Red in the face and gesticulating passionately, Argentine presidential candidate Javier Milei excoriated “that imbecile in Rome” — a man more commonly referred to as “Pope Francis”. In Milei’s view, the spiritual leader of 1.3 billion people is not merely a social justice warrior and a communist agitator; he is “the representative of evil on Earth”.
The libertarian’s tirade during an interview earlier this week left his interviewer, Viviana Canosa, “speechless”. She sighed deeply in response, rolled her eyes, and mustered a flummoxed reflection on the rant as “intense”.
Milei is famous (or infamous) for his impassioned speeches. They often feature polarizing opinions. But this take — that the Pope is actually evil incarnate — was a curious one, particularly for someone looking to lead a country in which nearly two-thirds of the population (including Milei himself) identifies as Catholic. Unsurprisingly, Milei’s remarks faced swift backlash, not least from the politically influential Argentine Catholic church.
The diatribe was just one of the controversies from of Milei’s campaign this week. His running mate, Victoria Villarruel, held a public “Homage to Victims of Terrorism” to commemorate those killed by leftist guerrilla violence in the 1970s. The event incensed human rights groups, who criticized the VP hopeful for justifying the state violence and rights abuses perpetrated by Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship. More on that here.
Milei’s off-the-cuff, controversy-laden campaign style has so far been an asset. His harangues have tapped into many Argentines’ deep-seated frustration with the political and economic status quo. They are largely credited with his surge in popularity over the last few years, and certainly played a role in his surprise victory in the primaries.
Moving into the general election, the Milei team’s headstrong campaign approach could become a liability. Especially in the event of a runoff, perceptions that Milei is unhinged could alienate on-the-fence voters or even foment a unified opposition to his candidacy that has yet to materialize.
Recognizing that his wildcard reputation might cost him down the line, Milei is working to present his policies, including his flagship dollarization scheme, with a greater degree of nuance. The plan, as Milei originally posed it, included few specifics beyond “burning down the central bank.”
This week, however, he gave the proposal some color: pesos would be converted at the free market price (which, as of this writing, stood at roughly 730 pesos to 1 USD). The candidate bluntly dismissed analysts’ predictions that a real free market conversion would see dollars converted at more than 10 times that rate.
In an effort to make himself more palatable to conservative and moderate voters, Milei has also worked to drum up more mainstream allies from among the “political caste” that he regularly attacks. Chief among those is former President Mauricio Macri. The libertarian has said that, if elected, he would make the founder of Propuesta Republicana (candidate Patricia Bullrich’s party) Argentina’s representative to the world, a super ambassador of sorts.
Macri has not said no. His silence — neither a rejection of Milei’s offer nor an affirmation of support for his ostensible protegee, Bullrich — is telling. The former president sees a Milei presidency as a very real possibility. Like many political actors in the wake of the primaries, he is hedging his bets.
For Bullrich, who spent months currying favor with Macri, the idea that her political mentor would entertain a collaboration with Milei is a slap in the face. She took care this week to air her frustrations with Macri, who she described as holding Juntos por el Cambio (JxC) hostage. And so began her hostile takeover of the coalition.
Macri’s flirting with defection comes at a bad time for the JxC nominee. Polls have Bullrich coming third in the October 22 vote, meaning she would not advance to a runoff should there be one. That being said, there is plenty of time until the vote, and many of these same polls showed Milei coming in a distant third in the primaries.
As I discussed last week, Bullrich’s faltering level of public support has much to do with her lack of a concrete policy platform. People are concerned that she does not have a plan, so she has surrounded herself with people who, at least ostensibly, do.
The former security minister doubled down on last week’s early nomination of Carlos Melconian as her prospective economy minister with a flurry of appointments this week. Bullrich’s would-be cabinet is now relatively fleshed out.
Milei has filled the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Human Capital — three of the eight ministries (there are currently 16) he plans to keep should he enter the Casa Rosada.
Massa has proffered no cabinet-level appointments, but he has been working actively to raise money and build a wide support base, particularly with Argentina’s business and union community. On Monday, he held a fundraising dinner, and other high-level, more hardline Peronist figures were conspicuously absent, as were many high profile business and labor leaders.
The movement has largely fallen in line behind the economy minister, and its more radical faction aligned with Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has kept quiet for fear of driving away more moderate voters who might be skeptical of the vice president and her allies.