Argentina’s traditional parties have been left reeling by the surprise surge of political outsider Javier Milei to the front of the race ahead of October presidential elections.
Milei, the libertarian who burst onto the Argentine political scene back in 2021, has capitalised on the frustration of some seven million voters and thrown the race for the Casa Rosada wide open.
Here are some key things to know about the brash Buenos Aires lawmaker and what his rise means for Argentina.
The presidential elections are still two months away, but an unusual nationwide system of party primaries held on Sunday handed Milei the most votes – a key indicator of what is to come.
In the run-up to Sunday's vote, opinion polls and political analysts did not expect a real challenge to traditional parties from the anti-establishment outsider, who scored just over 30 percent of the votes, slightly more than his two main rivals.
"No-one imagined such an outcome for Milei. He came first in areas where he has no structure or support," said political scientist Juan Negri, of the Universidad Torcuato di Tella University.
Milei struck a chord because "he promises something new," he said.
"An elephant walked past us, and we did not see it," wrote the Clarín daily.
Nicknamed the 'lion' because of his dishevelled hair, the 52-year-old calls for "an end to the parasitic, thieving and useless political caste", a discourse that captured the disappointment with the parties that governed in recent years: Peronism and Juntos por el Cambio.
Milei has grabbed public attention with his radical ideas, regularly appearing on televised panels and with a strong presence on social media. In the primaries he capitalised on that penetration and won in 16 of 24 provinces.
Political analyst Gabriel Puricelli said Milei had managed to grab hold of a growing discontent in the country and "build an electorate" out of nothing.
"Milei managed to challenge this disbelief and build an electorate out of nothing, from those disenchanted with both coalitions," said Puricelli, a political scientist at the Laboratorio de Políticas Públicas.
"The last time there was an eruption like this in a national election was with Peronism in 1946," Puricelli stressed.
For Milei, "people are angry, because they are not seeing what is happening to them, but to speak of 'angry vote' is pejorative.”
“We are at a turning point. Argentines have said enough is enough to the caste model,” he declared this week.
'Nothing to lose'
Asked why they support Milei, his backers, young and old, invariably express the desire for something new in a country dogged by economic malaise.
"Ten years of stagnation and five years of high inflation fed into the scepticism of a large part of the population," toward the status quo, said Puricelli.
Argentina's political scene has for decades been dominated by Peronism – heavy on state intervention, subsidies, and welfare programmes – with brief periods of governance by the centre-right and right.
The country is facing annual inflation of 115 percent, and poverty levels are at 40 percent.
With the peso constantly under threat, Argentines' only hope of saving for the future is immediately buying dollars – on the informal market due to strict currency controls.
"Our parents, our grandparents, voted for Peronism 20 years ago, 30 years ago, but the country has stayed the same," said 20-year-old student Carolina Carabajal.
Political analyst Carlos Fara said there was a sense of having "nothing to lose, let's try something new because the others have failed."
"The political class does not know how to read it. They take him literally, but they don't take him seriously. His voters do the opposite: they don't take his proposals literally, but they take him seriously. They recognise themselves in the presence of someone who is finally saying something new," added Negri.
While described alternately as libertarian, far-right, or anti-establishment, Milei's political views are hard to pin down.
He is ultra-liberal on the economy, against the minimum wage, and wants austerity "harsher than that requested" by the International Monetary Fund, to whom Argentina owes US$44 billion.
He pushes for privatisation of public companies and more flexible labour relations. Milei describes himself as an "anarcho-capitalist" and says he is "above all for freedom."
He has proposed dollarising the economy, "dynamiting the Central Bank," and doing away with the ministries of education, health and public works, which he wants to replace with private investment.
On some social issues he is conservative, wanting to ban abortion and get rid of sexual education in schools. "The only rights I defend are the right to life, liberty and property; the rest are ideological constructs," he says.
"A man with dozens of faces," wrote journalist Juan Luis González in an unauthorised biography of Milei.
Unmarried and childless, estranged from a father who beat him as a child, Milei lives alone in a gated community with four mastiffs named after liberal economists who he considers to be his “four-legged children.”
His sister, Karina, is his right-hand woman – Milei describes him as “the boss.”
He admires the economists Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek, as well as the Argentine politician Juan Bautista Alberdi. "I aspire only to be a good disciple of Alberdi, a great thinker on freedom," he said.
With Milei now in the mix as a serious challenger, the October 22 presidential election has been thrown wide open with three main candidates. The results place him as the protagonist of a run-off if neither candidate reaches 45 percent support – or more than 40 percent with a 10-point lead over the runner-up – in the first round
Milei is running against former security minister Patricia Bullrich on the right, and Economy Minister Sergio Massa from the ruling Unión por la Patria coalition – who came second and third respectively in the primary election by only a narrow margin, taking 28 and 27 percent respectively.
None of them are facing an easy ride.
Milei and Bullrich will jockey for similar voters on the right, while Massa will try to retain moderate voters while battling bad economic news in the run-up to the vote.
by Sonia Avalos, AFP