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A man, a plan, a chainsaw: How a power tool took center stage in Argentina’s presidential race

Presidential hopeful Javier Milei brandishes a chainsaw during a campaign event in La Plata, Argentina, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023.  (APPhoto/Natacha Pisarenko)

Presidential hopeful Javier Milei brandishes a chainsaw during a campaign event in La Plata, Argentina, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. (APPhoto/Natacha Pisarenko)

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (鶹ýapp) — Politicians usually talk about belt tightening, or trimming wasteful spending with scissors. Argentine presidential candidate Javier Milei is ready to attack the system with a chainsaw.

The self-declared anarcho-capitalist totes a power tool at some events as a symbol projecting defiance and strength to disaffected Argentines. They see themselves in Milei’s crusade to shred the bloated state and what he calls “the political caste”. Most polls show him winning a presidential vote Sunday and going to a runoff next month.

Presidential candidate of the Liberty Advances coalition Javier Milei talks to supporters during a campaign rally in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. General elections are set for Oct. 22. (APPhoto/Natacha Pisarenko)

Presidential candidate of the Liberty Advances coalition Javier Milei addresses his supporters at a campaign rally in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. General elections are set for Oct. 22. (APPhoto/Natacha Pisarenko)

A supporter of presidential hopeful with the Liberty Advances coalition, Javier Milei, holds a statue of the candidate holding a chainsaw that reads in Spanish "Long live freedom!" while waiting for him at the airport in Salta, Argentina, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. Elections are set for Oct. 22. (APPhoto/Javier Corbalan)

A supporter of presidential hopeful with the Liberty Advances coalition, Javier Milei, holds a statue of the candidate holding a chainsaw that reads in Spanish “Long live freedom!” while waiting for him at the airport in Salta, Argentina, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. Elections are set for Oct. 22. (APPhoto/Javier Corbalan)

“The caste is trembling!” he yelled while brandishing a chainsaw spewing diesel fumes on a crowded street last month. In the poor, northwestern province of Salta last week, his caravan was welcomed by a group of workers waving their own buzzing chainsaws in the air.

Argentina’s economy has been engulfed in crisis for years, but lately people feel they are being pushed to the brink: I nflation has rocketed into the triple digits, poverty is soaring and a rapidly depreciating currency is decimating the purchasing power of salaries. Many voters have lost hope that entrenched public servants can sort things out.

The chainsaw is “a very explicit representation of what everyone feels, which is that the government is overflowing with people who, in general, don’t fulfill any function,” said Mariel Fornoni of political consultancy Management & Fit.

Milei presented what he called his Chainsaw Plan in central Cordoba province in June 2022. It is his blueprint for the wholesale reform of the state to slash public spending, scrap half the government’s ministries, sell state-owned companies and eliminate the central bank.

Presidential candidate of the Liberty Advances coalition Javier Milei waves to supporters during a campaign rally in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. General elections are set for Oct. 22. (APPhoto/Natacha Pisarenko)

Presidential candidate of the Liberty Advances coalition Javier Milei waves to supporters during a campaign rally in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. General elections are set for Oct. 22. (APPhoto/Natacha Pisarenko)

In a television interview in March, Milei explained that his Chainsaw Plan was “all about tightening the reins on the spending of corrupt politicians.” He has pointed to his strongest electoral competitors as embodiments of a parasitic establishment that has long considered itself beyond reproach or reckoning, and presented himself as the man to cut it down to size. Most polls show Economy Minister Sergio Massa in second place, followed by former Security Minister Patricia Bullrich of the main opposition coalition.

After Milei scored a surprise win in the August primary vote over those two seasoned politicians, he started toting a chainsaw to his rallies. His supporters ate it up, and began emulating him.

At his closing rally in a Buenos Aires arena on Wednesday, many of his die-hard backers carried chainsaws made of cardboard. Martín Argañaraz, a 47-year-old artisan, was one of them; he said he has been appalled to see politicians “setting up bike lanes or the subsecretariat of the subsecretariat, and it’s all unnecessary spending.”

A supporter of presidential candidate of the Liberty Advances coalition Javier Milei holds doll of his candidate with a chainsaw during a campaign rally in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. General elections are set for Oct. 22. (APPhoto/Natacha Pisarenko)

A supporter of presidential candidate Javier Milei holds doll of his candidate with a chainsaw during a campaign rally in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. General elections are set for Oct. 22. (APPhoto/Natacha Pisarenko)

Dolls of a Japanese manga character, a dog-like demon named Pochita, have started appearing at rallies, too. The orange critter looks cute and cuddly — save for the chainsaw blade protruding from its face.

The chainsaw wasn’t the first prop from Milei’s rhetorical arsenal. A short campaign film of his from 2020 climaxes with a close-up of him grinning mischievously in a black leather jacket before grabbing a medieval-style war hammer to smash a model of the central bank. The mob of black-shirted, fist-pumping supporters huddled around him chanted “Destruction! Destruction! Destruction!” then set upon the wreckage, tearing it to pieces.

“Here we have a demagogue who uses props to somehow put forward his fantasies about a state without a state, a state without institutions. And from the perspective of democracy, someone who promises violence against state institutions and perhaps against those he doesn’t like,” said Federico Finchelstein, an Argentine historian at New School for Social Research in New York.

Most have viewed Milei’s rage as mere histrionics and a strategy for bypassing the traditional process of lauching a candidacy, although some find it more disconcerting.

A woman walks past a building in San Antonio de los Cobres, Salta, Argentina, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023. In San Antonio de los Cobres presidential candidate Javier Milei got 60% of the votes in the primary elections. (APPhoto/Natacha Pisarenko)

A woman walks past a building in San Antonio de los Cobres, Salta, Argentina, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023. In San Antonio de los Cobres presidential candidate Javier Milei got 60% of the votes in the primary elections. (APPhoto/Natacha Pisarenko)

View of San Antonio de los Cobres, Salta, Argentina, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023. San Antonio de los Cobres is a small town in northwestern Argentina, known for its high elevation and being in the Andes desert with few trees and scarce drinking water. (APPhoto/Natacha Pisarenko)

View of San Antonio de los Cobres, Salta, Argentina, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023. San Antonio de los Cobres is a small town in northwestern Argentina, known for its high elevation and being in the Andes desert with few trees and scarce drinking water. (APPhoto/Natacha Pisarenko)

Milei’s chainsaw is peaceful, says Sebastián Borrego, a 51-year-old who traveled from a small city south of Buenos Aires to attend his rally Wednesday. He views it as a tool, like those he uses in his own garden.

“Pruning is a part of what it means to bring about transformation in the country … cutting off parts that aren’t useful,” said Borrego.

Finchelstein agrees most of Milei’s supporters will view the chainsaw metaphorically, but a fraction may not. Asked about the potential for the charged-up rhetoric to incite violence, Milei’s campaign said the chainsaw is merely a symbol.

The rally Wednesday kicked off with a video showing him campaigning across the country followed by a nearly two-minute reel of massive bombs exploding and buildings collapsing. Hundreds of supporters held their phones aloft to capture the images of obliteration on the big screen.

“I think we should take these things very seriously,” said Finchelstein, who wrote the book “From Fascism to Populism in History.” “This is what he wants to say to the world; it’s not just for fun to use symbols of violence to show what they will do.”

Birds fly over a billboard of presidential hopeful Javier Milei in Salta, Argentina, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. 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. (APPhoto/Javier Corbalan)

Birds fly over a billboard of presidential hopeful Javier Milei in Salta, Argentina, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. 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. (APPhoto/Javier Corbalan)