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Argentina Election: Javier Milei, Tiktok Economist, Leads Polls

Argentina votes on Sunday in one of the most open presidential elections for decades. The effects of a deep economic crisis have proved fertile ground for an unorthodox far-right front-runner, with wild hair, big sideburns and a totally radical approach to ruling the country.

Javier Milei was, until recently, a relative unknown. An economist, pundit and rock fan, he came top in recent primaries and polls now put him ahead in Sunday’s first round.

He is very clear about wanting to shake things up. At one campaign event, he wielded a chainsaw to send a message that he intends to slash spending to improve Argentina’s economy.

“We want an outsider who actually has the guts to fight the mafias in this country,” says Alejandro Lazcano, one of thousands of supporters queuing up to get a ticket to Milei’s closing campaign event six hours before it started. “Who actually has the guts to be able to make the changes that are needed?”

Javier Milei, who’s often compared to former US president Donald Trump, certainly claims he will. He’s said he wants to blow up the central bank and introduce the dollar as the country’s official currency to put an end to inflation that is running at well over 100%.

With Argentina teetering on the edge of economic collapse, that is a message that resonates with millions.

“Milei’s mighty candidacy reflects regional anti-establishment sentiment, after a decade of sluggish growth and an economic bludgeoning from the pandemic,” says Benjamin Gedan, who heads up the Wilson Centre’s Argentina Project.

“Voters seem genuinely intrigued by Milei’s promise to dollarise the economy. They are ready to drop the peso like a bad habit, whether or not Milei could effectively adopt the US currency.”

Army of TikTok influencers

They’re bold promises that are making a noise here, but go on to the streets of Buenos Aires and you’d be hard-pushed to know he even exists.

The walls and billboards are full of posters with smiling candidates asking people to vote. But none of them have Javier Milei’s face on.

And that’s because he’s campaigning with an army of influencers, spreading his word, mostly on TikTok.

Iñaki Gutierrez is one of them – a 22-year-old law and economics student, he saw Brexit as inspiration for how to run a political campaign.

“I saw lots of campaigning on Facebook – there was a lot of money for the Leave campaign and it blew my mind in communication terms,” Iñaki says.

So he went to see Javier Milei and convinced him that he needed to be on social media. Iñaki and his girlfriend have since spearheaded Javier Milei’s campaign on TikTok. The couple have their own massive fan base too.

Iñaki Gutierrez sits in front of camera

“It’s changing the way people inform themselves,” says Iñaki.

“You don’t have to have big structures any more to do politics, to go to towns [to campaign] – you can, with a phone, reach the whole country in hours and talk to everyone.”

Up against Javier Milei are Peronist Economy Minister Sergio Massa and former security minister, conservative Patricia Bullrich: two candidates from Argentina’s traditional ruling classes.

“Milei’s vote cuts across all socio-economic levels,” according to political analyst Ana Iparraguirre.

She says these elections are not, as they so often have been in the past, about Kirchnerismo (the populist political movement formed by supporters of Nestor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner) or Argentina’s most famous and enduring political movement, Peronism.

“He’s talking about a political caste against everyone else,” says Ana Iparraguirre. “That’s why it changed how the whole political system is organised.”

Javier Milei paints himself as the outsider, one with very strong opinions: he wants to loosen gun laws and restrict abortion.

And in a recent debate, Javier Milei also disputed the widely accepted figure of 30,000 people who were disappeared during Argentina’s brutal dictatorship between 1976 and 1983, arguing the number was a much lower 8,753.

“People see him as someone authentic who says what he really thinks even if what he says is politically incorrect,” says Ana Iparraguirre. “I think that is a big part of why people vote for him.”

Caro stands in front of buildings

But for Massa supporter Malena Haboba the future is worrying.

“Everything is at risk, even the most simple things,” she says of a Milei presidency. “I’m worried about persecutions for women who choose to abort – it’ll be a return to the kitchen for women.”

Javier Milei’s critics are trying to break down the political debate and demystify the sound bites and fake news that has come to shape so many political campaigns. And many are responding through the medium his supporters know best – TikTok.

“With our content we’re trying to debunk some baseless proposals, they’re just spouted in the media,” says Caro, who makes videos for the TikTok account @indisciplinadxs, which was set up in response to Javier Milei’s rise.

“For us, it’s really important to bring Argentina’s political history to the fore – the social history, economic history, to realise that what he is proposing isn’t anything new, in fact it’s already happened and it didn’t work – and had many economic and social implications for our country.”

But if the polls are right, voters don’t care. As he addressed a packed stadium for his closing campaign event on Wednesday, the crowd clearly identified with this rebel politician in a well-worn leather jacket.

With their fists in the air, they energetically chanted “Freedom” in response to his campaign promises. In a country where millions struggle each and every day, the opportunity to try something radically different – no matter the uncertainty that comes with it – is appealing.

Source : BBC