Argentines vote in an election that could lead a Trump-admiring populist to the Presidency

Argentines are voting in a presidential runoff pitting the candidate of the ruling Peronist party against a populist, anti-establishment candidate whose election could swing the country to the right amid discontent over soaring inflation

November 19, 2023 11:20 pm | Updated 11:20 pm IST - BUENOS AIRES, Argentina

A voter cast a vote during the Presidential runoff on November 19, 2023 in Buenos Aires, Argentina

A voter cast a vote during the Presidential runoff on November 19, 2023 in Buenos Aires, Argentina | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Voters in Argentina were heading to the polls on November 19 in a Presidential runoff election that will determine whether South America’s second-largest economy will take a rightward shift.

Populist Javier Milei, an upstart candidate who got his start as a television talking head, has frequently been compared to former U.S. President Donald Trump. He faces Economy Minister Sergio Massa of the Peronist party, which has been a leading force in Argentine politics for decades.

On Massa's watch, inflation has soared to more than 140% and poverty has increased. Milei, a self-described anarcho-capitalist, proposes to slash the size of the state and rein in inflation, while Massa has warned people about the negative impacts of such policies.

The highly polarizing election is forcing many to decide which of the two they consider to be the least bad choice.

“Whatever happens in this election will be incredible," said Lucas Romero, director of local political consultancy Synopsis. “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 close 10 hours later. Voting is conducted with paper ballots, making the count unpredictable, but initial results were expected around three hours after polls close.

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 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 Fernández, 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.”

“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 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 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.

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 year’s campaign, show 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 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 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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