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ARGENTINA | 22-10-2023 23:26

Old guard Massa vs outsider Milei: a battle for two Argentinas

Argentina's run-off election on November 19 will be a battle for two very different visions of Argentina.

Argentina is heading to a runoff presidential election race between Economy Minister Sergio Massa, who has overseen record inflation, and the chainsaw-wielding, TikTok-savvy outsider Javier Milei.

The election on November 19 will be a battle for two very different visions of Argentina.

So who is in the running? 


Generous economy minister?

Sergio Massa, 51, is running for president after over a year as Argentina's Economy Minister.

He defied the polls by placing first with 36 percent of ballots cast, despite having overseen annual inflation levels of almost 140 percent and historic poverty levels of 40 percent.

The tall and charismatic lawyer-turned-politician was chosen as the best option to run for the Presidency for the centre-left Peronist ruling coalition.

It is his second shot at the top office after a failed run in 2015.

In 2008 and 2009, he was Cabinet chief to then-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

The two had a bitter falling out but reconciled for 2019 elections won by President Alberto Fernández with Fernández de Kirchner as his vice-president.

In July last year he was named "super minister" of a portfolio bringing together the Economy, Productive Development, and Agriculture, Fisheries & Livestock ministries in a bid to calm the country's economic crisis – with two of his predecessors stepping down in a matter of weeks.

The minister managed to renegotiate the repayment of a US$44-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, but failed to halt soaring inflation.

He is described as a wily political operator.

"Even if he doesn't have a plan, he constantly improvises... he always conveys the idea that he is in control of the situation and that he will find a way out," said Diego Genoud, Massa's unauthorised biographer. 

He "has the ability to always be well-placed and sought after in the halls of power," said Genoud.

This is a skill criticised by his rivals.

"He is a dangerous guy precisely because of his ability to excite people. He is capable of making a speech with an ease ... that one believes him, even if it runs completely contrary to fact," said opposition deputy Fernando Iglesias. 

In the final run-up to the first round election, he went on a spending spree to lure voters.

He eliminated income tax for some 800,000 citizens, removed VAT levies from basic goods, and granted cash payouts to millions.

The son of Italian immigrants, Massa studied law and economics before entering politics, notably becoming a regional lawmaker at only 28.

He is married with two children.


Rock-star with a chainsaw

Buenos Aires City lawmaker Javier Milei, 53, pulled off a massive upset when he came first in August primary elections with more than 30 percent.

However, this was not enough to propel him into first place as he scored the same in the first-round election.

The libertarian with dishevelled hair and a rock-star persona came from nowhere to grab public attention with diatribes on television and social media – where he vows to "dynamite" the Central Bank and ditch the peso for the US dollar.

He showed up at rallies brandishing a powered-up chainsaw to evoke the cuts he plans to make to the bloated state.

Some observers compare his populist approach to that of former US president Donald Trump and Brazil's former leader Jair Bolsonaro. 

Bolsonaro's son Eduardo was present in Milei's election bunker.

"I believe that Milei will win, whether it's in the first or second round doesn't matter," he said.

For many fed-up Argentines, Milei – who slams the "thieving and useless political class" that he says has been running the country – is a glimmer of hope in the face of a seemingly endless economic quagmire.

Buenos Aires-based economist Andres Borenstein, with the Econviews think tank, said that weary Argentines throwing their lot in with Milei were "gambling for resurrection. It's double or nothing.  And that's one of the reasons why Milei became very popular because he appeals to the emotion. He's a TikTok guy."

After decades of politics dominated by the populist Peronist movement -- heavy on state intervention and welfare programs -- the economy has lurched between debt defaults and inflationary crises.

Milei has vowed to slash some public services and plans to ditch the ministries of Health, Education, Gender and the Environment, among others.

The libertarian is opposed to abortion and wants to make it easier to buy guns. He also denies humans are responsible for climate change.

Milei was born in Buenos Aires, playing football and singing in a Rolling Stones cover band in his youth.

Unmarried and childless, he is known for his love of dogs, and owns four large mastiffs named after liberal economists.

According to El Loco, the unauthorised biography from journalist Juan Luis González, Milei never accepted the death of his first dog, Conan, and all his other pooches are clones he had made in the United States.

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