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Argentines vote in tense election as inflation spirals

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Argentines will vote in presidential elections on Sunday, facing a deeply polarising 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 claimed he may be the victim of voter fraud.

With annual inflation running at 142.7 per cent, four in 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. Polling suggests neither has won wholehearted support from crisis-hit Argentines ahead of the second round of voting.

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

As a minister, Massa has relied on strict currency controls and money printing to finance spending, but he has promised to shift towards orthodox policy while protecting the social safety net constructed by the Peronists.

Milei, a former television 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, slash spending by up to 15 per cent of gross domestic product and replace the peso with the US dollar.

“We’ve been left with two shitty options,” said Sebastian Lopez, a 37-year-old doctor. “I voted for Milei. Even though I have concerns about him, to keep voting for Peronists with this inflation, this poverty? It’s indefensible.”

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

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

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

On Thursday, Milei’s party, La Libertad Avanza, alleged in an electoral court that officials had perpetrated a “colossal fraud” against him in the first round, “considerably” altering the result. The document cited anonymous sources.

“The ruling party is showing very crude 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 sow doubt about Argentina’s electoral system, which has not suffered major fraud cases since the country’s return to democracy in 1983.

Sergio Massa meets students at a school in Buenos Aires © Argentina’s economy minister/AFP/Getty Images

The claims will raise tensions on Sunday in what is projected to be a closely fought run-off. Whoever wins more votes will take office on December 10.

Both candidates had high rejection rates and pollsters were expecting a larger than usual number of blank ballots, said Guido Moscoso, manager at research company Opinaia.

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

In the last weeks of campaigning, Milei has sought to moderate his radical image. His final ad, released on Thursday, explicitly rules out controversial policies for which he has previously expressed support, such as privatising education and healthcare, and scrapping all gun controls.  

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

Peronist politicians have warned that the libertarian would dramatically increase the cost of energy, transport and sewerage and that he and his vice-presidential candidate Victoria Villarruel — who has often defended Argentina’s 1970s rightwing military dictatorship — 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 mobilise voters, while Milei’s La Libertad Avanza coalition, founded in 2021, will rely on some support from Juntos por el Cambio to pad out its patchier nationwide structure.

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

“The empirical evidence suggests it is very unlikely that a government with this economic situation could win re-election . . . but Argentina’s presidency 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 outlier among presidential elections in Latin America.”

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