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Argentina on knife-edge as election offers clashing visions of the future

argentine presidential candidate javier milei's electoral campaign closing event in cordoba
A woman walks next to Argentine presidential candidate Javier Milei's cut-out during the closing event of his electoral campaign in Cordoba

Argentine voters are angry and afraid. Which is stronger will tip the balance of the South American country’s presidential election on Sunday and may reshape its diplomatic ties, economic future, and the wider region’s political fault lines.

The country of some 45 million people will vote in the Nov. 19 run-off election between Sergio Massa, currently economy minister for the ruling Peronists, and libertarian outsider Javier Milei. Opinion polls indicate a tight race and a deeply divided electorate.

On the ground in Buenos Aires and beyond there is fury with the government, which has presided over inflation racing towards 150% that has pushed two-fifths of the population into poverty. That has weakened Massa and driven the abrupt rise of his right-wing rival.

Up against this is fear of Milei, a wild-haired former TV pundit whose outspoken and aggressive style has led some to compare him to former U.S. President Donald Trump. He has often appeared at rallies brandishing a chainsaw, a symbol of his plans to slash state spending.

The two candidates offer vastly different visions for the future of the country, an important exporter of soy, corn, beef and lithium, the largest debtor to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) globally, and a rising producer of shale oil and gas.

Milei is a harsh critic of China and other leftist governments he loosely calls “communists,” including in Brazil; he wants to dollarize Argentina’s embattled economy and shut the central bank; and he opposes abortion.

Massa, a wheeler-dealer centrist in a left-leaning government, has portrayed himself as a defender of the welfare state and regional trade bloc Mercosur, but has the yoke of his failure to stabilize the economy around his neck.

“I am leaning towards Milei,” said Raquel Pampa, a 79-year-old retiree in Buenos Aires, adding she was tired at what she said was corruption by mainstream politicians.

“Money is not going into public works, or putting food on the table of retirees or workers earning a pittance – it’s lining the pockets of politicians.”

Massa, however, has won over some voters with his criticisms of Milei’s “chainsaw” economic plan that he says could impact welfare handouts and push up the price of transport, energy bills and healthcare, currently subsidized by the state.

“My vote is for Sergio Massa because of the two models that are now under debate, his is the one that basically guarantees me staying alive,” said Fernando Pedernera, a 51-year-old media sector worker. He also criticized Milei’s running-mate for defending Argentina’s former military dictatorship.

Leftist presidents in Brazil, Mexico and Spain have voiced their support of Massa, while Peruvian Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa and right-wing former leaders from Chile and Colombia have backed Milei.

‘NOT MY FIRST CHOICE’

Neither Massa or Milei goes into the second round with a strong mandate. Massa got 37% in the first round in October, while Milei had 30%, though has since won the backing of a key conservative bloc, which could push him over the line if it translates into votes.

Opinion polls have the pair neck-and-neck, with some favoring Milei and others predicting a win for Massa. Many voters around the country aren’t convinced by either.

“This Sunday I have already decided that I am not going to vote for either of the two candidates,” said Nicolas Troitino, 31, in Buenos Aires.

“For me, neither of them represents the hopes that I have for the future of the country. They spend more time fighting among themselves than solving people’s problems.”

Milei, a libertarian economist who only got into politics two years ago, has energized a hardcore of support, especially among the young, while also luring some middle-ground voters looking to punish the Peronists for the economic crisis.

“I’m going to vote for Milei, it wasn’t my first choice, but it’s what I have left,” said 21-year-old student Valentina, who declined to give her last name.

“I don’t agree with all of his social policies, but I do agree with most of his economic plans. It seems to me that Massa is not proposing a plan, he is not saying what he is going to do.”

Massa, brought in as a “super minister” last year to try to right the economy, has struggled so far to get it under control, with inflation speeding up to its highest level in 30 years. Net foreign currency reserves are deep in the red.

However, he does have solid political experience – unlike Milei – and is seen as someone able to negotiate across the political divide, as well as with the country’s powerful unions, companies and investors.

“It seems to me that looking forward he is the only political actor who really has the support of the entire arena of politicians, whether from the opposition or the ruling party,” said 31-year-old judicial worker Gonzalo, giving only his first name.

“I don’t know if he is the best, but in this context, in this head-to-head situation, it seems to me that he is the most viable option for the country.”

The new Congress, already decided in the October first-round vote, will be highly fragmented, with no single bloc having a majority, meaning whoever wins will need to get backing from other factions to push through legislation.

This would likely put a brake on more radical reforms and force Massa or Milei to moderate. The powerful regional governors are also split between the Peronists and the main conservative coalition, with none allied to Milei.

The divided electorate also increases the chance of social unrest, said Benjamin Gedan, director of the Wilson Center’s Latin America Program, adding Argentina could be in for a “wild ride” if the new president fails to improve things fast.

“For now, Argentines are keeping their powder dry, clinging to a faint hope that the next government will find a solution to the country’s profound troubles,” he said. “That patience will not last long, no matter who wins on Sunday.”

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