Argentina's first presidential debate ended without a clear winner. The candidate of the extreme right, the economist Javier Milei, did not shine this Sunday in the star theme, the difficult economic situation of the country, but he did not need it either. Favorite in the polls ahead of the general elections on October 22, Milei preferred not to risk and managed to keep his well-known anger under control. It was enough to get out alive from the television dispute, in which he was one of the most criticized candidates, along with Sergio Massa, current Minister of Economy and candidate for the ruling Peronism. Massa breathed a sigh of relief: his rivals only cited in passing the great scandals that emerged from their ranks during the last weeks of the campaign. The candidate of Together for Change, Patricia Bullrich, was the least forceful. She needed a good performance to come back – she is third in voting intention – and she did not succeed. It was blocked on several occasions and its opponents attacked it on its weakest flank: the economic proposals.
The debate was held in Santiago del Estero, in the north of the country. It began with a quick introduction of Argentina's five presidential hopefuls — Milei, Massa, Bullrich, progressive Myriam Bregman and Córdoba provincial governor and dissident Peronist Juan Schiaretti — before entering the economic bloc squarely. Bregman's initial reference to the holidays in Marbella for which a senior Kirchner official resigned this Saturday — "While they starve the people they go on their luxury yachts to walk around Europe" — suggested that it would be one of the repeated darts of the night, but it was not so. Only Bullrich used it again to respond to Massa's proposal to make a law to punish tax evaders with jail time. "You already have the first one. Take it to [Martin] Insaurralde," he replied.
The attacks of the opposition candidates to Massa for his poor results at the head of the Economy Ministry focused the economic part. They blamed him for having brought inflation to the current 124.4%, for making poverty exceed 40% and for decreeing "silver plans" that only increase monetary issuance and the fiscal deficit. Massa admitted to having made some mistake, but mostly threw blame outside: the government of Mauricio Macri for having indebted the country, the International Monetary Fund for dictating economic policy and tax evaders, among many others. And he looked forward with a battery of proposals, such as the creation of a digital currency, a laundering law and jail sentences for those who defraud the Treasury. Toward the end of the debate, he said he would call for a great national agreement if he reached the Casa Rosada.
In that first bloc, the candidates also attacked Milei, who asked for votes and time to implement his ultra-liberal economic project. "If you give me 20 years, we are Germany. If you give me 35... The United States," promised the leader of La Libertad Avanza. His most criticized proposal was dollarization. Bullrich warned that Argentina does not have dollars to adopt it, while Massa stressed that this model "only has three countries in the world: Zimbabwe, Ecuador and El Salvador." Bregman emphasized the ultra-liberal economist's business ties: "He's not a lion, he's a cuddly kitten of economic power."
The format chosen for the debate, with only five rights to reply throughout its two-hour duration, prevented interruptions and large crosses between the five candidates. There were mocking smiles from Milei at some attacks and gestural refusals from Massa, but if they made any comments they were not heard because their microphones were turned off when it was not their turn. Massa and Milei spent their replicas in the economic bloc, in which they feel more comfortable, while the other candidates opted to distribute them. The great distance in voting intention of Bregman and Schiaretti – less than 5% in both cases – against the three central opponents left them out of that fight. The repeated comparisons of the governor of Córdoba between Argentina and his province detracted attention from his interventions and later became the meat of memes on social networks.
In the second block, Education, the roles among right-wing leaders were reversed. Bullrich gained some security and Milei lost it. Both read most of their interventions, which detracted from their naturalness, but the candidate of La Libertad Avanza got tangled up when explaining his controversial proposal for educational vouchers. "No more giving them fish. We're going to teach them how to fish or have a fishing company," Milei said. "Go with the voucher to the Puna, anywhere. You don't know Argentina. You propose a model that only serves the City of Buenos Aires. The voucher is not equality," Bullrich replied. Milei had exhausted his turns of reply and could not answer him.
The public could choose some topics and voted to include human rights, one of the most disputed points. Milei made it clear that he has endorsed the negationist ideas of the dictatorship of his vice presidential candidate, Victoria Villarruel. "We value the vision of Memory, Truth and Justice. Let's start with the truth. There were not 30,000 disappeared, there are 8,753," he said, taking as the only valid number the report Never Again made by the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (Conadep) in 1984. For Milei, there was no dictatorship in Argentina but "a war" in which "the forces of the State committed excesses." Bregman replied harshly: "Milei dirties the word freedom."
The final part was dedicated to questions and answers between the candidates. Milei threatened to lose his manners on a couple of occasions, but held back in time. One of them was when Massa reminded him of his harsh attacks on Pope Francis and urged him to ask for forgiveness. "Stop chicanery and dedicate yourself to lowering inflation," responded the leader of La Libertad Avanza, who assured that he had not yet entered politics when he said that the pontiff was an "imbecile", a "disgusting lefty" and the "representative of the Evil One". In the next round, Schiaretti again dislodged him. He asked Milei how he was going to implement the educational plan he has if Education is the responsibility of the provinces; The candidate dodged an answer he didn't have.
The next presidential debate will take place in Buenos Aires on Sunday, October 8. It will be the last chance for the candidates to go head-to-head before the elections on the 22nd of this month. If none of them wins with 45% of the votes or with 40% at a distance of at least 10 points from the second, the two most voted will go to the second round and before the appointment at the polls they will debate again in front of the cameras.
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