SALTA, Argentina (AP) — Javier Milei, a right-wing populist who admires Donald Trump and made a name for himself by shouting against Argentina's “political caste” on television, finds himself the front-runner for this month's presidential election.
If he emerges as Argentina’s next president, it will be in large part thanks to support from people like Paola Aguirre, a mother of two young girls who lives in a makeshift wooden shack near a landfill in the northern province of Salta.
Like many Argentines, Aguirre has been overwhelmed by years of ever worsening economic woes that has her struggling to feed her family and made it impossible to afford the room they used to rent. Just over 40% of the country's 46 million people live in poverty, a big jump from a little more than 30% in the second half of 2016, according to Argentina's INDEC statistics agency.
Aguirre sees hope in Milei, a firebrand economist-turned-lawmaker who describes himself as an anarcho-capitalist and says the answer to reining in annual inflation now running around 140% is to get rid of the Central Bank and dollarize the economy. He also vows to privatize state companies, get rid of public infrastructure programs, change labor rules to make it easier to fire employees and carry out a big overhaul of the government to decrease spending.
“We want a radical change,” said Aguirre, who lives without running water nor electricity with her 6- and 8-year-old daughters. “We’re hopeful that what he promises will come true.”
Milei, 52, shocked Argentina’s political class when he unexpectedly received the most votes in August primaries. He is the favorite to win the Oct. 22 presidential election, although opinion polls, which have been notoriously wrong in the past, suggest he will not get enough votes to avoid moving on to a runoff election next month.
Milei’s strongest competitors are seen as Economy Minister Sergio Massa of the governing left-of-center Union for the Homeland coalition and Patricia Bullrich of the main opposition coalition, the right-of-center United for Change.
Milei has recently been dominating the political conversation in the South American country and is defending himself from accusations that his constant talk against Argentina's currency has led to a sharp depreciation of the peso. One prosecutor is seeking to bring criminal charges against him for inciting public fear.
“Are they going to blame me for the disaster? Why don’t they take responsibility for the problems?” Milei said in a recent rally in Salta.
Milei, who regularly characterizes politicians as thieves who live like monarchs, is known for strong opinions that rankle many people. He opposes abortion, wants to abolish sex education, calls for eased gun regulations, disputes that humans are responsible for climate change and says the sale of human organs should be allowed.
But in Salta, many of his supporters say they would rather focus on the way Milei promises a break from politics as usual. They gleefully talk about him brandishing a chainsaw on campaign stops as a symbol of his vow to cut corruption and government spending.
“God forbid, if something bad happens, we will learn from our mistakes, but we definitely need a change,” said Belén Salva, a health worker who does mammograms.
Salva is frustrated because she cannot afford basic essentials. “I want to buy a refrigerator and it’s impossible,” she said.
Milei paints himself as a change from the politicians who “decimated your income,” a reflection of how many Argentines are scraping by despite having jobs.
He received 50% of the vote in Salta in the August primaries, 20 points more than he got at the national level in an election that was seen as a national poll of voter preferences.
In San Antonio de los Cobres, a remote Salta town 3,776 meters (12,388 feet) above sea level, Milei got 60% of the votes. Prosperity is a distant dream for its residents and the candidate’s outsider status seems to hold particular appeal.
“You hear words, words. Over time, you get tired, and what you want is action,” said Alejandrina Quispe, a teacher.
Milei is the candidate of Liberty Advances, a nascent party that could see its congressional representation soar if he manages to repeat or surpass his primary performance in the Oct. 22 election.
But even so, Milei would need to make alliances to get his agenda through a divided Congress, and political analysts warn there is an almost messianic feeling among many of his supporters that carries the danger of crushing disappointments.
“There is this magical thinking among people about his political proposal to turn the situation around,” said Jorge Arias at the Polilat consulting firm.
Although Milei’s support is strong in Salta, his fate in the election will largely play out in Buenos Aires province, which is home to more than a third of Argentina's voters and many suburbs of the capital suffer high levels of crime and poverty.
Rubén Dávalos, who once supported the governing Peronist coalition, now campaigns for Milei mainly because he feels connected to the candidate who comes across “like an angry Argentine citizen.”
Andrés Ferreira, who works as a delivery driver, also campaigns for Milei in the Lomas de Zamora municipality of Buenos Aires. He expresses optimism Milei’s hard-on-crime stance will end the practice of “criminals being treated as victims.”
Ferreira is particularly angry about pervasive political corruption. In recent days, the former mayor of Lomas de Zamora resigned from a high-ranking post in the Buenos Aires provincial government after photos on social media showed him vacationing on a luxurious yacht in the Mediterranean with a model.
“It demonstrates the treachery of how Argentine politicians laugh at the people in the midst of one of the worst crises in history,” Ferreira said.
In San Antonio de los Cobres, Elías Agustín Rivero, who works in a restaurant owned by his parents, supports Milei in part because he thinks a Milei presidency would lead to more jobs for young people.
He said he isn't swayed by those who deride the unconventional candidate.
Many people “will tell you he’s crazy, that he’s no good, that we shouldn’t vote for him,” Rivero said. “Nothing will make me change my mind.”
Associated Press writer Daniel Politi in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed to the report.