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In tight election race, Argentina to choose between far-right and Peronist candidates

Against a backdrop of an Argentine flag, supporters of presidential candidate for La Libertad Avanza Alliance, Javier Milei, record with their mobile phones as he speaks during a campaign appearance.
Luis Robayo
/
AFP via Getty Images
Against a backdrop of an Argentine flag, supporters of presidential candidate for La Libertad Avanza Alliance, Javier Milei, record with their mobile phones as he speaks during a campaign appearance.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — This Sunday's presidential runoff is like no other election in recent Argentine history.

The country is in its worst financial crisis in years, with annual inflation topping 140%, poverty rising and the national currency losing value daily. A far-right libertarian who brandishes a chainsaw at rallies while pledging to radically slash state spending has shaken up the political establishment. Polls are too close to call.

And the strong standing of the current ruling party's candidate is just one more twist: He is the current economy minister, responsible for overseeing Argentina's recent failing finances.

Here's what to know.

Far-right libertarian Javier Milei denies climate change and has drawn comparisons to Donald Trump

Javier Milei, 53, is new to politics. He was elected to Argentina's Congress in 2021, representing his upstart political party, La Libertad Avanza, Liberty Advances. He's an economist and has long been a frequent conservative provocateur in Argentine media, directing his far-right libertarian rants against what he calls a corrupt "caste," Argentina's political elites.

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His popularity rose during the pandemic, especially among young voters tuned into social media who have been locked out of Argentina's job market.

Apart from his ultra-conservative economic policies — Milei believes the state should have practically no role in the economy and considers taxation a form of repression — Milei is known for his eccentricities and brash statements. He has never married, says he is a tantric sex expert and considers his five bull mastiff dogs, cloned from a past pet, his "four-legged children."

He sports a mane of unkempt hair and long sideburns and often channels his inner rock star at his political rallies, jumping on stage and singing to crowds that he is a lion, "king of a lost world."

Javier Milei, Liberty Advances coalition presidential candidate, lifts a chainsaw next to his candidate for Buenos Aires Province governor, Carolina Piparo, during a rally in San Martin, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Tomas Cuesta / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Javier Milei, Liberty Advances coalition presidential candidate, lifts a chainsaw next to his candidate for Buenos Aires Province governor, Carolina Piparo, during a rally in San Martin, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Milei denies climate change and denigrates Argentine Pope Francis, whom he's called "a filthy leftist" and supporter of "murderous communists." His outsider status and bellicose behavior has drawn comparisons to President Donald Trump and Brazil's former far right leader Jair Bolsonaro.

Ruling party candidate Sergio Massa has distanced himself from leading Peronists

Sergio Massa, 51, is not new to politics. His career spans decades, with his latest appointment last year as economy minister. After winning last August's party primary, Massa is now also the head of the Peronist political movement, the ruling Unión por la Patria coalition, which has led Argentina throughout much of its 40-year democratic run after the fall of the military dictatorship.

Peronism has strong support among Argentina's poor, working class and unions — and has the capacity to bring out voters. That's exactly what it did in last month's first-round elections, greatly benefiting Massa, who was the clear winner, finishing first and capturing 36.7% of the votes to Milei's 30%.

Sergio Massa, Argentina's economy minister and presidential candidate for the ruling party, greets supporters during a campaign event in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Natacha Pisarenko / AP
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AP
Sergio Massa, Argentina's economy minister and presidential candidate for the ruling party, greets supporters during a campaign event in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Despite Argentina's flailing economy, Massa has successfully been able to distance himself from some of the more polarizing Peronist figures, including the current unpopular President Alberto Fernández and his vice president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was recently convicted of corruption in a case she has appealed.

Milei says Argentina's fix must be radical

Milei likes to campaign with a chainsaw that he says he will use to radically slash Argentina's state. He's promised to cut public spending by at least 15% of GDP, reduce the number of government ministries by half and abolish the central bank.

The latter is key in his inflation-attacking pledge, which includes replacing the Argentine peso with the U.S. dollar. (Argentina currently has multiple exchange rates).

Beyond economics, Milei says he will loosen gun regulations, ban abortion and issue vouchers for private schools. He also vows he will only have diplomatic relations with the U.S. and Israel, and will not engage with communist leaders. Milei has stressed that this will not affect trade between Argentine businesses and the world, even if diplomatic relations are limited. China is one of Argentina's largest trading partners.

Massa says fixes need to be slow and steady

Massa, seen as a more market-friendly centrist, has not revealed major course corrections for the economy. He has said he will trim the fiscal deficit and boost exports in order to replenish the country's sinking dollar reserves.

In a recent television interview, he pledged to renegotiate the current $44 billion loan Argentina has with the International Monetary Fund. He says any cuts to Argentina's generous subsidies, especially for gasoline and home energy costs, will be moderate.

Ballots of the presidential candidates for the ruling party are seen on a street in Ezeiza, Buenos Aires province, Argentina.
Natacha Pisarenko / AP
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AP
Ballots of the presidential candidates for the ruling party are seen on a street in Ezeiza, Buenos Aires province, Argentina.

He's launched a major campaign warning voters of what Milei's cuts to public education, pensions and healthcare could cost them. And in the months leading up to the elections, he eliminated some income and sales taxes, which critics charge was a way to gain favor with voters.

What are voters saying

Voting is mandatory in Argentina. And the race is on to attract votes from the more than 6 million Argentines who opted for the center-right candidate who came in third place in last month's initial round of voting.

Patricia Bullrich represented the traditional opponents to Peronism, but was unable to capture voter anger as much as the outsider Milei.

Bullrich and former President Mauricio Macri have both endorsed Milei, although the conservative coalition they represent has stayed neutral in the race.

Many voters say they are worried that Milei's well-known temper and eccentricities are not suited for the presidency. These voters may reluctantly stick withMassa, the current government's candidate.

Others say they will slip a blank protest ballot in the box.

What is clear is that many are worried about how the economy will fare the day after the elections, no matter who wins. Banks have been propping up peso and dollar reserves, worried about what many economists say will be an inevitable devaluation of the national currency.

Polls are too close to call and results may not be clear on election night if the count is close. Milei's campaign has already signaled that it may raise objections to the final results.

This week it filed a petition with election officials urging transparency in Sunday's vote and claimed "colossal fraud' took place in last month's first round, without providing evidence.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.