Javier Milei has dropped his famous chainsaw as the hard-Right candidate in Argentina’s presidential election seeks to win moderate support in Sunday’s run-off vote.
Mr Milei, who has pledged to drastically slash state spending, attempted a last-ditch rebrand after a disappointing performance in the first round of voting in October.
He came second behind Sergio Massa, the Leftist candidate and current economy minister, who won 37 per cent of votes, to Mr Milei’s 30.
Mr Milei did not rev up his chainsaw – a symbol of his desire for brutal, immediate reform – at his closing campaign rallies, while he has also dropped controversial election promises and watered down some of his more contentious statements.
Despite his first-round performance, final polls suggest Mr Milei enjoys a slight advantage over Mr Massa, but that the race will be tightly fought.
His predicted lead comes after the centre-Right candidate Patricia Bullrich – knocked out in October after taking only 24 per cent of the electorate – backed Mr Milei, calling him the “change” Argentina needs. Many of her Right-leaning voters are expected to switch to his camp.
The election has fractured the nation with thousands joining protests and voters tussling in screaming matches during neighbourhood rallies.
On Friday night, his appearance at Argentina’s most prestigious opera house, the Teatro Colon, sparked a rowdy shouting match.
“You’re the dictatorship,” some members of the audience for the performance of ‘Madame Butterfly’ shouted, calling Mr Milei “garbage”.
Supporters of Mr Milei, attending with his girlfriend, cheered his name in reply.
Mr Milei’s flagship pledges revolve around the country’s dire economic crisis, which has seen Argentina battle 142 per cent inflation and pushed four in ten people into poverty.
The self-proclaimed “anarcho-capitalist” has promised to dismantle the Central Bank, replace the Argentine peso with the US dollar, slash social subsidies and halve the number of government ministries.
Yet it is his social plans that have sparked the most controversy – like those to revoke abortion access, privatise state institutions, loosen gun restrictions, and legalise the organ trade – along with his denials of crimes committed by Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship.
In a final bid to win over the country’s moderates, he has tried to recalibrate.
“We’re not going to take measures that hurt people,” Mr Milei said this week, addressing concerns about the impact of his planned spending cuts. “We are not going to privatise education, we are not going to privatise health.”
Mr Milei has since withdrawn plans to implement a voucher system for schools, which would have seen students issued with tokens to pay for their education and institutions vying for their business. He has also avoided criticising Pope Francis, an Argentine, whom he previously labelled a “filthy leftist”.
At Mr Milei’s earlier campaign rallies, videos of exploding buildings and nuclear bombs played on loop as the libertarian candidate led chants to destroy the so-called political caste while wielding his chainsaw.
In the past few weeks, the famous “motosierra” has been put away and clips of burning buildings have largely been replaced with Argentine flags.
“Milei has tried to look more moderate after the first round,” said Dr Julio Montero, an associate professor in political theory at the University of San Andrés. “During the campaign he used to have a very angry and aggressive style. Now he tries to show himself as someone much more serene.”
Dr Montero says that Ms Bullrich also asked the iconoclast to withdraw his most radical proposals in exchange for her support.
At the polls in October, some voters said it was Mr Milei’s extreme rhetoric that edged them into Mr Massa’s hands.
“I won’t be happy if Massa wins, but I do not want Milei to win. He is psychotic and too extreme,” said Victoria, a 50-year-old psychiatrist from Buenos Aires. “He is anti-abortion, wants people to be able to have arms at homes and has said you should be able to sell your organs.”
Mr Massa, meanwhile, is seeking support from centrist voters by promising to build a government of national unity.
“Both candidates are forced to seduce middle of the road, ‘independent’, undecided voters,” said Sergio Berensztein, a political analyst.
Yet, much like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro – both of whom Mr Milei is often compared with – it is his brash and furious style that has captured his supporters’ attention, and it is a difficult image to shift.
Toy chainsaws continue to be sold at his rallies by opportunist street vendors, and Mr Milei has continued to shout about political corruption against the backdrop of blaring rock music. “I am the lion,” he yelled at Thursday’s closing rally.
Mr Berensztein described Mr Milei’s tactic as a “partial moderation” only in terms of controversial issues, and said that ultimately his image remains unchanged. Dr Montero, meanwhile, said attempts to dial down his controversial promises may not have registered with voters.
Many Argentines remain conflicted – torn between a candidate who promises radical change and another seen as the continuation vote.
“I like Milei’s dollarisation plan, his economic plans,” said 32-year-old Juan, from Cordoba. “But he scares me too much.”