Argentines vote in tense election as inflation spirals

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Argentines will vote in presidential elections on Sunday, facing a deeply polarizing choice between Sergio Massa, the economy minister presiding over the country’s worst crisis in two decades, and Javier Milei, a hard-right libertarian outsider who has argued that he may be a victim of voter fraud.

With annual inflation at 142.7 percent, four out of 10 people living in poverty and the peso plummeting against the dollar, the two candidates offer starkly different plans to solve the country’s problems. Polls suggest that neither has won wholehearted support from crisis-hit Argentines ahead of the second round of voting.

Massa is a skilled political operative from the moderate wing of the center-left populist Peronist movement, which has ruled Argentina for much of the past 40 years. He has promised to build a coalition government with opposition figures.

As minister, Massa has relied on strict currency controls and money printing to fund spending, but he has promised to shift toward orthodox politics while protecting the social safety net built by the Peronists.

Milei, a former TV commentator known for his furious rants against Argentina’s political elite, says a “shock” is the solution. He has promised to take a “chainsaw” to the state, cut spending by up to 15 percent of gross domestic product and replace the peso with the US dollar.

“We’ve been left with two crappy options,” said Sebastian Lopez, a 37-year-old doctor. “I voted for Milei. Although I am worried about him, to keep voting for Peronists with this inflation, this poverty? It is indefensible.”

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Javier Milei greets supporters at a rally in Córdoba, Argentina
Javier Milei greets supporters at a rally in Córdoba, Argentina © Nicolas Aguilera/AP

Milei has been endorsed by former center-right president Mauricio Macri and by Patricia Bullrich, the presidential candidate of Macri’s Juntos por el Cambio coalition, which was eliminated in the first round of voting in October.

Massa scored an unexpected victory in the first round, with 37 percent of the vote against 30 percent for Milei and 24 percent for Bullrich.

On Thursday, Milei’s party, La Libertad Avanza, claimed in an electoral court that officials had committed a “colossal fraud” against him in the first round, which “significantly” changed the result. The document cited anonymous sources.

– The ruling party is showing very gross signs of desperation and we have no doubt that they are capable of resorting to any kind of stunt to hold on to power, Milei said in a radio interview on Friday.

Peronist officials have accused Milei of trying to cast doubt on Argentina’s electoral system, which has not suffered major fraud since the country’s return to democracy in 1983.

Sergio Massa meets students at a school in Buenos Aires
Sergio Massa meets students at a school in Buenos Aires © Argentina’s Minister of Economy/AFP/Getty Images

The claims will fuel tensions on Sunday in what is expected to be a closely fought finish. Whoever wins the most votes takes office on December 10.

Both candidates had high rejection rates and pollsters were expecting a higher-than-usual number of blank ballots, said Guido Moscoso, head of research firm Opinaia.

“I couldn’t vote for any of them,” said Carolina de la Rosa, 40, who runs a shoe store. “Massa has done nothing to fix the economy and Milei is a danger to the rights that we have fought for in Argentina.”

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In recent weeks of campaigning, Milei has sought to moderate her radical image. His latest ad, released Thursday, explicitly excludes controversial policies he has previously expressed support for, such as privatizing education and health care and scrapping all gun control.

Massa, meanwhile, has sought to divert attention from the economy by sowing fear about Milei, including via a sophisticated digital campaign.

Peronist politicians have warned that the libertarian would dramatically increase the cost of energy, transport and sewage, and that he and his vice-presidential candidate Victoria Villarruel – who has often defended Argentina’s right-wing military dictatorship in the 1970s – pose a threat to the country’s democracy.

“I don’t trust Massa, but this is a choice between democracy or fascism,” said psychologist Marcela Brzusrowski, 56. “Villarruel wants to exterminate all those who care about social justice, just like the dictatorship did.”

Massa will benefit from the Peronists’ powerful political machine to mobilize voters, while Milei’s La Libertad Avanza coalition, founded in 2021, will rely on some support from Juntos por el Cambio to fill out its more uneven nationwide structure.

A victory by either candidate would have surprised most Argentines a year ago, Moscoso said.

“The empirical evidence suggests that it is very unlikely that a government with this economic situation can win re-election . . . but the presidency of Argentina has also never been won by such an outsider or someone with such extreme views,” he said. Whatever happens, this will go down as an aberration among presidential elections in Latin America.”