of the country, close to Rosario and Córdoba.
Outspoken to overcome?
In what turned out to be a mostly subdued performance, Milei opened the debate by offering his support for Israel and painting a doom-laden picture of Argentina’s current state of affairs. Describing the country as on “the border of hyperinflation,” he looked nervous and lacked his usual zip.
The debate, however, soon woke him up.
One of the spiciest exchanges of the night came when Bullrich questioned names linked to Milei, such as veteran trade union leader Luis Barrionuevo, and others included on his electoral tickets.
Losing his calm for perhaps the only moment of the night, the libertarian responded by saying that his rival had been allowed to change her past as a “murderous Montonero” – a repeat of a previous slur alleging that Bullrich was part of the infamous left-wing guerrilla group.
Bullrich denies that allegation and has launched legal proceedings against Milei over the claim and another she planted bombs in a kindergarten in the 1970s – a threat that clearly hasn’t scared him off.
Defending his position and pushed onto the back foot, Milei said his political space is open to “all those who want to join.”
Many of the attacks on the libertarian were more targeted than previously – policies were cited, alliances were denounced, Bullrich highlighted his proposed move to reform gun legislation, both she and Massa highlighted the proposal to legalise the selling of organs, while Bregman pushed him on climate change.
Unaffected, the La Libertad Avanza candidate pushed on with his doom-laden vision of Argentina, blaming its problems on “the political caste” and describing a country “bathed in blood” as he vowed to bring the nation back from the brink.
For the most part, Milei sought to retain the votes won in the August 13 PASO primaries and avoid making mistakes, although he was forced by his rivals to touch on the more controversial issues of his agenda.
The unlikely two
Despite winning praise after their first debate performances, Bregman and Schiaretti found it hard to break through the targeted attacks.
Sticking to his tactics from the previous encounter, the Córdoba Province governor again talked up his home province and criticised his rivals for their focus on Buenos Aires.
Schiaretti blamed the last two governments for the "economic disaster" that Argentina is experiencing, in which "the provinces are being left aside and the lack of federalism is deepening."
On insecurity and drug-trafficking, the Hacemos por Nuestro País hopeful said the former is a "result of the social exclusion increasing day by day in Argentina."
"Argentina does not produce drugs, but we have a border that is a sieve. The border must be guarded and the armed forces must be involved," he declared.
Schiaretti vowed to introduce a federal anti-drug-trafficking force of "at least 15,000 troops, under the authority of the Attorney-General's Office," if elected.
Bregman, who found herself at odds with the candidates over the violence in Israel, scored with a series of mocking interjections, especially when targeting Bullrich and her record as security minister.
"You and all those who promote an iron fist have failed," said the left-wing national deputy, who mocked Bullrich for her lack of success and for posing with narco-trafficking security forces for "photos of herself during a raid of 25 [marijuana] joints."
"Up to what age do you want to lower the age of criminal responsibility, 12, 10, kindergarten? And I want to clarify that we are in an election where the president is elected, not the head of the penitentiary service," she quipped.
She also questioned Milei and sought to paint him as much of the same, describing him as "the new right, but a bit dishevelled."
"The destruction of the planet is one of the clearest examples of the irrationality of this capitalist system that Milei defends," she said in the section concerning the environment.
"Milei defends the freedom of companies to pollute even the rivers, and has gone so far as to say that climate change is an invention of socialism. Let him crow, let him say what he wants – we will continue to accompany the people of Mendoza who defend water, Chubut who fight against polluting mega-mining, because they have rolled back the pacts they make against environmental rights."