On Monday, August 7, some 10,000 people gathered in the most modern stadium in Buenos Aires. The Movistar Arena is reserved for most of the week for singer Luis Miguel, but this wasn’t a ranchera night. It was a night for the Argentine extreme right.
Javier Milei — a libertarian member of Congress, who went from ranting on television to being the third-highest-polling candidate for the October elections — was the first presidential candidate to close his campaign in the primaries. He sang rock and roll, jumped and harangued all over the stage, insulted the incumbent left-wing Peronist government and sneered at the center-right opposition coalition. That’s where his show ended.
Milei — who has cultivated disenchantment in a crisis-ridden country, by speaking of kicking out “the political caste,” selling organs and dismantling gun control — dressed up as a politician this past Monday. He put on a tie and glasses, before asking for the people’s vote. “Many don’t like my ways, but this election isn’t about me. It’s about you and the country we want,” he said. “If we don’t change today, the only possible destiny is that we become the biggest slum in the world.”
The 15 polls published in recent weeks give him an average of 20% of the vote. He’s going to lock up the primaries being held on Sunday by La Libertad Avanza (“Liberty Advances,” a hastily-assembled political coalition led by Milei), while Juntos por el Cambio (“Together for Change”) will decide between a center-right candidate or a radical right one. Meanwhile, the ruling center-left coalition will be gambling on Sergio Massa — the minister of economy — to replace incumbent President Alberto Fernández, who has declined to seek a second term.
According to the polls, no candidate has more than 25% support, while about 10% of Argentines are undecided. The campaign has been dominated by the economic crisis, with each candidate offering different solutions regarding what to do with a country where nearly 40% of people live in poverty and where year-over-year inflation is at 115%. The peso is worth less with each passing day, reserves are in decline, and the IMF is knocking on the door to collect.
Meanwhile, the libertarian Milei — who has spent the last year talking about burning down the Central Bank, dollarizing the economy and shrinking the size of the state to the bare minimum — has put aside hard questions in search of epic responses.
“Let them all go, let not a single one remain!” This is what his supporters in the Movistar Arena chanted for hours. In Argentina, where countless jingles are composed for political campaigns, the first success of 2023 is a throwback to 2001: Que se vayan todos — or “let them all go” — in reference to the ruling politicians. During the economic crisis of 2001 — when the currency hit rock-bottom and unemployment reached 21.5% — 39 Argentines died in street protests, while the country had five presidents in 11 days.
On Monday, Milei made no promises. Instead, he sought culprits for a “disaster” that has been dragging on since the beginning of the 20th century. “Peronists, radicals, the military, and a lot of rallying have taken place with the sole objective of keeping the power to enrich themselves at our expense,” he exclaimed. “The candidates of the main parties are the same ones who [caused the] 2001 catastrophe. We asked them to go, but they haven’t left, they’ve multiplied.”
In his speech, only two former presidents were spared: Carlos Menem — who governed from 1989 to 1999 and stopped the inflation time bomb via a privatization policy and by matching the peso to the dollar — and Mauricio Macri (2015-2019), whom Milei described as an outsider who had an “opportunity to break with the impoverishing system.” Macri took out a loan from the IMF for $44 billion.
In a nod to Macri — the godfather of the Together for Change coalition, whose voters he’s trying to poach — Milei affirmed that Macri failed because “the members of the coalition themselves opposed the changes that the country needs. Today, we have a new opportunity, and I don’t want to be over-dramatic, but it may be the last. The third time may be the charm.” It was one of his phrases that was met with the least applause.
Milei hit the stage around 9 p.m. and spoke for less than an hour. His party’s militants, however, began to surround the stadium five hours before he arrived. You had to register on an official page weeks before and provide all your information to get a ticket, but these ended up being offered at the door to anyone who passed by. Villa Crespo — one of the last fashionable neighborhoods in the city, with a bohemian and progressive air — was suddenly dressed up as a right-wing libertarian.
“Do you think we discuss abortion when we can’t make ends meet?” asked a 22-year-old girl while waiting. “Did you see how [El Salvador’s Nayib] Bukele hit [the political class]? Here, they’re going to escape before they’re caught,” snorts a 20-year-old boy. “It’s Milei or Ezeiza,” an older woman sums up, from a bar at the corner of the stadium. “My time has passed, but these guys [the young Argentines] aren’t going to have anything after the politicians take it all.” Referring to Ezeiza — the international airport of Buenos Aires — has become another slogan of the libertarian militancy.
It took over an hour to enter the stadium, with a line that went on for more than six blocks. “They’re afraid, the caste is afraid,” the attendees sang, until Milei entered. He roared to the crowd: “They’re afraid: do you want to scare them a little more?”
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