Argentina is now in the final week of a presidential election that has entailed five months of campaigning, two currency runs, unfounded allegations of fraud and two preliminary elections that have pitted Peronist candidate Sergio Massa against the ultra-conservative Javier Milei in a run-off election on November 19. The candidates have nothing new to say to each other, and this Sunday’s debate demonstrated that. This time the roles were reversed between the current minister of an economy in crisis and an outsider who reached this stage by criticizing his opponent. Massa spent the whole debate slamming Milei for the proposals he says he no longer wants to pursue, while Milei was dragged through the mud trying to defend himself.
Here are some highlights from the debate.
“Don’t get aggressive because it’s a long debate”
Argentines had been speculating for the past few weeks whether Milei would be willing to show up for a debate under the new rules: in this Sunday’s showdown, the candidates were not allowed to take in notes and had the right to free reply. Massa used this to his advantage in the section where he had more chances of losing — the section on the economy — which opened the debate with Milei’s contribution. They each had six minutes, and Massa besieged his opponent with questions about the program he presented before the Electoral Tribunal. He quizzed him on whether he was going to eliminate subsidies, privatize the state’s gas and oil fields, privatize the rivers and seas, dollarize the economy and eliminate the Central Bank.
“You’re a liar. If you were Pinocchio, you would have hurt my eye,” replied Milei, who spent most of his time attacking the government, of which Massa serves as minister of economy. “You have destroyed our income,” said Milei. “With you as minister, income fell by 33%, which had already been declining under [former president Mauricio] Macri,” replied the ultraconservative contender, who finished by slamming Macri who had endorsed him less than two weeks ago. “The first thing I’m going to do is give you some advice. Don’t get aggressive because it’s a long debate and people are expecting answers,” said Massa emphatically. “I didn’t attack you, I’m just passionately expressing the indignation caused by a government that has been destroying the lives of all of us,” responded Milei.
“You have to state clearly: Is Margaret Thatcher your role model?”
Foreign relations picked up steam in the campaign after Milei stated at every opportunity that he would break off bilateral relations with “communist governments,” including China and Brazil, Argentina’s largest trading partners. “Foreign policy cannot be governed by whims, it must be governed by national interest,” declared Massa. Milei answered that “it was false” and that “relations are established by private parties.”
“You came to deny what you said in the campaign, that’s why people are afraid of you,” Massa replied, and then continued attacking him: “You have to state clearly: Is Margaret Thatcher your role model?”
The war and sovereignty in the Falkland Islands also entered the campaign after Milei’s prospective foreign minister stated in an interview with a British newspaper that she would “respect the will of the inhabitants of the islands in a future negotiation,” striking at the deepest chord of Argentina’s foreign policy. Massa again seized the opportunity. In one of his countless television talk shows in recent years, Milei had vindicated Thatcher. “She was a great leader,” he merely said this Sunday. “Thatcher is an enemy of Argentina, yesterday, today and always. Our heroes are non-negotiable, no matter how much of a hero Thatcher is for you,” Massa replied.
“Javier, you worked at the Central Bank, why didn’t they renew your internship?”
Massa then drove the debate to where it needed to go. The minister of an economy in crisis had few trump cards to play, and in recent weeks he has tried to portray himself as the sensible politician and dialogist who can govern the country, unlike the bombastic economist. “It is either you or me. The Argentines have to choose who has the courage, the capacity, the mental stability, the contact with reality to accomplish what Argentina needs.”
“Do you have this?” Milei laughingly replied, in one of his brief victories on the night. Massa asked him if he would take a psycho-technical test, required to obtain a labor contract in Argentina. “Why would I refuse to do that — I did it every time I entered a company. You have always lived off the state and you have never done it,” Milei hit back. Massa taunted him: “Javier, you worked at the Central Bank, why didn’t they renew your internship? Tell the people,” without clarifying what information he was holding. “Maybe you wouldn’t have passed it,” Milei answered.
“My book is prefaced by Rudolph Giuliani”
The electoral contest swung to the right, and this was not only because of Milei’s ultra-right proposals. Today, Massa represents the Peronism that governed for 16 of the last 20 years in line with the regional left, but his greatest political success stemmed from his security policies as mayor of Tigre, a small municipality in the north of Buenos Aires. For years now, Massa has been flying the flag of the tough hand against crime, despite the fact that nowadays he belongs to a government that is not in favor of it. The clearest example is his relationship with Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who was once the mayor of New York and reduced crime and took the initiative in the rebuilding after the attack on the twin towers.
Milei used Giuliani as an example of how to face the “disaster” of insecurity in Argentina. Massa beamed: “What an enormous delight, we agree on something,” he replied. “The book that recounts what I did in Tigre is prefaced and presented here in Argentina by Rudolph Giuliani.”
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