For years, Congressman Alfredo Olmedo has relied on a signature bright yellow jacket and controversial views to stand out from his fellow politicians.
Now as a candidate for president in Argentina’s October elections, Olmedo’s anti-establishment flair has earned him comparisons with another Latin American firebrand: Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro.
While analysts are skeptical that Olmedo can replicate the Brazilian president’s rise to the presidency, the similarities between the two are clear. In December, for example, Olmedo cast the sole vote in Congress against a bill aimed at combating violence against women, saying afterward that he would “keep insisting that God made man and woman.”
For his part, Olmedo, a second-term deputy from the northwestern Salta province, has embraced the moniker of the “Argentine Bolsonaro,” even traveling to this month’s inauguration in Brazil and sharing photos with the new Brazilian leader and his allies. “I have great respect for Bolsonaro,” Olmedo said in an October interview.
Whether or not he has a chance to win the race, Olmedo could prove influential by moving the direction of the debate to the right or by gleaning votes from more competitive candidates.
Echoing the Brazilian president, the successful agricultural businessman-turned-politician stresses security and opposes anything he considers incompatible with family values and his Christian faith. A campaign spot vaunts him as the “only Christian presidential candidate”; ultra-conservative views on gender, women’s rights and LGBT issues have been part of Olmedo’s politics and persona for years. In one instance, he advocated separate bathrooms for gay people.
Perhaps most relevant to current policy debates is Olmedo’s quest to “put Argentina in order.” He wants to reinstate obligatory military service, supports the death penalty, and in March told a journalist that “if a criminal doesn’t want to get shot in the back, he shouldn’t go out and commit a crime.”
While data shows that security in Argentina has improved in recent years, crime remains a hot issue among voters. In a late 2018 poll by the Universidad de San Andrés, crime scored among voters’ top concerns, alongside economic worries. The government of President Mauricio Macri is itself increasingly making security a topic of conversation as recession and austerity take their toll on voters.
Still, Olmedo’s weak party, limited public profile and low approval rates suggest a difficult path to power. He also has some personal baggage, including allegations from Argentina’s revenue service that hundreds of workers at an olive farm he owned were found to be living in “subhuman conditions” in 2011.
“(At most), Olmedo could be a vote against the system that takes votes from Macri,” said Mariel Fornoni, founding director and partner of the pollster Management and Fit.
An Opinaia poll conducted in December found that, among 13 possible presidential candidates, Olmedo had the second-highest rejection rating and by far the lowest level of name recognition: one in three respondents didn’t know of him. Bolsonaro, by contrast, was at the top of polls at the same point in Brazil’s presidential race.
And while Olmedo’s evangelical Christian faith is a pillar of his political discourse, it’s not clear Argentina’s small but growing evangelical population will vote for him over another candidate. The Argentine Federation of Evangelical Churches put out an open letter in December distancing the group from Olmedo.
“Your statements don’t represent me as an evangelical,” the group’s leader wrote.
Still, some polls put Olmedo’s support on par with legitimate presidential contenders like Salta Governor Juan Manuel Urtubey and Sergio Massa, the former mayor of Tigre, a Buenos Aires suburb.
Indeed, the shape of the race is still hard to predict. Major candidates have yet to declare their intention to run, and may not do so for several months. Meanwhile, Olmedo has already hit the campaign trail, even naming Juan Bautista “Tata” Yofre, a journalist and former intelligence secretary under Carlos Menem, as his running mate on Jan 11. It’s a head start in what could become a muddled presidential race, and part of why few are writing Olmedo off completely.
“We laughed about Bolsonaro as well,” Sergio Berensztein, a veteran Argentine political analyst, told AQ. “You never know.”
Requests for an interview with Olmedo were unanswered as of publication.
O’Boyle is a senior editor for AQ. Follow him on Twitter @BrenOBoyle