Buenos Aires, Argentina – David Urbani was 15 years old, barely in high school, when he first encountered the future far-right presidential candidate Javier Milei.
Now an economics student at the National University of Mar del Plata, Urbani remembers surfing on YouTube when he stumbled on a series of educational videos that Milei had put together, as part of his work as an economist and professor in Buenos Aires at the time.
“I think what moved me the most was the simple way he explained concepts,” Urbani, 20, said, holding up an introductory economics book with Milei’s autograph in it. “The guy is an academic, not a politician.”
A relative newcomer to Argentina’s politics, Milei has nevertheless catapulted to international fame as the dark horse candidate in this year’s presidential elections.
This Sunday, he faces centre-left Economy Minister Sergio Massa in a run-off race so tight that polls show the two candidates in a dead heat.
Part of the fuel behind Milei’s sudden political rise has been the devoted following he has whipped up among young, largely male voters like Urbani. Some are devoted libertarians. Others are merely curious and feeling disaffected with the political establishment.
But while pundits and opposition politicians lambaste Milei for his radical right-wing policy proposals, this young generation of “mileistas” say they’re all in.
“I believe we have to try, and that’s it,” Ramiro Gómez, a 21-year-old information technology (IT) technician from the province of Rosario, said of his decision to back Milei.
Elected to the lower chamber of Argentina’s congress in 2021, Milei was still in his freshman term when he launched his long-shot presidential bid in this year’s race.
Milei has remained a frontrunner ever since. In October’s general elections, he finished in second place behind Massa, earning one of two slots in the run-off race.
Many experts credit Milei’s sudden popularity to the dire straits of Argentina’s economy. The country faces a long-running economic crisis, and inflation has topped 140 percent, driving down the value of Argentina’s national currency, the peso.
To address the crisis, Milei has promised to slash key government ministries, charge fees for Argentina’s public healthcare system, shutter the central bank, and adopt the United States dollar as Argentina’s national currency.
He has also adopted an eyebrow-raising mixture of libertarian and conservative social stances, offering support for banning abortion and legalising organ sales. Popular targets for his sharply worded broadsides include women, the LGBTQ community and even Pope Francis, an Argentinian himself.
Yet, while other right-wing populists like former US President Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro have struggled to win over younger generations, Milei has consistently led polls of voters between the ages of 16 and 35.
Mark P Jones, a professor in Latin American studies at Rice University, credits the difference to the deep-seated frustration with Argentina’s crisis and Milei’s image as a political outsider.
“When younger voters look at Milei, they see someone who’s fighting against the system and a rebel,” Jones said. “And I think one thing Milei has been able to do is effectively dissociate himself with younger voters from his more conservative policies.”
A ‘chainsaw’ to the status quo
Milei’s most ardent supporters often connect through WhatsApp groups and on social media, where fan accounts feature silhouettes of the candidate’s signature sideburns and memes depict him locked in epic anime battles.
Milei’s eccentricity is central to his brand: He once was the frontman of a Rolling Stones cover band, and he currently owns five cloned dogs, each named after right-wing economists.
Videos have also gone viral during the election showing Milei tearing down Post-It notes with the names of the government ministries he intends to cut and shouting his catchphrase, “Long live f***ing liberty!”
Jones described Milei’s base as motivated less by ideology and more by desperation and exasperation with the traditional political establishment.
His bloc of supporters, Jones explained, is largely composed of middle- and working-class voters in their late teens and 20s who are frustrated with struggling to maintain gainful employment.
“Milei is their vehicle to effectively take a chainsaw to the status quo, but also to perhaps try something different,” Jones said, referencing Milei’s embrace of the chainsaw as a campaign symbol.
Alan Quiroga, 28, who lives in a working-class suburb of Buenos Aires and drives for Uber on his motorcycle, said he was first drawn to Milei when he saw the libertarian on television, speaking passionately about Argentina’s “golden age” in the early 20th century.
“What he wants to implement is what they do in the United States, in Spain, in normal countries,” Quiroga said. “What we are experiencing here is going towards Venezuela, Cuba.”
Though popular with many of his supporters, Milei’s proposal to adopt the US dollar faces steep opposition from the broader public. A September poll showed nearly 70 percent of Argentinians disapproved of the idea.
That month, 170 Argentinian economists also published an open letter predicting that a currency switch would lead to further inflation, mass unemployment and “absurd” increases in Argentina’s $400bn public debt.
‘A good crazy person’
But Milei’s appeal among young voters goes beyond his radical economic plan. The candidate has sought to position himself as a critic of corruption among the political elite, whom he calls “the caste”.
High-ranking members of Argentina’s main political parties have recently faced corruption charges. Last year, for instance, outgoing Vice President Cristina Fernandez was sentenced to six years in jail for fraud.
“The Javier Milei I like the most is the effusive Javier Milei, the honest Javier Milei,” Urbani said. “It’s the Javier Milei who gets mad when he’s faced with lies, faced with dishonest people.”
Milei has a penchant for the dramatic, at times appearing overcome with emotion during his public speeches.
“A good crazy person — that’s how I would describe him,” Quiroga said. “It comes from his heart. He can’t control it.”
Yet, even some of Milei’s longstanding supporters have their doubts about his ability to maintain his credentials as a corruption fighter, especially as he broadens his coalition to include the kinds of establishment figures he frequently criticizes.
Former President Mauricio Macri has offered Milei his backing, as has Bullrich, his former conservative rival in the presidential race.
“When he became involved in politics, without wanting to, he became part of the caste,” said Lucas González, a 28-year-old bookstore owner who said he still supports Milei.
Though Milei has built a strong movement, whether or not it survives will depend on the results of Sunday’s election and how the economy fares in the coming months, said Noam Lupu, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University who researches Argentina.
“There will always be this kind of libertarian, pro-business vote in Argentina,” Lupu said. “But the sort of anti-establishment, anti-status quo, pro-disruption only succeeds if it continues to feel threatened by the status quo and the political class.”
Urbani disagrees. He believes that Milei has triggered a significant political shift among Argentinian youth that will persist regardless of Sunday’s election results.
“The majority of the youth are Milei voters, and especially boys,” Urbani said. “What is coming for Argentina is very good, because a lot of kids have started to reckon with capitalist ideas, with economic concepts in their heads that they were not talking about before.”