The ‘chainsaw’ candidate challenging Argentina’s left and right

CNNCarried by a wave of shouting supporters and wielding a chainsaw at the open sky, the man of the hour approached center stage.

He looked around and angrily screamed “Chainsaw! Chainsaw!” – a war cry quickly picked up by his supporters calling for carnage.

All around him, shouts, chants, and traffic horns blasting loud.

This was not a WWE wrestling show, but the 2023 presidential race in Argentina where political outsider Javier Milei is the leading candidate. His repeated appearances wielding a chainsaw at campaign stops – as he did at the rally described above in the seaside city of Mar del Plata on September 12 – symbolize promises to drastically cut government expenses, eliminate public subsidies and “break up with the status quo.”

Milei, an economist and former political commentator, surprised Argentina’s political scene in August, when he won the largest share of a coalition primary vote that most observers consider indicative of the upcoming presidential contest, set for October 22.

Argentine politics have largely been dominated by the same groups for the past 20 years, and Milei represents a new outside force that is aggressively targeting traditional powerbrokers on both sides of the aisle. It’s a familiar tale that draws comparisons to the rise of other far-right stars like former US President Donald Trump and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.


Like Bolsonaro, Milei rose to fame at a time of great economic crisis in his country – Argentina’s yearly inflation reached 124% in August, its highest level in over 32 years, and food prices in particular grew 15% from the previous month, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses INDEC. And like Trump, Milei has been able to channel a sentiment of anger towards a political class perceived as distant and ineffective.

To the Trumpian slogan, ‘Drain the swamp’, Milei’s supporters shout “¡¡Qué se vayan todos!!” which translates as “May they all leave!” – an expression of fury at politicians from both sides of the spectrum. Argentina’s left is currently in government, following rule by the right from 2015 to 2019.

Milei is presenting himself as the candidate of renewal – an offer that clearly struck a chord with people in the primary vote. The question now is whether his strategy will hold through the national vote next month.

“I’ll vote for Milei because I think he’ll change things,” says Eduardo Murchio, a taxi driver in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires. “I’m tired of the same faces, of the same governors […], I am 40 years old and it’s always the same story,” he told Reuters.

What a Milei presidency might look like

Milei, who is unmarried and lives with five English mastiffs – one of them named after neoliberal economist Milton Friedman – describes himself as a libertarian and “anarcho-capitalist.” He has promised to slash public subsidies and get rid of the ministries of culture; education; environment; and women, gender, and diversity; among several others.

Perhaps Milei’s most significant proposal is to dollarize Argentina, a radical plan that he claims is the ultimate solution to the country’s chronic inflation troubles. Replacing the peso with the US dollar and giving up on a sovereign monetary policy would hardly be a new approach in Latin America, where Ecuador, El Salvador and Panama all use the US dollar – but it is untested in a country as big as Argentina.

But Milei’s skill as a macroeconomic strategist is also untested; he worked as financial analyst in the private sector before entering politics.

“To open the economy without any protection barrier has never happened in Argentina,” said Javier Marcus, a professor of finance at the Rosario National University in Buenos Aires. While other countries have effectively stabilized prices thanks to dollarization, giving up monetary policy would mean effectively giving up Argentina’s ability to influence its own country’s finances.

Marcus points out that dollarizing would further expose Argentina to foreign economic troubles – a significant break with other populist leaders. “That’s a big difference because both Trump and Bolsonaro always talk of putting their country first and supporting local manufacturing,” he says. “But if you look at Milei, you can see he always talk of opening Argentina towards the world.”

Much less palatable for many, however, is Milei’s tendency toward extreme personal attacks, often seen as sexist. Once in 2018, responding to a question about economic strategies by local journalist Teresa Fria, Milei shouted: “It’s not that I am a totalitarian. I’m just saying that you are a she-donkey, and you talk of things you don’t know. You just talked like a donkey and what I am doing now is un-donkeying you!”

His policies have put him on a collision course with Argentina’s powerful female electorate. On the campaign trail, Milei has said he would call for a referendum to abolish the country’s 2020 constitutional reform that legalized abortion, although constitutional experts interviewed by CNN raised doubts over the legality of such a move.

He has also taken political risks with his passion for targeting Pope Francis, even referring to the Pope as “an envoy of Satan” in November 2020 – though Milei has in recent months distanced himself from those views. Argentina remains a profoundly Catholic country with over 60% of the population identifying as Roman Catholic, according to the CIA fact book.

While Milei has not personally attacked Pope Francis on the campaign trail, a spokesperson told CNN that, for Milei, “Pope Francis represents sectors that prevent progress in society.”


Facing off with Patricia Bullrich and Sergio Massa

But despite his headline-grabbing rhetoric and shock success in the primary, Milei’s run for president is far from a done deal. Argentinian presidents are elected in a two-round system that favors coalition-building and is designed to keep extremism to the sides.

Recent polls show the vote split three ways with Milei slightly ahead of traditional center-right aspirant Patricia Bullrich and leftist Sergio Massa, the current economic minister.

Bullrich, a former security minister, told CNN en Español that she would let economists run the finance ministry and offer a firm, calm hand at the wheel compared with Milei’s outbursts.

Massa, seen as Milei’s top rival, has been trying to position himself as a more pragmatic voice from the left compared to the current government coalition. He has worked to distance himself politically from Argentina’s high-profile vice-president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner without alienating her power base.

Neither Massa nor Bullrich is expected to deal with Milei at this point in the campaign, and both traditional coalitions were quick to criticize his lack of government experience and the risks of undoing Argentina’s existing economic structures.

Still, experts say there’s a clear appetite for change this year – and that the winning candidate must find a way to capitalize on that. “This election is all about change, even Sergio Massa represents a change within the continuity of government,” said Claudio Jacquelin, the deputy editor of leading Argentinian newspaper La Nación, in an interview with CNN en Español on Wednesday.

On Sunday, candidates will hold a first debate with mandatory participation. A first round of voting will follow three weeks later. If no candidate wins 45% of the vote (or more than 40% with a difference greater than 10% with the candidate that follows in vote total), the two highest-placed candidates will proceed to a runoff vote in November.

The more competitive run-off after weeks of confrontation and comparison will be Milei’s greatest test. While his surprise ascent has played in his favor so far, the sometimes extreme novelty of his ideas could scare off voters as the race continues, Facundo Nejamkis, director of the polling firm Opina, in Buenos Aires, told CNN.

“(Milei’s) challenge — with a view toward the second round — is to prevent fear or uncertainty among the vast majority (of voters), who might end up voting for a candidate they never thought of, just to prevent Milei from getting into power,” he said.