Argentina votes in nail-biter election with libertarian slight favorite By Reuters
2023-11-19 21:20:08

By Nicolás Misculin

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) -Argentines headed to the polls on Sunday in a delicately poised presidential runoff, with voters seeking a solution to triple-digit inflation and rising poverty, and two clashing visions for the country's future on offer.

The election sees Peronist Economy Minister Sergio Massa, at the helm for the country's worst economic crisis in two decades, go head-to-head with radical libertarian outsider Javier Milei, the slight pre-election favorite in the polls.

Milei is pledging economic shock therapy, from shutting the central bank to ditching the peso and slashing spending, potentially painful reforms, but which have clicked with crowds of voters angry at the economic malaise.

With many Argentines unconvinced by either, some have characterized the vote as a choice of the "lesser evil": fear of Milei's painful economic medicine or anger at Massa over the economic crisis. Many Argentines say they won't vote at all.

Whoever wins, it will shake up Argentina's political landscape, its economic roadmap, trade in grains, lithium and hydrocarbons, and its global ties with partners including China, the United States and Brazil.

"The election will mark a profound rupture in the system of political representation in Argentina," said Julio Burdman, director of the consultancy Observatorio Electoral.

"I think all the political forces as we have known them are going to be transformed."

The story of the election race has been the shock rise of 53-year-old economist and former TV pundit Milei, driven by the disenchantment of Argentines with the traditional political parties on both the left and right.

Milei has a slight edge in opinion polls, but most show a tight and uncertain race. Massa, 51, an experienced political wheeler-dealer, has been clawing back votes with tax cuts and campaigns highlighting Milei's radical plans to slash state spending.

"I'm going to vote for Massa because he's the only option for us to continue living in a democratic country and where our rights are respected," said Matias Kawior, 22, a student in Buenos Aires.

Milei, who at rallies used to carry a chainsaw in a blunt symbol of his planned cuts, favors privatizing state firms and making changes to health and education. He has in recent weeks shelved the chainsaw as he has sought to moderate his image and capture centrist voters.

His core supporters consider that he is the only candidate capable of dethroning the political "caste," as Milei calls mainstream politicians, and ending years of crisis that has dogged South America's second-largest economy.

"You cannot vote for the current government under these conditions and a blank vote will only favor it. Milei is the only viable option so that we do not end up in misery," said Santiago Neria, a 34-year-old accountant.

In the first-round vote in October, Massa won 36.7% of the votes compared to some 30% for Milei. The libertarian has since won public backing from third-place finisher Patricia Bullrich, though it's by no means certain all her votes will shift to him.

Whoever wins the presidency will have to deal with the empty coffers of the government and central bank, a creaking $44 billion debt program with the International Monetary Fund, inflation nearing 150% and a dizzying array of capital controls.

In addition, the new Congress, decided in the October vote, will be highly fragmented, with no single bloc having a majority. The eventual winner will need to get backing from other factions to push through legislation.

Voting started at 8 a.m. local time (1100 GMT) and polling stations will close at around 6 p.m., with the first official results expected a few hours later.

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