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Argentine economy minister upsets populist as they head to presidential runoff

Economy Minister and presidential hopeful Sergio Massa arrives to a polling station during general elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Sunday.
Daniel Jayo
/
AP
Economy Minister and presidential hopeful Sergio Massa arrives to a polling station during general elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Sunday.

Updated October 23, 2023 at 1:02 AM ET

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Economy Minister Sergio Massa surprised Sunday night by finishing on top in the first round of Argentina's presidential election, reflecting voters' wariness about handing the presidency to his chief rival, a right-wing populist who upended national politics and pledged to drastically diminish the state.

Massa's victory over Javier Milei, a chainsaw-wielding economist and freshman lawmaker, came despite the fact that on his watch inflation has surged into triple digits, eating away at purchasing power of salaries and boosting poverty. Still, he wasn't punished.

With 98.3% of the votes counted, Massa had 36.7% and Milei was at 30%, meaning the two will go to a November runoff. Most pre-election polls, which have been notoriously unreliable, gave Milei a slight lead and put Massa in second place. Former Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, of the main center-right opposition coalition, finished in third place with 23.8%.

Massa has been a leading figure in the center-left administration in power since 2019. He successfully focused messaging on the way in which Milei's proposal to slash the size of the state — from halving the number of government ministries to deep spending cuts — would affect everyday life for Argentines, said Mariel Fornoni of the political consulting firm Management & Fit.

That "had a significant impact and evidently instilled more fear than anything else," Fornoni said.

Andrei Roman, CEO of Brazil-based pollster Atlas Intel, whose latest survey was one of few showing Massa ahead, said one key to the result was lower abstention than in the primary elections held in August. Around 78% of the electorate voted Sunday, some eight points higher than in the primaries that Milei won, sending shockwaves through the nation.

Milei, a self-described anarcho-capitalist who admires former U.S. President Donald Trump, amassed a groundswell of support while calling for elimination of the Central Bank, replacement of the local currency with the U.S. dollar, and a purge of the establishment that he called the "political caste."

His radical proposals and fiery, profanity-laden rhetoric caused some Argentines to vote for Massa, even if less than enthused at the prospect. Cristian Ariel Jacobsen, a 38-year-old photographer, said he voted for Massa to prevent Milei's "project that puts democracy at risk."

Presidential candidate Javier Milei casts his vote during general elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Sunday.
Natacha Pisarenko / AP
/
AP
Presidential candidate Javier Milei casts his vote during general elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Sunday.

Massa's campaign this year follows another eight years ago, when he finished a disappointing third place and was knocked out of the running. This time, he will have his shot at a runoff. That contest will determine whether Argentina will continue with a center-left administration or veer sharply to the right.

Massa finished first in Sunday's vote despite the fact that inflation surged to 140% on his watch and the currency tanked. He had told voters that he inherited an already-bad situation exacerbated by a devastating drought that decimated the country's exports, and reassured voters that the worst was past.

Right-wing support was split between Milei and two other candidates, whereas Massa had already consolidated support from the left, Atlas Intel's Roman said.

Speaking Sunday night, Massa sent a signal he would seek to appeal to members of other parties for the runoff.

"I'm going to call for a government of national unity — a government of national unity built on the foundation of summoning the best individuals, regardless of their political affiliation," he said.

Massa focused much of his firepower in the campaign's final days on warning voters against backing Milei, painting him as a dangerous upstart. He argued that Milei's plans could have devastating effects on social welfare programs, education and health care. The health, education and social development ministries are among those Milei wants to extinguish.

Milei also cast himself as a crusader against what he called the sinister forces of socialism at home and abroad. He opposes sex education, feminist policies and abortion, which is legal in Argentina. He rejects the notion that humans have had a role in causing climate change.

Such stances may have ended up turning off some voters, said Benjamin Gedan director of the Latin America Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center.

Running as an anti-establishment candidate, Milei became the undisputed star of the campaign. So many people surrounded his vehicle as he approached his polling station that he needed a phalanx of bodyguards. Groups of supporters threw flower petals on his car.

A billboard sign for presidential candidate Javier Milei and Carolina Piparo who is running for the governorship of Buenos Aires province, is juxtaposed with photos of current Economy Minister Sergio Massa, also running for president, and current governor of Buenos Aires province Axel Kicillof, and reads in Spanish: "Kichnersimo or Freedom" in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023.
Natacha Pisarenko / AP
/
AP
A billboard sign for presidential candidate Javier Milei and Carolina Piparo who is running for the governorship of Buenos Aires province, is juxtaposed with photos of current Economy Minister Sergio Massa, also running for president, and current governor of Buenos Aires province Axel Kicillof, and reads in Spanish: "Kichnersimo or Freedom" in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023.

A sense of apprehension was evident on the streets of Argentina this week, with citizens bracing for impact. Those with any disposable income snapped up goods in anticipation of a possible currency devaluation. The day after the primaries, the government devalued the peso by nearly 20%. Argentines were also buying dollars and removing hard currency deposits from banks as the peso accelerated its already steady depreciation.

"There was this sense of inevitability around Javier Milei in the media, but he scared too many voters and ended up with the exact same level of support he had two months ago," said Brian Winter, a longtime Argentina expert and vice president of the New York-based Council of the Americas. "And now I think we have a really uncertain race. It's going to be really tight."

In a speech Sunday night, Milei appeared to try to appeal to those who may have trembled at his bombastic speeches, and regain his edge.

"We didn't come here to take away rights; we came to take away privileges," Milei said. He has characterized Massa as part of the entrenched and corrupt establishment that brought South America's second-largest economy to its knees.

Whatever the results, Milei has already inserted himself and his libertarian party into a political structure dominated by a center-left and a center-right coalition for almost two decades. He was celebratory Sunday night at his campaign headquarters, saying that preliminary results indicate his party gained 40 seats in the lower house of Congress and eight in the Senate.

Still, supporters outside expressed disappointment.

"I won't lie; I feel a certain bitterness," said Gaston Yapur, a 35-year-old coffee importer. "But, well, it's a runoff; we mustn't give up. He who fights isn't defeated, and we must keep fighting the battle."

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