Argentina’s shock far-right presidential frontrunner has destroyed a pinata representing the country’s central bank in wild scenes on live TV.
Javier Milei — a fiery political outsider who left the country reeling after a surprise surge to the front of the race ahead of presidential elections — is a vocal critic of the central bank, which he has repeatedly vowed to “blow up” if he wins in October.
With Mr Milei on track to become the next leader of the beleaguered South American nation, a resurfaced clip from a 2018 appearance has gone viral again on social media.
The hosts of the TV show Cuatro Caras Bonitas presented a blindfolded Mr Milei with a pinata of the central bank as a birthday present — which he proceeded to bash to pieces with a large stick.
The presidential elections are still two months away, but an unusual nationwide system of party primaries held on Sunday handed Mr Milei the most votes — a key indicator of what is to come.
In the run-up to Sunday’s vote, opinion polls and political analysts did not expect a real challenge to traditional parties from the anti-Establishment outsider, who scored just over 30 per cent of the votes, slightly more than his two main rivals.
“No one imagined such an outcome for Milei. He came first in areas where he has no structure or support,” said political scientist Juan Negri, of the Torcuato di Tella University.
“An elephant walked past us, and we did not see it,” wrote the Clarin daily.
Elected to parliament in 2021, the 52-year-old economist with dishevelled hair has grabbed public attention with his radical ideas, regularly appearing on televised panels and with a strong presence on social media.
Political analyst Gabriel Puricelli said Mr Milei had managed to grab hold of a growing discontent in the country and “build an electorate” out of nothing.
‘Nothing to lose’
Asked why they support Mr Milei, his backers, young and old, invariably express the desire for something new in a country dogged by economic malaise.
“Ten years of stagnation and five of high inflation fed into the scepticism of a large part of the population,” toward the status quo, said Mr Puricelli.
Argentina’s political scene has for decades been dominated by Peronism — heavy on state intervention, subsidies, and welfare programs — with brief periods of governance by the centre-right.
The country is facing annual inflation of 115 per cent, and poverty levels are at 40 per cent.
With the peso constantly under threat, Argentines’ only hope of saving for the future is immediately buying dollars — on the informal market due to strict currency controls.
“Our parents, our grandparents, voted for Peronism 20 years ago, 30 years ago, but the country has stayed the same,” said 20-year-old student Carolina Carabajal.
Political analyst Carlos Fara said there was a sense of having “nothing to lose, let’s try something new because the others have failed”.
While described alternately as libertarian, far-right, or anti-Establishment, Mr Milei’s political views are hard to pin down.
He is ultraliberal on the economy, against the minimum wage, and wants austerity “harsher than that requested” by the International Monetary Fund, to whom Argentina owes $US44 billion.
He describes himself as an “anarcho-capitalist” and says he is “above all for freedom”.
He has proposed dollarising the economy, “dynamiting the central bank”, and doing away with the ministries of education, health and public works, which he wants to replace with private investment.
On some social issues he is conservative, wanting to ban abortion and get rid of sexual education in schools.
“A man with dozens of faces,” wrote journalist Juan Gonzalez in an unauthorised biography of Mr Milei.
Unmarried and childless, he lives alone with four mastiffs named after liberal economists. His sister, Karina, is his right-hand woman.
With Mr Milei now in the mix as a serious challenger, the October 22 presidential election has been thrown wide open with three main candidates.
He is running against former Security Minister Patricia Bullrich on the right, and Economy Minister Sergio Massa from the ruling centre-left coalition — who came second and third respectively in the primary election by only a narrow margin.
None of them are facing an easy ride.
Mr Milei and Ms Bullrich will jockey for similar voters on the right, while Mr Massa will try to retain moderate voters while battling bad economic news in the run-up to the vote.