Argentines cast their votes for a new president Sunday in a fiercely polarizing runoff that will determine whether South America’s second-largest economy takes a rightward shift amid soaring inflation and rising poverty.
Populist candidate Javier Milei, who got his start as a television talking head, has frequently been compared to former U.S. President Donald Trump. He and Economy Minister Sergio Massa of the Peronist party, which has been a leading force in Argentine politics for decades, were competing in the runoff.
Inflation has soared above 140% and poverty has worsened while Massa has held his post. Milei, a self-described anarcho-capitalist, proposes to slash the size of the state and rein in inflation, and the government minister he is running against has warned people about the negative impacts of such policies.
The election is forcing many to decide which of the two they considered to be the least bad choice.
“Whatever happens in this election will be incredible," Lucas Romero, director of local political consultancy Synopsis, said. “It would be incredible for Massa to win in this economic context or for Milei to win facing a candidate as professional as Massa."
Voting stations opened at 8 a.m. (1100 GMT) and closed 10 hours later. The election was conducted with paper ballots, making the count unpredictable, but initial results were expected around three hours after polls closed.
Milei went from blasting the country’s “political caste” on TV to winning a lawmaker seat two years ago. The economist's screeds resonated widely with Argentines angered by their struggle to make ends meet, particularly young men.
“Money covers less and less each day. I’m a qualified individual, and my salary isn’t enough for anything,” Esteban Medina, a 26-year-old physical therapist from Ezeiza, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, told The Associated Press on the sidelines of a Milei rally earlier this week.
Massa, as one of the most prominent figures in a deeply unpopular administration, was once seen as having little chance of victory. But he managed to mobilize the networks of his Peronist party and clinched a decisive first-place finish in the first round of voting.
His campaign cautioned Argentines that his libertarian opponent's plan to eliminate key ministries and otherwise sharply curtail the state would threaten public services, including health and education, and welfare programs many rely on. Massa also drew attention to his opponent's often aggressive rhetoric and openly questioned his mental acuity; ahead of the first round, Milei sometimes carried a revving chainsaw at rallies.
Speaking after casting her vote at the stately University of Buenos Aires Law School, Jenifer Pio, 36, told the AP that she fears a Milei victory would risk the return of dictatorship.
“Milei doesn't have the faintest idea of how to govern,” said Pio, a homemaker. “It isn't bad that he's prideful, but he would need to have a bit more stability. He's unstable emotionally and psychologically. He's unwell.”
Ana Iparraguirre, a partner at pollster GBAO Strategies, said Massa's “only chance to win this election when people want change ... is to make this election a referendum on whether Milei is fit to be president or not.”
“We’re starting a new chapter in Argentina, and this chapter requires not only goodwill, intelligence and capability but above all, dialogue and the necessary consensus for our homeland to traverse a much more virtuous path in the future,” Massa told journalists Sunday after casting his ballot.
Milei accused Massa and his allies of running a “campaign of fear” and he walked back some of his most controversial proposals, such as loosening gun control. In his final campaign ad, Milei looks at the camera and assures voters he has no plans to privatize education or health care.
“We did a great job despite the fear campaign and all the dirty tactics they used against us,” Milei told journalists after he voted amid a large security operation as dozens of supporters and journalists gathered at his polling place.
One of his supporters is María Gabriela Gaviola, a 63-year-old entrepreneur doing everything she can to avoid shuttering her company, which manufactures veterinary products, amid surging prices for materials. And the government hasn't helped, including Massa who has held his ministerial post for over a year.
“The productive sector of this country isn't considered. How long can a country that doesn’t produce be OK?" said Gaviola, who has taken on two side jobs to keep her company afloat. “Truth is, I don’t know Milei. I’ve heard him a bit. I don’t know him, but the one who I already know doesn’t help me. I prefer to try something new.”
Most pre-election polls, which have been notoriously wrong at every step of this year’s campaign, showed a statistical tie between the two candidates. Voters for first-round candidates who didn’t make the runoff will be key. Patricia Bullrich, who placed third, has endorsed Milei.
Underscoring the bitter division this campaign has brought to the fore, Milei received both jeers and cheers on Friday night at the legendary Colón Theater in Buenos Aires.
Those divisions were also evident Sunday when Milei's running mate, Victoria Villaruel, went to vote and was met by protesters angry at her claims that the number of victims from Argentina's bloody 1976-1983 military dictatorship is far below what human rights organizations have long claimed, among other controversial positions.
The vote took place amid Milei's allegations of possible electoral fraud, reminiscent of those from Trump and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Without providing evidence, Milei claimed that the first round of the presidential election was plagued by irregularities that affected the result. Experts say such irregularities cannot swing an election, and that his assertions were partly aimed at firing up his base and motivating his supporters to become monitors of voting stations.
Such claims spread widely on social media and, at Milei’s rally in Ezeiza earlier this week, all those interviewed told the AP they were concerned about the integrity of the vote.
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