Crisis-hit Argentina votes, with radical frontrunner in spotlight

Crisis-hit Argentina votes, with radical frontrunner in spotlight

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters): Argentines began voting on Sunday in a national election where a far-right libertarian leads the race, a shift in the political landscape due to fallout from the country’s worst economic crisis in two decades.

The ballot is likely to roil financial markets, set a new political and social path for the nation and impact its ties with trade partners including China and Brazil. Argentina is a major grains exporter with huge reserves of lithium and shale gas.

Libertarian economist Javier Milei is one of three candidates likely to split the vote, and the man to beat after posting a shock win in open primaries in August.

Centrist Peronist Economy Minister Sergio Massa and conservative Patricia Bullrich are trailing him by a small margin, and pollsters expect no outright winner, meaning a runoff vote will be needed. The polls close at 6 p.m. local time (2100 GMT) and first results are expected at 9 p.m. (0000 GMT).

Milei, pledging to “chainsaw” the economic and political status quo, has seen angry voters flock to his tear-it-all-down message, fed up with annual inflation at close to 140% and poverty affecting over two-fifths of the population.

“Milei is the incarnation of all society’s demands,” said Juan Luis Gonzalez, who wrote a biography of him titled “El Loco”, meaning the crazy one. He thinks Milei, a brash former TV pundit likened to Donald Trump and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, will win despite being an “unstable” character who could damage Argentina further.

“I see a very worrying situation,” Gonzalez said.


To win outright on Sunday, a candidate will need over 45% of the vote or 40% and a 10-point lead over rivals.

Any run-off would be held on Nov. 19.

Whoever of the trio emerges victorious will have to deal with an economy on life support: central bank reserves are empty, recession is expected after a major drought, and a $44 billion program with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is wobbling.

Milei’s recipe of shock therapy includes pledges to dollarize the economy, shut the central bank, slash the size of government and privatize state entities. He has criticized China, favors looser gun laws, opposes abortion and is anti-feminist.

“He is the only one who understands the situation in the country and understands how to save it,” said Buenos Aires student Nicolas Mercado, 22.

Susana Munoz, 62, a retiree, meanwhile said the rise of Milei was a reflection of upheaval globally, where high inflation, conflict and migration was stoking divisions.

“The world is complicated and we aren’t immune to that,” she said as she voted on Sunday. “The right is advancing everywhere and that we have characters like Milei is unthinkable.”

Massa, current economy chief, is in the running despite overseeing inflation hitting triple digits for the first time since 1991. He has said he will cut the fiscal deficit, stick with the peso and defend the Peronist social welfare safety net.

“Peronism… is the only space that offers the possibility that the poorest of us can have basic things at our fingertips,” said bricklayer Carlos Gutierrez, 61. “I trust that Massa will get it right.”

Bullrich, a former security minister who is popular in business circles, has seen her support diluted by the unexpected emergence of Milei. Pollsters see her as the most likely of the top three runners to miss out on a second round.

Many voters were tired after many years of economic malaise.

“I vote out of obligation, but with little desire,” said Silvana Dezilio, 37, a housewife in Buenos Aires province.

“All governments promise things and end up sinking us a little more. It seems unbelievable, but we are getting worse and worse. We read that other countries have overcome the problems that for us are getting worse every day,” she said.