Chainsaw-wielding populist pushed to run-off by economy minister in Argentina’s presidential vote

Javier Milei – a political outsider – was the pre-vote favourite, but will face a run-off against Sergio Massa

Daniel Politi
Buenos Aires
,David Biller
Monday 23 October 2023 16:08 BST
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Javier Milei with his trademark chainsaw during the presidential campaign
Javier Milei with his trademark chainsaw during the presidential campaign (Getty)

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Argentina’s economy minister, Sergio Massa, has produced a surprise by finishing first in the opening round of the country’s presidential election, putting him on course for a run-off against the chainsaw-wielding populist Javier Milei.

The expectation was that Mr Massa would be punished for presiding over an economic crisis, with inflation in Argentina nearing 140 per cent. Mr Milei, an economist, self-described anarcho-capitalist and rock fan, was until recently a relative unknown. He has proposed scrapping the central bank and replacing the Argentine peso with the US dollar, to appeal to voters looking for a radical approach to reverse Argentina’s economic problems.

He has made the chainsaw one of the emblems of his campaign, swinging one around at a campaign event to indicate the need to slash spending. Mr Milei has drawn comparisons to both US former president Donald Trump and Brazil’s former far-right president Jair Bolsonaro.

With nearly all the votes counted on Monday, Mr Massa, a centre-left Peronist, had 36.7 per cent of the vote and Mr Milei had 30 per cent, with a run-off expected on 19 November. Most pre-election polls, which have been notoriously unreliable, had given Mr Milei a slight lead over Massa. The former security minister, Patricia Bullrich, of the main centre-right opposition coalition, got 23.8 per cent to finish third in the field of five candidates.

Mr Massa has been a leading figure in the centre-left administration in power since 2019. He successfully focused messaging on the way Mr Milei’s proposals to slash the size of the state – from halving the number of government ministries to deep spending cuts – would affect everyday life for Argentines, said Mariel Fornoni of the political consulting firm Management & Fit. She said that “had a significant impact and evidently instilled more fear than anything else”.

Sergio Massa, speaks to his supporters at his party headquarters in Buenos Aires
Sergio Massa, speaks to his supporters at his party headquarters in Buenos Aires (AFP via Getty)

Mr Milei, who admires Mr Trump, built a groundswell of support while also calling for a purge of the “corrupt” establishment, which he calls the “political caste”. His radical proposals and fiery, profanity-laden rhetoric will have prompted some Argentines to vote for Massa, even if less than enthusiastically. Cristian Ariel Jacobsen, a 38-year-old photographer, said he voted for Mr Massa to prevent Mr Milei’s “project that puts democracy at risk”.

A sense of apprehension was evident on the streets of Argentina in the days before the election. People with any disposable income snapped up goods in anticipation of a possible currency devaluation, recalling that the government devalued the peso by nearly 20 per cent the day after the August primaries. Argentines also bought dollars and removed hard currency deposits from banks as the peso accelerated its already steady depreciation.

Mr Massa’s campaign this year follows another eight years ago, when he finished a disappointing third and was knocked out of the running. This time, he will have his shot in the run-off. That contest will determine whether Argentina will continue with a centre-left administration or veer sharply to the right. Mr Massa, 51, had told voters that he inherited an already bad situation exacerbated by a devastating drought that decimated exports, and reassured them that the worst was past.

He focused much of his firepower in the campaign’s final days on warning voters against backing Mr Milei, painting him as a dangerous upstart. He argued that Mr Milei’s plans could have devastating effects on social welfare programs, education and health care. The health, education and social development ministries are among those Mr Milei wants to extinguish.

Supporters of Sergio Massa celebrate in Buenos Aires
Supporters of Sergio Massa celebrate in Buenos Aires (AFP via Getty)

Andrei Roman, CEO of Brazil-based pollster Atlas Intel, whose latest survey had been one of the few putting Mr Massa ahead, said one key to the result was a lower abstention rate than in the primary elections held in August. Around 78 per cent of the electorate voted, some eight percentage points higher than in the primaries that Mr Milei won.

Although the numbers were not yet final, the next Congress will be sharply divided, with the ruling coalition maintaining the most seats in the lower house and Senate. Right-wing support was split between Mr Milei and two other candidates, whereas Mr Massa had already consolidated nearly all support from the left, Mr Roman said.

Mr Massa has said he will seek to appeal to members of other parties for the run-off. “I’m going to call for a government of national unity – a government of national unity built on the foundation of summoning the best individuals, regardless of their political affiliation,” he said.

Mr Milei, who turned 53 on election day, had characterized his two main opponents as part of the entrenched establishment that brought South America’s second-largest economy to its knees, but on Monday morning he made a direct appeal to Ms Bullrich’s voters.

“All who want to change Argentina, who want to embrace the ideas of freedom, are welcome,” Mr Milei said in a radio interview. “It’s not a matter of labels, it’s a matter of who wants to be on this side.”

He has also cast himself as a crusader against what he calls the sinister forces of socialism at home and abroad. He opposes sex education, feminist policies and abortion, which is legal in Argentina. He rejects the notion that humans have had a role in causing climate change.

In a speech on Sunday night, Mr Milei appeared to try to appeal to those who may have trembled at his bombastic speeches, and so regain his edge. “We didn’t come here to take away rights, we came to take away privileges,” he said.

Whatever the results, Mr Milei has already inserted himself and his libertarian party into a political structure dominated by a centre-left and a centre-right coalition for almost two decades. He was celebratory at his campaign headquarters, saying the preliminary results indicated his party would now have 40 seats in the lower house of Congress and eight in the Senate.

Still, supporters outside expressed disappointment. “I won’t lie, I feel a certain bitterness,” said Gaston Yapur, a 35-year-old coffee importer. “But, well, it’s a run-off; we mustn’t give up. He who fights isn’t defeated, and we must keep fighting the battle.”

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