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It's an election year in Argentina, and politics could be shifting toward the right

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

In Argentina, the economy is heading toward recession, and voters are ready to throw out the incumbent government. Anger is high. That's given a self-described ultra-libertarian a political opening never seen there before. Many Latin American countries have turned to the left, but Argentina may shift to the extreme right in upcoming presidential elections. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Javier Milei defies labels. The 52-year-old economist with his mane of messy hair, bushy sideburns and leather jackets is not a typical Argentine politician. He wants no part of either the traditional left or right.

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JAVIER MILEI: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We do not want to be slaves to the politicians. We want to be the architects of our own futures," he screams to a crowd of mostly men in the northern city of Cordoba last year. He calls himself an anarcho-capitalist, someone who believes that individual liberty rules over any role of the state, which he calls a criminal enterprise that must be dismantled.

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MILEI: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I'm not here to lead lambs," he says. "I'm here to awaken the lions and raise up Argentina." His rage easily taps into the desperation and fury Argentines feel after decades of dealing with inflation, corruption and crippling debt. About an hour outside Buenos Aires in the upscale city of Pilar, a man paints, Milei - the only solution, on the side of a building. Campaign worker Matais Strajilevich says Milei is a straight shooter with great appeal to young voters.

MATAIS STRAJILEVICH: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He says no one wants to hear politicians who talk for an hour and say nothing. Milei gets right to his plan, which includes replacing the peso with the dollar, eliminating the central bank and privatizing state companies. Followers may not get or agree with all his radical policies, but they love his attacks on Argentina's politicians, who he calls serial liars and members of a corrupt cast. Says pollster Facundo Nejamkis...

FACUNDO NEJAMKIS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "He's the only one saying we have to change this whole thing," says Nejamkis. Polls have him capturing as much as a quarter of potential votes. The current leftist president says he won't run for reelection, and the right have yet to rally around one candidate.

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PATRICIA BULLRICH: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Center-right hopeful Patricia Bullrich with the conservative Together for Change Coalition mingles with business owners during a campaign stop outside Buenos Aires. The former security minister says she'll bring order to the country, not just to combat rising crime but also to the economy.

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BULLRICH: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She, too, is now pushing for a total change but has yet to provide details. Milei wants to change everything culturally, too. He's called for a ban on abortion and an end to what he calls cultural Marxism with this signature cry.

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MILEI: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I won't ask anyone for forgiveness just because," as he says, "I'm blond, blue-eyed and have a penis." As for foreign policy, he doesn't say much but preys on both neighboring Brazil's former far-right leader and Donald Trump. Milei declined repeated requests for an interview.

MIRIAM PEREDA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: For Miriam Pereda and a friend sitting outside a clothing store in Pilar, it's too early to pay attention to politics.

PEREDA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Pereda says for her, it's just more of the same - blah, blah, blah - with little to help her pay her rising bills. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Pilar, Argentina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.