BUENOS AIRES, Nov 19 (Reuters) – Argentines were in suspense on Sunday as they awaited the results of a close presidential race in which libertarian outsider Javier Milei took the lead, according to unofficial data cited by local media. Official results have not yet been published.
The election pits the Peronist economy minister Sergio Massa, at the head of the worst economic crisis in two decades, against the radical right Milei. The two have offered starkly different visions of how to fix triple-digit inflation and rising poverty.
After the polls closed at 18:00 (2100 GMT), both sides expressed cautious optimism. Milei’s team seemed all the more confident, but did not share solid numbers. Official results are expected from 21:00 (0000 GMT).
However, local channels America 24 and TN, citing unofficial government numbers, suggested Milei was well ahead, with counting partially completed. It is not uncommon in Argentina for the results to start leaking before the official data.
Milei would be a radical change of direction for Argentina.
He is promising economic shock therapy, from closing the central bank to ditching the peso and cutting spending, potentially painful reforms that have resonated with voters angry at the economic malaise but sparked fears of austerity in others.
With many Argentines unconvinced by either candidate, some have characterized the election as one of the “lesser evil”: fear of Milei’s painful financial medicine or anger at Massa over the economic crisis.
“They both promise a better future but with opposite policies. Massa has had his chance and he didn’t do anything, so I’m going for a change,” said businessman Samuel Goinsten, 76.
In the first round of voting in October, Massa received 36.7% of the vote compared to around 30% for Milei. The libertarian has since won the public support of third-place Patricia Bullrich, although it is not certain that all of her votes will switch to him.
Whoever wins will shake up Argentina’s political landscape, its economic roadmap, trade in grains, lithium and hydrocarbons and its ties with China, the United States, Brazil and others.
The story of the race so far has been the emergence of 53-year-old economist and former TV pundit Milei, a lightning rod for voter anger who has threatened to detonate the status quo and tear down what he calls a “caste” of the political elite .
Milei on Sunday brushed off a “campaign of fear” against him but expressed confidence.
“Now we let the polls do the talking,” Milei said after voting in the city of Buenos Aires. “Let us hope that tomorrow there will be more hope and an end to decay.”
“This is an extremely important election that defines the direction of our country for the next four years,” Massa told reporters after voting in the province of Buenos Aires.
The winner is set to take office on December 10 and will replace outgoing centre-left Peronist President Alberto Fernandez. The electoral body said turnout was 76%.
‘I GO FOR CHANGE’
Milei had a slight lead in opinion polls ahead of the vote, but most showed a tight and uncertain race. Massa, 51, a seasoned political wheeler-dealer, has won back votes with tax cuts and campaigns highlighting Milei’s radical plans to cut government spending.
“Milei’s politics scare me and that’s why I’m voting for Massa, not out of conviction. As they say, better the devil you know,” teacher Susana Martinez, 42, said on Sunday.
Milei, who used to carry a chainsaw at rallies as a symbol of his planned cuts, favors the privatization of state-owned enterprises and changes to health and education. In recent weeks, he has put the chainsaw on the shelf as he has tried to moderate his image and capture centrist voters.
His core supporters call him the only candidate capable of dethroning the Peronist government and ending years of crisis that have dogged South America’s second-largest economy.
“You cannot vote for the current government under these conditions, and a blank vote will only favor it. Milei is the only viable option so that we do not end up in misery,” said Santiago Neria, a 34-year-old accountant.
Whoever wins the presidency will have to deal with empty government and central bank coffers, a creaking $44 billion debt program with the International Monetary Fund, inflation approaching 150% and a dizzying array of capital controls.
Voter anger over the crisis may well be the deciding factor, as Massa has managed the economy for more than a year.
Both would face a highly fragmented Congress, with no single bloc holding a majority. The winner must have the support of other factions to push the legislation through. Milei’s coalition also does not have regional governors or mayors.
“None of the candidates gives me certainty about the future,” Josefina Valente, a 63-year-old pensioner, said as she voted in Buenos Aires on Sunday. “I am coming to vote bindingly so that we can once and for all change the country.”
Reporting by Nicolás Misculin and Walter Bianchi; Additional reporting by Candelaria Grimberg, Jorge Otaola, Lucila Sigal; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Will Dunham and Rosalba O’Brien
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