Argentina holds a runoff election that could lead a Trump-admiring populist to the presidency

A voter looks at electoral lists during a presidential runoff election between Javier Milei and Sergio Massa in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)

(Matias Delacroix / Associated Press)

Argentina holds a runoff election that could lead a Trump-admiring populist to the presidency

Nov. 19, 2023

Voters in Argentina cast ballots in a runoff presidential election Sunday that will determine whether South Americas second-largest economy will take a rightward shift.

Populist candidate Javier Milei, who got his start as a television talking head, has frequently been compared to former U.S. President 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 to more than 140% and poverty has increased in Argentina 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 highly polarizing 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. local time and were scheduled to close 10 hours later. The election was conducted with paper ballots, making the count unpredictable, but initial results were expected around three hours after polls close.

Milei went from blasting the countrys 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. Im a qualified individual, and my salary isnt 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 has 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 has also drawn attention to his opponent’s often aggressive rhetoric and has openly questioned his mental acuity; ahead of the first round, Milei sometimes carried a revving chainsaw at rallies.

“While the situation is not good, as we all know, with economic issues and other matters, I believe jumping into the void is not a viable option, Paula Fernandez, a 38-year-old publicist, said after casting a ballot in a middle-class Buenos Aires neighborhood.

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.

Were 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 has accused Massa and his allies of running a campaign of fear and he has 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 healthcare.

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.

Nearby, Mariano Ariel Franco, 44, cast his ballot in favor of Milei, saying that Argentina “needs a complete change. I think that you’re not getting anywhere continuing like now, and it’s only getting worse. Franco, an assistant cook at a high-end restaurant, said he’s homeless because he’s not able to make ends meet on his salary.

Most pre-election polls, which have been notoriously wrong at every step of this years campaign, show a statistical tie between the two candidates. Voters for first-round candidates who didnt 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 Coln 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 is taking 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 are 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 Mileis rally in Ezeiza earlier this week, all those interviewed told the AP they were concerned about the integrity of the vote.