Argentina: Polls close in knife-edge election runoff

Embattled Economy Minister Sergio Massa and the libertarian outsider Javier Milei are neck and neck in the race to become the country’s next president.

Polls closed Argentina on Sunday evening after a nail-biter presidential runoff between Peronist Economy Minister Sergio Massa and outsider libertarian Javier Milei.

The two men represent starkly different futures for Latin America’s third-largest economy, creaking under triple-digit inflation after decades of debt, financial mismanagement and currency volatility.

Voting started at 8 a.m. local time (1100 GMT). The first official results are expected within a few hours after polls close.

Who are the runoff candidates?

Massa, 51, seeks to convince Argentines to trust him despite record poverty levels during his time looking after the economy.

Milei, an anti-establishment outsider, pledges economic shock therapy, from shutting the central bank to ditching the peso for the US dollar.

The 53-year-old Milei is often compared to former US president Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, with Massa accusing him of aping the two politicians by raising the specter of electoral fraud — for which he has provided no evidence.

The newcomer’s rants against traditional parties who have failed to halt decades of economic decline have fired up voters tired of the status quo.

Milei used to carry a chainsaw in a blunt symbol of his planned public sector cuts and privatization. But ahead of the second round, the stunt has been dropped to try to help moderate his image among centrist voters.

Massa has sought to distance himself from the deeply unpopular outgoing President Alberto Fernandez and his Vice President Cristina Kirchner, who was last year convicted of fraud. Both have vanished from the public eye.

But he still represents the Peronist coalition, a populist movement heavy on state intervention and welfare programs that has dominated Argentine politics for decades.

Second round is too close to call

Massa confounded the polls by coming first with almost 37% in the first-round vote last month, while Milei scored about 30% of the vote.

Polls show the candidates in a dead heat, with Milei holding such a slight advantage that no one wants to predict an outcome.

Both have scrambled to shore up millions of votes from the three losing candidates in the first round, the most popular of whom has thrown her support behind Milei.

Some voters have characterized the vote as a choice of the “lesser evil,” amid fear of Milei’s painful economic medicine or anger at Massa over the economic crisis.

Many Argentines have said they won’t vote at all.

Argentina set for seismic shift

Argentines are “on the edge of a nervous breakdown,” said political analyst Ana Iparraguirre of GBAO Strategies, describing uncertainty about what comes next.

Argentina is in for a tough road ahead as the strictly controlled peso reels from soaring inflation, and a lack of dollars has led to shortages in fuel, medicine and even bananas in recent weeks.

With over $400 billion in public debt, central bank reserves in the red and no credit line, the next government will have few resources with which to bolster economic growth.

“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.”

mm/lo (AFP, Reuters, EFE)

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