Voters in Argentina head to the polls on Sunday in a presidential runoff election that will determine whether South America’s second-largest economy takes a swing.
Populist Javier Milei, an upstart candidate who started out as a television speaker, has often been compared to former US President Donald Trump. He faces Economy Minister Sergio Massa of the Peronist party, which has been Argentina’s leading political force for decades.
On Massa’s watch, inflation rose to over 140% and poverty increased. Milei, a self-described anarcho-capitalist, proposes reducing the size of the state and curbing inflation, while Massa warns people about the negative effects of such policies.
The highly polarizing election is forcing many to decide which of the two they consider the least bad option.
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“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 in front of a candidate as professional as Massa.”
Polling stations opened at 8 am (1100 GMT) and closed 10 hours later. Voting is being conducted using paper ballots, making the count unpredictable, but the first results are expected about three hours after the polls close.
Milei went from blasting the country’s “political caste” on TV to winning a seat in the legislature two years ago. The economist’s screeds echoed widely among Argentines who resented their struggle to make ends meet, particularly young men.
“The amount of money is less and less every day. I am a qualified individual, and my salary is not enough for anything,” Esteban Medina, a 26-year-old physical therapist from Ezeiza, outside 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 an unpopular administration, was once seen as having little chance of winning. But he managed to mobilize his Peronist party’s networks and clinched a decisive first-place finish in the first round of voting.
His campaign warned Argentines that his libertarian opponent’s plan to eliminate key ministries and otherwise drastically cut the state would threaten public services, including health and education, and welfare programs that expected by many. Massa also drew attention to his opponent’s often aggressive rhetoric and openly questioned his mental acumen; before the first round, Milei sometimes brought a revving chainsaw to rallies.
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“Massa’s only chance to win this election when people want change … is to make this election a referendum on whether Milei deserves to be president or not,” said Ana Iparraguirre, partner at pollster GBAO Strategies.
Milei has accused Massa and his allies of running a “campaign of fear” and has walked back some of his most controversial proposals, such as easing gun control. In her final campaign ad, Milei looks into the camera and assures voters that she has no plans to privatize education or health care.
Most pre-election polls, notoriously flawed 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 finished third, endorsed Milei.
Javier Rojas, a 36-year-old pediatrician who voted for Bullrich in October, told The Associated Press that he was leaning toward Milei, then added: “Well, actually, it’s more of a vote against the other side than anything else.”
Underscoring the bitter division this campaign has brought to the fore, Milei received both jeers and cheers Friday night at the legendary Colón Theater in Buenos Aires.
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The vote comes amid allegations by Milei 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 outcome. Experts say such irregularities cannot derail an election, and his remarks are partly aimed at rousing his base and encouraging his supporters to become observers of polling stations.
Such claims are circulating widely on social media and, at Milei’s rally in Ezeiza earlier this week, all AP interviewees said they were concerned about the integrity of the vote.
“You don’t have to show statistically significant errors,” Fernanda Buril, of the Washington-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems, said in an e-mail. “If you draw enough attention to a problem at a polling station that is unlikely to affect the results in any significant way, people tend to overestimate the frequency and impact of that and other election problems in generally.”