Argentina’s five remaining presidential candidates clashed in an ill-tempered but ultimate civilised debate in Santiago del Estero last Sunday night that ticked along without a knockout blow.
The encounter, staged at the northern city’s Centro de Convenciones Provincial Forum, saw Javier Milei (La Libertad Avanza), Sergio Massa (Unión por la Patria), Patricia Bullrich (Juntos por el Cambio), Juan Schiaretti (Hacemos por Nuestro País) and Myriam Bregman (Frente de Izquierda y Trabajadores – Unidad) go head-to-head in a debate nominally focusing on three thematic axes: economy, education and human rights.
In truth, the candidates trained their ire on their preferred targets, rivals and talking-points. Milei and Bullrich went for Massa’s throat on the economy and inflation while the ruling coalition candidate pitched himself as the experienced pro-dialogue fixer and promised to introduce a unity government if elected head of state. Seeking to build his national profile, Schiaretti talked up his party’s third-way approach and record in Córdoba, while dealing Bullrich a few softball questions. Bregman laced criticism of all four rivals with her traditional leftist talking-points, observing that her front is the only one standing up for workers and the working class.
The main surprise was the tone from Milei, the self-described libertarian ‘lion’ who many expected to fly off the handle. Though he bluntly told Massa at one point that the Unión por la Patria candidate would not be elected president, the economist remained calm during the debate and sought to present himself as a viable head of state in the minds of voters.
Pointedly, Bregman attempted to mock his reputation and show him up as a fool: "Milei is not a lion, he is a cuddly kitten of economic powers. He is an employee of big businessmen," she declared at one point.
The debate lasted two hours in total and while the candidates engaged in several clashes, there were no direct insults or outbursts.
The most controversial moment came when Milei flirted with outright denial of the state terrorism carried out by Argentina’s brutal 1976-1983 military dictatorship. Questioning the 30,000 disappeared figure promoted by human rights organisations, the libertarian rejected that tally and sought to paint the violence of the era as a “war,” an argument rejected in the 1985 Trial of the Juntas that brought the dictatorship’s leaders on trial.
The debate’s tastiest clashes took place during the ‘right to reply’ sections, in which the candidates could choose to intervene.
Bullrich asked Massa at one point to explain his record in office, asking: "How can you be a good president [while] being a bad minister? You increased taxes, and then you want to make a criminal law? You did everything wrong, you doubled inflation, the dollar. Do you want to tell us that as president you are going to be different from what you are doing now?”
Meanwhile, Massa took aim at Milei's economic proposals, declaring: "The fate of the PyMES [small- and medium-sized businesses] is doomed if this man becomes president."
Requesting his right to intervene, the libertarian then went on the counter-attack: "Why don't you tell me about the fiscal disaster you are making with the ‘plan platita.’ How nice everything he says sounds, it's a pity he can't do it if inflation does not go down. We are on the verge of hyper[inflation], because instead of the fairytale, he does not tell us what he is going to do with it.”
In one of the few crosses between Milei and Bullrich, the La Libertad Avanza candidate also targeted the Juntos por el Cambio leader’s economic proposals.
"She says he is going to lower inflation, but she did not outline any measure to lower inflation. She has chantas [blaggers] for economists who do not say anything about what he is going to do with the Leliqs and the Central Bank.”
Bullrich’s record was also attacked by Massa, who reminded the public of her period as labour minister under former president Fernando De la Rúa and austerity cuts that reduced pay for state employees and the level of state pensions.
Moving on to the subject of education, Bullrich shot at Massa: "What you are saying has nothing to do with what is happening in the country. Millions of children without classes, you are allied to the unions, not on the side of the children,” she complained.
She slammed Kirchnerite "indoctrination" in schools and accused Massa (and the government by extension) of shuttering institutions during the pandemic, despite the fact that the Frente Renovador leader was still a lawmaker at the time and was not a member of the executive.
Right to reply
According to the rules of the debate, candidates were given five occasions to request a right to reply, with both using up their quota in the first round. Meanwhile, the other three candidates, for their part, joined in with chicanery and criticism.
