Voters to deliver verdict on Argentina’s ‘crazy guy with a chainsaw’

Firebrand Javier Milei up against finance minister Sergio Massa in knife-edge presidential election today

Tom Phillips Rio de Janeiro & Facundo Iglesia Buenos Aires





Argentina is teetering on the brink of an unpredictable new political era with an erratic far-right populist known as El Loco (the Madman) the slight favourite to become president of South America’s second-largest economy in today’s election. As 35 million Argentinian voters prepared to choose their new leader against a backdrop of soaring inflation and widespread poverty, analysts believed Javier Milei, a TV celebrity turned congressman, held a slender advantage over his rival, the finance minister Sergio Massa, but said the result was too close to call. Massa, a centrist member of Alberto Fernández ’s incumbent Peronist administration, unexpectedly won last month’s first round, with 9.8m votes to Milei’s 8m. But since then Milei – a climate-denying provocateur often compared to the far-right populists Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro – has been endorsed by influential conservatives including former president Mauricio Macri and the third-place candidate, Patricia Bullrich, who had condemned Milei’s “bad and dangerous” proposals. Milei has recently dialled down his inflammatory rhetoric, hoping to seduce voters put off by his radical ideas, which include closing more than a dozen ministries, cutting ties with Argentina’s biggest trade partners, Brazil and China, and condemning the pope as “a lefty son of a bitch”. “This is the most important election in the last 100 years,” Milei declared last week, urging voters to evict the “delinquent” Peronist politicians who have governed Argentina for 16 of the last 20 years “and ruined our lives”. “Let hope overcome fear.” Massa has spent recent weeks battling to focus voters’ minds on Milei’s volatile character rather than the economic failures of his government, under which four in 10 Argentinians found themselves in poverty and inflation soared to more than 140%. “Milei’s personality gives Massa a path to the presidency,” said Juan Cruz Díaz, the managing director of consulting firm Cefeidas Group. However, experts say concerns over Milei’s mindset may be insufficient to save Massa’s campaign. “This is a failed government with a record level of inflation, and he is the minister for the economy,” said Federico Finchelstein, an Argentinian historian who studies the new wave of rightwing populist leaders. “So [people think]: ‘Between a terrible thing and a crazy guy, let’s go for crazy.’” Finchelstein, who works at New York’s New School for Social Research, doubted most voters were enamoured of Milei’s far-right ideas or foul-mouthed style. “But you have two really bad candidates and the question is: ‘Which is the lesser evil?’” Milei, the wild-haired celebrity economist who only entered politics after being elected to congress in 2021, has vowed to abolish Argentina’s central bank, replace its currency with the dollar and slash government expenditure by 14%. On the campaign trail, he brandished a chainsaw to symbolise his desire to eliminate spending and corruption. His vice-presidential running mate, Victoria Villarruel, has ties to members of Argentina’s murderous 1976-83 dictatorship. But Díaz doubted the hard-right libertarian – whose party La Libertad Avanza (Freedom Advances) controls just 38 of 257 seats in the lower house and eight of 72 in the senate – would have the political “firepower” to push through his most radical plans. Finchelstein said one of his greatest fears was Milei himself. “He is way more excessive and unstable than Bolsonaro and Trump. So it’s highly unpredictable what this person could do [in power],” he said. “We are talking about a person who … according to journalistic research, even has a dead dog as a political adviser. This sounds like a bad joke, but it’s not.”