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ARGENTINA | 05-10-2023 11:50

Radical outsider Javier Milei fires up young Argentines ahead of election

Many young people are flocking behind radical upstart Javier Milei, the libertarian lawmaker who has surged to the front of Argentina's presidential race.

Tiago Codevilla, 17, has only ever known his country, Argentina, bedevilled by inflation and economic woes, his parents constantly short of money and cursing those in power.

As he prepares to vote for the first time on October 22, he is among the many young people flocking behind radical upstart Javier Milei, a lawmaker and fan of former US president Donald Trump who has surged to the front of Argentina's presidential race.

The 52-year-old libertarian economist with dishevelled hair has grabbed public attention with his extreme ideas spread on television and social media – where he vows to "dynamite" the Central Bank and ditch the peso for the US dollar.

He shows up at rallies brandishing a powered-up chainsaw, evoking the cuts he plans to make to the bloated state.

In some circles, there is alarm at the emergence of yet another populist drawing comparisons to Trump and Brazil's recent far-right president Jair Bolsonaro. But for many fed-up Argentinians, Milei is a glimmer of hope in the face of a seemingly endless economic quagmire.

Tiago told AFP he has been watching YouTube videos of Milei since he was a boy.

"You see your mom and dad are short of money, cursing the politicians that are there, and one day you click play on YouTube and you start listening to the guy talk, and it's something that stays with you," he said.

"Long live freedom, damn it!" the long-haired Tiago shouts through a loudspeaker as he stands on the roof of a bus stop at a rally in San Martin, in greater Buenos Aires.

 

A country in decline

Argentina, once one of the richest countries in the world, has for decades been mired in economic crisis.

Tiago was born after the country's economy dramatically imploded in 2001.

That year, amid a growing economic crisis, authorities froze bank deposits to avert a flight of capital and a run on the dollar.

Protests and looting broke out, the president fled by helicopter, and within days the country defaulted on US$100 billion in debt. Almost 40 people died in a crackdown on protests.

Since then, despite periods of growth and prosperity, Argentines have grown accustomed to economic volatility.

Ahead of the election, annual inflation has soared to 124 percent, and some 40 percent of the country is living under the poverty line.

To woo voters, Economy Minister Sergio Massa – who is also in the running for president – has in recent weeks eliminated income tax for some 800,000 citizens, removed VAT from basic goods, and is making cash payouts to millions of informal workers.

"Argentina is in decline. If we continue like this in 50 years we will be the largest slum in the world," Milei, a libertarian who describes himself as an anarcho-capitalist, said in an election debate Sunday.

 

'Already broken'

More than 25 percent of the 35,3 million Argentines registered to cast their ballots are under 30. The legal voting age is 16.

Political science student Agustín Baletti, 22, who is also an LGBT activist, said young people saw in Milei an "opportunity to transform" their country.

"We have seen the country deteriorating over the years in terms of security, the economy. We have seen our parents, our grandparents, our uncles suffering cyclical economic crises. 

"Everything is already broken. Milei isn't going to break anything."

He said past governments have "left young people without hope."

"What I want is stability to grow, to save money, buy a car, and stay in my country."

Shila Vilker, director of the Trespuntozero research consultancy firm said Milei's supporters "are not young right-wing people, but they are young people who have high levels of frustration and great difficulty in drawing up a life plan."

"Milei may have a dishevelled, clownish, celebrity appearance, not very serious, but he speaks seriously to young people."


'A revolutionary'

Valentín Nabel, with the Opinaia pollster, said Milei's discourse resonated with young people with its focus on "autonomy, a certain individualism, against the State, especially after the pandemic."

Milei is polling in first place with Massa second. Former security minister Patricia Bullrich is coming in third.

Milei espouses a hodgepodge of political beliefs.

He rails against socialism, praises Trump, questions climate change, is anti-abortion, and criticises Argentine Pope Francis.

He has proposed the free market sale of human organs and wants to eliminate the Women, Gender & Diversity Ministry. 

While experts say he is more palatable to young men, 25-year-old Noelia González sees him as someone who "defends the family, private property."

"He is a revolutionary," González said.

"Many women support him. Many," she said, adding she had also convinced her parents to back him in the upcoming election.
 

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by Javier Tovar, AFP

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