In the first block of questions, the economy dominated with the discussion polarised between Massa, the ruling coalition hopeful, and libertarian candidate Milei. Proposals to combat inflation, currency flight, dollarisation of the economy or the elimination of the Central Bank were discussed by the hopefuls.
True to his political style, Milei vowed to have the answers to Argentina’s economic turmoil and said it was time to eject the “political caste.”
"Argentina is in decline because of the damned political caste, in 50 years we will be the biggest slum in the world. We started the 20th century as the richest country in the world. Today we are in the middle or bottom half of the table and if it goes on like this, we’ll be the biggest slum in the world," he said.
Among his proposals he listed a comprehensive "state reform," which would include the reduction of public spending and taxes, a deregulation of the economy, the privatisation of state companies and the closure of the Central Bank.
In the section focusing on education, Massa took the opportunity to announce that he would send a bill to Congress raising the minimum budget investment for education from six to eight points of gross domestic product.
Bullrich, for her part, pointed criticised Kirchnerite "indoctrination" in schools and accused Massa (and the government by extension) of shuttering institutions during the pandemic, despite the fact that the Frente Renovador leader was still a lawmaker at the time and was not a member of the executive.
Argentina’s economy minister repeatedly found himself under attack, with both Bullrich and Milei slamming him over inflation. Consumer prices have risen 124.4 percent over the last 12 months and are expected to accelerate further before the end of the year.
"Massa, you were Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and it was my turn to vote on budgets. I always voted against them because they had a fiscal deficit, they are immoral, a swindle," declared the libertarian.
Bullrich, meanwhile, described the budget as "shameful" as she hit back over Massa's criticism of the Mauricio Macri 20015-2019 administration and the US$44-billion debt it left behind.
"Explain to the Argentines how being the worst economy minister can make you a good president,” fired the opposition candidate.
Bregman criticised the minister over Argentina's USS44.5-billion debt programme with the International Monetary Fund and Massa's near 20-percent devaluation of the peso one day after the PASO primaries.
Schiaretti too drew attention to economic instability. "Has your life improved since Massa has been Massa's minister?” he asked rhetorically. “Surely not, if he doubled inflation and the [unofficial blue] dollar has gone up from 250 to 800 pesos in the past year. The only thing Massa has done is to bring Argentina to the brink of hyperinflation.”
Attempting to tackle the issue head on, the economy minister sought to front up to voters.
"I am clear that inflation is a huge problem and that the government's mistakes have hurt the people and I apologise for them," he said, while presenting his plan for exiting the crisis.
In the year Argentina marks 40 years since the return of democracy, the debate’s section on human rights was bound to draw the eye and sure enough it did.
During one exchange on the the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, Milei spoke of "the human rights scam," taking aim at what he described as a "one-sided" view of history
Notably, he questioned the figure of 30,000 disappeared promoted by human rights organisations and state policies of memory, truth and justice.
"There were 8,753" disappeared, he declared at one point, as well as claiming that "in the 1970s there was a war” – an allusion to the so-called ‘two demons’ theory seeking to equate guerrilla and state terrorism and often used by denialists.
"We are against the one-eyed view of history. During the 1970s there was a war and the state forces committed excesses, but the ERP and Montoneros terrorists killed, planted bombs and committed crimes against humanity," said the La Libertad Avanza candidate.
Massa rejected those statements and called on voters to “take care of the legacy of memory, truth and justice that we began with the Trial of the Juntas and ended with the convictions of the repressors." He highlighted the "enormous international recognition” which Argentina receives for its approach to human rights.
For her part, Bullrich put the military dictatorship and the guerrilla organisations of past decades on an equal footing by calling on both sectors to "recognise the brutal tragedy" that Argentina experienced in the 1970s.
"The only way to do politics seriously is in peace and coexistence, and there was a tragedy that can never happen again in Argentina," declared the candidate, a former member of the Peronist Youth.
President Alberto Fernández responded forcefully to Milei's statement in a post on X, the social network formerly known as Twitter.
"It is untenable that anyone should continue to deny and justify the genocidal dictatorship that tortured, murdered, stole babies whose identity was changed, caused disappearances and condemned tens of thousands of Argentines to exile," he wrote.