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Argentina’s radical Milei struggles to rebrand for run-off vote

Libertarian economist Javier Milei powered through the early stages of Argentina’s presidential election on the strength of a radical plan, an eccentric persona, and a chainsaw.

Milei wielded the tool for dramatic photo opportunities to evoke his plans to “take a chainsaw” to the state. But facing a final run-off poll on November 19 in which moderate voters will be key to defeating economy minister Sergio Massa, Milei has been forced to attempt a rebrand.

Now, the chainsaw appears to have been put away for a while. The former tantric sex coach and cosplay enthusiast, who also exchanged insults with the Pope ahead of the first round, is trying to recalibrate his anti-establishment message into a blander promise of change.

“This election is about whether or not we want to stay on the path we’re on,” he told supporters last week. “With Massa we already know where we’re going: more populism, more inflation, more corruption and more privileges for his friends.” 

Milei, a first-term congressman, emerged as the frontrunner in Argentina’s elections in August after promising to heavily cut spending, “burn down the central bank” to dollarise the economy, and replace the Argentine peso, which he labelled “worth less than excrement”, with the US dollar.

But last month he scored a disappointing first-round election result, winning 30 per cent of the vote, below pollsters’ expectations and behind 37 per cent for Massa of the centre-left Peronist government.

Supporters of Sergio Massa, Argentina’s economy minister and presidential candidate of Unity for the Homeland party
Moderate voters will be key in the final run-off poll on November 19 against economy minister Sergio Massa © Anita Pouchard Serra/Bloomberg

Massa, for his part, is seeking favour with centrist voters, despite overseeing annual inflation topping 138 per cent and the plummeting of the Argentine peso on parallel exchange markets. Massa has doubled down on an earlier promise to build a unity government that will normalise Argentina’s economy without endangering its welfare state.

At Milei’s rallies and in his ads in recent weeks, once-prominent images of burning buildings and power tools have been largely replaced by Argentine flags. The unmarried candidate, whose four dogs have regularly featured in Argentine media, has increasingly brought his actress girlfriend Fátima Florez to public appearances.

Milei has also avoided speaking about Pope Francis, whom he labelled a “filthy leftist” before the first round, prompting the pontiff to allude to him in an interview last month as a “clown of messianism”.

Milei has been aided in his bid to reach centrist voters by Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s former centre-right president, and Patricia Bullrich, the now-eliminated presidential candidate for the centre-right coalition Juntos por el Cambio.

Both have urged the 24 per cent of the electorate that backed Bullrich in October to vote for Milei.

Guillermo Francos, Milei’s would-be interior minister, said their support was “very important”. “Together [Bullrich and Milei] represent the will of the great majority of the Argentine people,” he said. “We are now able to say to them very clearly that they must vote for the ticket that represents the ideas of freedom.”

Juan Negri, politics professor at Buenos Aires’ Torcuato Di Tella University, said the alliance might assuage voters’ doubts about Milei, who has no executive experience. “It suggests that former Macri officials would find their way into Milei’s government, so it normalises him for voters.”

But Milei’s transition from radical outsider had not been smooth, he added. “The terms of the election are different now, and Milei looks very uncomfortable. The need to moderate requires twisting himself into endless contradictions.”

Milei has said he will not abandon his flagship promise to dollarise the economy to stamp out inflation. But he has tried to play down the impact of his drastic spending cuts on retirees and users of Argentina’s highly subsidised public transit — a key attack line for Massa.

“We’re not going to take measures that hurt people,” Milei said Monday.

Yet Milei’s attempt to win over centre-right Bullrich voters has left some unconvinced. “I can never vote for Massa, but Milei is also unthinkable,” said Daniel, a 29-year-old barista. “The change he has spent all year talking about is a crazy change, and now he wants to be a normal guy . . . I don’t know what to do.”

Argentine congressman and presidential candidate for La Libertad Avanza Javier Milei, second left, speaks to his supporters
At Milei’s rallies and in his ads in recent weeks, once-prominent images of burning buildings and power tools have been largely replaced by Argentine flags © Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

Milei lacks the slickness of a career politician. In one widely shared clip, he appeared rattled as he stopped an interview to demand that staff behind the camera be quiet. In another interview last week, his answers strayed into academic tangents about the economy and doom-laden warnings.

“It’s like the myth about a man who stays in the cave, where there are no dangerous bugs, but there is also no food. So he dies,” he said. “Massa’s model will kill him. So we have [a choice between] a model where you are going to die, or you have a chance to save yourself.”

Milei’s party, La Libertad Avanza, has also struggled to maintain campaign discipline among members, many of them libertarian thinkers who only recently joined the two-year-old bloc. It has cut the number of spokespeople authorised to speak on the record, in an attempt to avoid headline-grabbing controversial statements.

However, would-be foreign minister Diana Mondino gave an interview earlier this month in which she compared same-sex marriage to having lice, saying: “If you prefer to not wash and end up covered in nits, that’s your choice. After, you can’t complain that someone else doesn’t like that you have nits.”

In early November, the Macri endorsement prompted one of the fewer than 40 elected congressional representatives for Milei’s party to quit the group.

Despite those challenges, analysts said Milei’s attempt at moderation was unlikely to cost him too many of his first-round voters, who seemed unwilling to switch to Massa.

“It could hurt a small part of his electorate, but it’s the best way to win over Bullrich’s 24 per cent and part of the 7 per cent who voted for [Córdoba governor Juan] Schiaretti,” said Juan Germano, director of pollster Isonomia. “It’s the right move.”

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