Buenos Aires, Argentina – Argentina’s open presidential primaries are often criticised as a waste of money and time, but this week they gave the economically struggling South American nation a striking look in the mirror.
Acting as a litmus test in the run-up to general elections in October, the vote on Sunday night clearly showed just how much Argentinians want change – and how many of them are ready to shake up the wider political system to get it, analysts said.
Javier Milei, a far-right libertarian candidate who has taken the country by storm, drew in the most support – 30 percent – and far more than any poll had predicted, raising questions around his appeal and what his rise means for the country.
“They are not right-wing votes. They are votes that are free of politics,” said Carlos Fara, a political analyst in the capital, Buenos Aires, who told Al Jazeera that support for Milei is not ideologically driven.
Instead, the candidate has drawn support from both ends of the political spectrum and held a strong appeal among young voters, especially young men. “This voter is looking for a hope for the future, and they have found that in Milei,” Fara said.
An economist and legislator, Milei burst into Argentinian national politics two years ago when he founded his Libertad Avanza (Liberty Advances) party to support his first campaign for Congress.
Before that, he was a media pundit known for his eccentric look – with a mop of hair that earned the nickname “the wig” – and tirades against socialism, which he said has “infected” society and government.
His approach has earned him comparisons to former US President Donald Trump and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, the latter of whom published a video last week declaring his support of Milei.
Most recently, his long-standing message that a “useless, parasitic, [and] criminal political caste” is to blame for all of Argentina’s woes has resonated with voters.
“Society has found a vehicle that allows it to find a solution to the failure of politics,” the 52-year-old said – referring to himself – in a radio interview on Monday, admitting that even he was surprised by his strong showing in the primaries.
“We are the force with the most votes because we are the true opposition, the only ones who want true change,” he said on Sunday.
His best-known campaign promises include using the United States dollar as official currency in Argentina and abolishing the country’s central bank, but he also has proposed dramatically cutting taxes, slashing public spending, eliminating various ministries, imposing user fees in public health, and making fundamental changes to public education.
Milei has also expressed support for loosening gun laws, said he would hold a referendum on whether legalised abortion should be abolished, and said he believes the sale of organs should be legal.
His proposals represent a radical departure for Argentina, a country with robust public institutions, strong worker protections, and some of the most socially progressive policies in Latin America – and that’s exactly what many are saying the country needs.
Struggling to pay off a $44bn debt to the International Monetary Fund, and with dwindling reserves, a peso that has plummeted in value, 40 percent of people living under the poverty line and skyrocketing inflation, Argentina has been stuck in a series of economic crises that have driven many to chronic states of desperation.
On Monday, the government devalued the official currency by 22 percent, suggesting that prices – which have jumped 115 percent in the last year – are sure to keep escalating.
Valeria Brusco, a political scientist based in the province of Cordoba who studies Milei, said the results of the primaries in Argentina are evidence of a larger trend in which people have lost all patience and are opting for more radical solutions.
“We are in times of ephemeral support, of urgent demands for better results in public policies and of great economic concentration that seems to have translated into this enormous frustration,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Yesterday someone told me, ‘I feel disgusted by the usual politicians because what they have always done is what has brought us here.’”
Brusco added that when she asks Argentinians about Milei’s specific proposals, the response she most often gets is: “Well, I don’t know, they may be bad, but at least I don’t know them. And the other option, which is bad, I already know.”
While Milei posted the top result on Sunday, the presidential field is – for the first time in recent memory – split into three fairly even factions, making it likely that voters will head to the polls again in November for a run-off between the top two candidates.
The traditional right-of-centre coalition Juntos por el Cambio (Together for Change) earned 28 percent of the vote in the primaries, while the ruling centre-left Peronist coalition, known as Union por la Patria (Union for the Homeland), clinched 27 percent.
In order to win the presidency in the first round, a candidate must receive 45 percent of the vote, or 40 percent of the vote plus a difference of at least 10 percentage points with the second-place candidate.
On the streets in Buenos Aires, the results have continued to reverberate. “He thanked his dogs,” two elderly ladies murmured in the neighbourhood of Palermo, a reference to Milei’s homage from the podium to his five mastiffs, named for conservative economists.
“I’m not happy,” said Gustavo Borasio, a 61-year-old chemical factory worker in the province of Buenos Aires, who voted for a left-wing party.
Milei “gives me the impression that he’s going to drive us to lose jobs, the way we did back in 2000”, said Borasio, referring to the deregulation and neoliberal policies pursued by then-President Carlos Menem. “We didn’t produce anything then, because it was cheaper to import. So we went from 120 jobs to 40.”
Borasio said he thinks many of the young people who are drawn to Milei don’t understand the implications of some of his proposals because they haven’t lived through them before.
“It’s very strange,” Magdalena Barrios, a 60-year-old housecleaner, said of Milei’s appeal.
The issue hits very close to home, as Barrios – who supports Sergio Massa, Argentina’s economy minister and leader of Union por la Patria – said her 24-year-old son, who is studying engineering at university, is an ardent fan of Milei.
“I really can’t explain it,” she told Al Jazeera. “He supports him with all his soul.”
That feeling was clear outside of Milei’s campaign headquarters on Sunday night, where mobs of supporters jumped for joy and chanted after the shock results. “A new Argentina is coming!” a woman shouted.
“We love his way of thinking, of telling it like it is,” said Guilliana Gomez, 22, from the working-class municipality of Ciudad Evita on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
She said everyone in her extended family – around a dozen people – voted for Milei after years of supporting Argentina’s left-wing power couple, the late President Nestor Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who is finishing her term as vice president.
“They kind of opened their minds and realised that nothing changes,” Gomez told Al Jazeera. “They work, work and work more than ever, and they are always in the same position.”