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    Tuesday, December 05, 2023

    Right-wing populist set to take Argentina down uncharted path: 'No room for lukewarm measures'

    Presidential candidate Javier Milei, center, his sister Karina, right, and his running mate Victoria Villarruel hug during a campaign rally in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Oct. 18, 2023. Milei and Villarruel's ticket resoundingly won Argentina's presidency in the Nov. 19 runoff election. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)

    BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — What many deemed impossible just months ago is reality: Right-wing populist Javier Milei resoundingly won Argentina's presidency.

    The fiery freshman lawmaker's victory Sunday night has thrust the country into the unknown regarding how extreme his policies will be following a campaign in which he revved a chainsaw to symbolically cut the state down to size.

    With almost all votes tallied, Milei handily beat Economy Minister Sergio Massa, 55.7% to 44.3%. Milei won all but three of the nation’s 24 provinces, and Massa conceded even before the electoral authority began announcing the preliminary results.

    Milei, 53, a libertarian economist, started to outline some of his planned policies on Monday morning. He said in a radio interview that would quickly move forward with plans to privatize state-run media outlets he received negative coverage from during his campaign and which he deemed “a covert ministry of propaganda."

    The president-elect also said that state-controlled energy firm YPF should eventually be privatized but first must be repaired so it can be “sold in a very, very, very beneficial way for Argentines.”

    “Everything that can be in the hands of the private sector will be in the hands of the private sector,” he told Bueno Aires station Radio Mitre.

    Milei, a self-described anarcho-capitalist with a disheveled mop of hair, made his name by furiously denouncing the “political caste” on television programs. His pledge for abrupt, severe change resonated with Argentines weary of annual inflation soaring above 140% and a poverty rate that reached 40%.

    Once in office, he has said he would slash government spending, dollarize the economy and eliminate the Central Bank as well as key ministries, including those of health and education.

    An admirer of former U.S. President Donald Trump, Milei has likewise presented himself as a crusader against the sinister creep of global socialism with plans to purge the government of corrupt establishment politicians. In the weeks before the runoff, though, he walked back some of his more unpopular proposals, such as loosening gun controls and sweeping, indiscriminate privatization.

    “Hang on to your hat,” Benjamin Gedan, director of the Latin America Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center, told The Associated Press by phone. “Milei has toned down his anti-establishment rage lately and downplayed his more outlandish proposals, but it’s going to be a wild ride, given his combative style, inexperience and the few allies he has in Congress.”

    Milei said in the Radio Mitre interview that plans to travel to the United States and Israel before taking office on Dec. 10. The U.S. trip has a “spiritual connotation” and involves visiting rabbis in Miami and New York with whom he is close. From there, he intends to head to Israel.

    Milei, who has long said he was considering converting to Judaism, has often emphasized his support for Israel and frequently waved an Israeli flag at his rallies. He had previously said he wanted to move Argentina's Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, following in Trump's footsteps.

    Supporters celebrated Sunday night outside Milei’s headquarters in downtown Buenos Aires, drinking beer and chanting as fireworks went off overhead. They waved both Argentine flags and the yellow Gadsden flag, emblazoned with the words “Don’t Tread On Me,” which Milei’s movement has adopted as its own.

    “We no longer want the past; we are betting on the future,” said Ezequiel Fanelli, 45, who works for an insurance company and had a Gadsden flag in hand.

    Brazil’s far-right former president, Jair Bolsonaro, spoke in a video call with Milei, congratulating him on his victory and praising its signal to the world. Bolsonaro posted video of the call to social media.

    “You have big work ahead,” he told the president-elect. “The work goes beyond Argentina. You represent a lot to us democrats, and we are lovers of liberty. You represent a lot for Brazil and be sure that everything that’s possible to do for you, I will be at your disposal.”

    By wresting power from Massa’s Peronist party that has dominated Argentine politics for decades, Milei’s victory represents a political paradigm shift in the country. He is the first outsider to reach the presidency and considerably farther right-wing than anyone who has held the position before.

    “I have a lot of faith in the policies that he can push forward, and I hope he can fulfill everything he proposed without obstacles in the middle,” said Ayalen Abalos, a 22-year-old tourism student.

    The way in which voters proved willing to hand the country’s reins to someone untested lays bare the deep discontent Argentines harbor for the ruling class and the status quo. Yet the presidential election marked the culmination of an improbable rise to power.

    Milei parlayed his television stardom into a seat in Argentina’s lower house of Congress two years ago. His presidential bid was viewed as a mere sideshow just months ago – until he scored the most votes in August primary elections and sent shock waves through the political landscape.

    Milei focused much of his campaign on economic proposals, casting blame on successive administrations for printing money with abandon to fund state spending. Ahead of the first round, Milei sometimes carried a chainsaw at rallies, a symbol of his intention to cut state spending.

    In the run-up to the vote, Massa and his allies had cautioned Argentines that his opponent’s plan to eliminate key ministries and otherwise sharply curtail the state would threaten public services, including health, education and welfare programs many rely on.

    Milei accused his opponent of running a “campaign of fear” and, in his final campaign spot, stared starkly into the camera and promised he would not privatize education, healthcare nor soccer clubs.

    The wide margin of Milei’s victory suggests voters agreed that the hype was overblown, and were turned off, said Andrei Roman, CEO of Brazil-based pollster Atlas Intel, one of the only pollsters to correctly call the election’s first round.

    Some of Milei's positions appear to echo those of more conservative Republicans in the U.S.; he opposes sex education, feminist policies and abortion, which is legal in Argentina, and rejects the notion that humans have a role in causing climate change.

    His profanity-laden rhetoric has already inserted the country into the global culture war that has overwhelmed political discourse in the U.S. and Brazil.

    “Despite Milei, despite all his campaign mistakes, despite all his peculiarities that raise doubts, concerns … despite all of that, the demand for change prevailed,” said Lucas Romero, the head of Synopsis, a local political consulting firm.

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