Argentina votes in nail-biter election with libertarian slight favorite By Reuters


© Reuters. A view of ballot boxes and voting materials inside a truck, ahead of the second round of Argentina’s presidential election, at a school in Buenos Aires, Argentina November 18, 2023. REUTERS/Adriano Machado


By Nicolas Misculin and Walter Bianchi

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Argentines went to the polls on Sunday in a delicately balanced presidential runoff, with two very different visions of the country’s future on offer and an electorate seething with anger over three-way inflation figures and the rise in poverty.

The election sees Peronist Economy Minister Sergio Massa, at the helm of the country’s worst economic crisis in two decades, facing radical libertarian outsider Javier Milei, a slight favorite in pre-vote polls.

Milei promises economic shock therapy, from closing the central bank to abandoning the peso and cutting spending, potentially painful reforms that have resonated with voters angry about economic malaise, but who have sparked fears of austerity among others.

With many Argentines unconvinced by either candidate, some called the vote a choice of the “lesser evil”: fear of Milei’s painful economic remedy or anger at Massa over the economic crisis. Many Argentines say they will not vote at all.

Whoever wins will shake up Argentina’s political landscape, its economic roadmap, its grain, lithium and hydrocarbon trade, as well as its ties to China, the United States, Brazil and others. .

“None of the candidates give me certainty about the future,” said Josefina Valente, a 63-year-old retiree, as she cast her vote Sunday morning in Buenos Aires.

“I come to vote out of obligation so that once and for all we have a change in the country.”

The story of the race has been the shock rise of economist and former TV pundit Milei, 53, driven by widespread disenchantment with traditional political parties, both left and right.

Julio Burdman, director of consultancy Observatorio Electoral, said the political landscape would change forever regardless of the outcome.

“This election marks a profound rupture in the system of political representation in Argentina,” he said. “I think all political forces as we know them will be transformed.”

Milei has a slight edge in opinion polls, but most show a tight and uncertain race. Massa, 51, an experienced political hustler, picked up votes through tax cuts and campaigns highlighting Milei’s radical plans to cut state spending.

“Milei’s politics scare me and that’s why I’m voting for Massa, not out of conviction. As they say, bad is better, you know,” teacher Susana Martínez, 42, said on Sunday.

Milei, who at rallies used to carry a chainsaw to symbolize his plans for budget cuts, favors the privatization of state enterprises and changes in health and education. In recent weeks, he has put aside the chainsaw as he seeks to moderate his image and capture centrist voters.

His main supporters say he is the only candidate capable of dethroning the political “caste,” as Milei calls traditional politicians, and ending years of crisis gripping South America’s second-largest economy.

“You cannot vote for the current government in these conditions and a blank vote would only favor it. Milei is the only viable option so that we do not end up in poverty,” said Santiago Neria, a 34-year-old accountant.

In the first round in October, Massa received 36.7% of the vote, compared to around 30% for Milei. The libertarian has since gained public support from third-place finisher Patricia Bullrich, although it is unclear whether all of her votes will go to him.

Whoever wins the presidency will face empty government and central bank coffers, a creaking $44 billion International Monetary Fund debt package, inflation approaching 150 percent, and a dizzying array of controls. capital.

Voters’ anger over the crisis may well be the deciding factor, given that Massa has been running the economy for more than a year.

“They both promise a better future but with opposing policies. Massa had his chance and he didn’t do anything so I’m going to change,” said businessman Samuel Goinsten, 76.

Both would face a very fragmented Congress, with no bloc having a majority. The winner will need to gain support from other factions to pass the legislation. Milei’s coalition also has no regional governors or mayors.

Voting began at 8:00 a.m. local time (11:00 GMT) and polling stations will close around 6:00 p.m., with the first official results expected a few hours later.

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