Buenos Aires high society flocked to the Alvear Palace hotel — an old-world shrine to Argentina’s wealthy past with crystal chandeliers, marble floors — to listen to one man rip them apart over a breakfast of coffee and pastries.
They were there for Javier Milei, the frontrunner to become president of one of the world’s most broken economies in the October 22 elections. When he spoke the packed conference hall went quiet in expectation, in marked contrast to the indifferent chatting heard along the corridors during the presentation of his chief probusiness rival Patricia Bullrich.
It was a telling moment and speaks to the air of invincibility that hangs over Milei, a radical libertarian who wants to dollarise Argentina’s economy, shut down the Central Bank, slash spending and scrap most taxes.
He was the star attraction at the annual gathering hosted by the Council of the Americas — in spite of his excoriating keynote speech against the elite delivered to an audience composed of the very ruling class he vows to dismantle.
In this room full of establishment figures it became evident it’s not just unhappy voters who are willing to suspend belief and take a gamble on an outsider — such is the desire for some kind of revolution in a country veering dangerously close to hyperinflation.
Two executives liked what they heard but worried about the feasibility of Milei’s plans, while a third described him as “un tipo simpático” — a nice guy.
According to conversations with more than a dozen officials and candidate advisers, the political old guard is still bewildered by his rise and somewhat resigned to defeat. Longtime congresswoman Margarita Stolbizer, who backs Bullrich, admits that the Milei phenomenon keeps growing.
The momentum behind him hasn’t stopped since his shock win in the August 13 primary. Milei keeps dominating the public conversation, relentlessly touring the TV and radio talk shows and holding popular rallies around the capital.
Tucker Carlson flew in to interview him this month and he sat down with The Economist for a three-hour conversation. Elon Musk, who likes to opine on politics on his X platform, approves of him. The buzz around Milei is undeniable.
“Javier Milei is the answer to 40 years of political failure,” said Florencio Randazzo, a former minister running for the vice-presidency after getting less than four percent of votes in the primary. “People are tired of hearing leaders that at the time of governing don’t resolve any of their problems.”
The ruling Peronist party and the pro-business Juntos por el Cambio alliance have been used to alternating power for years as Argentina’s two main coalitions.
At party headquarters, officials from both sides privately acknowledge that they are struggling to reset their strategies. Massa and Bullrich are now hoping to force that second round against Milei, who is seen as coming ahead in next month’s vote, according to advisers of the candidates.
They are pursuing similar strategies: convince a third of Argentines who did not vote last month to turn out and attack Milei but without alienating his fan base, as devoted as that of Donald Trump in the United States and made up of people fed up by traditional politics.
Argentina’s electoral system — where a candidate wins the presidency outright if he or she reaches 45 percent of valid votes, or 40 percent of them with a 10 percentage point difference from the runner-up — puts the presidency within Milei’s grasp. The alternative is a November 19 run-off.
Despite her coalition securing a close second place and winning her primary by a large margin, Bullrich’s campaign is still reorganising itself after Milei pulverised her hopes for an easy path to the presidency.
After running an aggressive campaign against her internal rival, Bullrich appears to have lost her edge.
She has reshuffled her team and appointed Carlos Melconian, a celebrity economist known for his communication skills, as her chief spokesperson. The plan is for her to stay mum on specifics for fear of alienating voters with talk of slashed budgets, according to two advisers who asked not to be named talking about strategy.
On the ruling Peronist coalition’s side, Massa is in the unenviable position of being the face of a government blamed for running a failing economy even further to the ground. The image of the administration is so battered that outgoing Alberto Fernández didn’t seek re-election.
Julio Piumato, a longtime Peronist labour leader who backs Massa, sees the current government’s situation as hopeless. “Politics needs to give people hope,” he said. “The levels of poverty in a country as rich as Argentina are scandalous.”
Immune to scandal?
Part of the dilemma for established parties is that Milei’s popularity, just like in the case of Trump, seems immune to scandal. Before the campaign, local media reported Milei allegedly made candidates who wanted to run on his ballot pay him money. He strongly denied the allegations and voters didn’t seem to care.
Advisers for Massa and Bullrich said they expect that as Milei gains more media scrutiny, people will see through the wacky policies. The candidates plan to avoid attacking Milei personally and focus on undermining his ideas.
But pollsters and insiders doubt either camp can get their act together to stop him. “A month has passed and you see little dynamism and a lot of difficulties in the two main coalitions,” said Alejandro Catterberg, director of polling firm Poliarquía.
In a new, flag-waver campaign ad, Massa was barely seen. There was a narrator blaming crippling debt on past governments against a backdrop of clips showing symbols of Argentina’s potential and natural beauty such as Patagonia mountain peaks.
Contrast that to Milei’s simple message. Dressed in a suit and tie — a far cry from his chainsaw-wielding theatrics — he looked poised and serious and faced the camera directly: It’s time for root-and-branch change.
Such is his confidence that earlier this month Milei, a Catholic, took a break from the campaign and flew to the United States on a “spiritual trip” to pray and learn about Judaism ahead of Rosh Hashanah.
“I went to Miami to spend Sabbath with some friends,” he said when asked about the escape. “Afterwards I won’t be able to see them for a long time.”
by Manuela Tobias & Patrick Gillespie, Bloomberg