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ARGENTINA | 14-08-2023 11:10

Dog-loving, Central-Bank-hating economist Javier Milei upends Argentine polls

Outsider Milei turns race on its head with primary win; Libertarian has proposed scrapping Central Bank, ditching peso.

Javier Milei began and ended his victory speech shouting “Long live freedom, dammit!” and proceeded to thank his sister, who he described as “the boss,” and his five dogs who are all named after economists that libertarians like him worship.

It would be a mistake to dismiss Argentina’s answer to Donald Trump as a mutton-chopped, Elvis-loving eccentric — or just another Latin American agitator in a region known for throwing up populists with radical ideas on the economy. 

Fact is, this 52-year-old economist has flipped the country’s politics on its head by winning primaries on Sunday and now has a serious shot at becoming president in October elections. In doing so, he’s taking the policy conversation in a decidedly right-wing direction in a place shaped by the left-wing populism of Peronism — upending Argentine assets in the process. Argentina’s dollar bonds fell sharply on Monday morning after Milei’s surprising win.

From his saliva-spewing speeches to his gigantic dogs named after famous thinkers such as Milton Friedman, Milei brandishes an image never seen before by Argentina’s political establishment. Being “mad as hell” has reaped rewards among an electorate frustrated by rampant inflation and yet another looming recession.

“People who ask for a dramatic change think things are so messed up that only a crazy person can change them,” said Shila Vilker, a political analyst and director of polling firm Trespuntozero. “So everything that is a negative characteristic ends up being an asset.”

He’s not quite an overnight phenomenon and his ideas are indeed out there but also well-aired. They range from wanting to scrap the Central Bank, to replacing the peso with the dollar and legalising the sale of human organs.

The secret to Milei’s success is perhaps how relentlessly on-message he is about his brand as the outsider, catapulted from combative TV pundit to congressman to president-in-waiting. And in a country that takes inordinate pride in its football glory, Milei has even ticked the box of having been a goalkeeper, albeit in a neighbourhood club in Buenos Aires.

“Remember, a different Argentina is impossible with the same people as always, with the same people that have always failed,” Milei said during his victory speech Sunday, while supporters chanted against Argentina’s political elite that include his rivals, who are all familiar faces to voters. “They should all go, that not a single one of them is left.”

Milei has managed to capture the attention of apathetic voters with his unorthodox charisma. At his closing campaign event, Milei packed one of the city’s main concert arenas like a heavy-metal rock star. People lined the street to enter the arena wearing hats that read “Make Argentina Great Again” and capes with the insignia 'Don’t Tread on Me,' one of Metallica’s best-known songs. Milei is a huge fan.

One voter wore a hand-made mask that mimicked a chainsaw — a reference to Milei’s promise to slash public spending. Before bustling through his swarming supporters to take the stage at that campaign event, Milei revved up the crowd by showing a slideshow of buildings blowing up.

Channeling voters’ anger over inflation that’s running at over 115 percent annually, Milei won 30 percent of vote, far surpassing the roughly 20 percent he was expected to get in a wide range of polls, which are infamous for being inaccurate. The main opposition party, having fielded two candidates, trailed Milei with 28 percent of votes while the incumbent Peronist bloc, led by Economy Minister Sergio Massa, suffered a historic defeat, receiving about 27 percent of ballots.

Marisol Barraza voted for Milei in the Buenos Aires suburb of Ezeiza. The 35-year-old doesn’t earn enough cleaning homes to live on her own so she’s stayed home with her mother and twin sister. Barraza studied to be a video journalist but says she couldn’t find work.  

Sunday’s results “are good because people showed the anger they feel at the polls,” Barraza said. Milei “won’t give you fish but teach you how to fish. That’s why young people like me support him. We want to make our dreams come true.”

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by Patrick Gillespie & Manuela Tobias, Bloomberg

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