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Argentine minister's surprise showing sets up presidential election run-off with right-wing populist

Sergio Massa, Economy Minister and presidential candidate for the ruling party, speaks outside his campaign headquarters after general elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023.
Mario De Fina
/
AP
Sergio Massa, Economy Minister and presidential candidate for the ruling party, speaks outside his campaign headquarters after general elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Economy Minister Sergio Massa produced a big surprise by finishing first in the opening 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 the purchasing power of salaries and boosting poverty. Still, he wasn’t punished in Sunday's voting.

With nearly all ballots counted early Monday, Massa had 36.7% of the vote and Milei had 30%, meaning the two will go to a Nov. 19 runoff. Most pre-election polls, which have been notoriously unreliable, had given Milei a slight lead over Massa. Former Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, of the main center-right opposition coalition, got 23.8% to finish third in the field of five candidates.

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Massa has been a leading figure in the center-left administration in power since 2019. He successfully focused messaging on the way Milei’s proposals 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 had been one of the few putting Massa ahead, said one key to the result was a lower abstention rate 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.

Milei, a self-described anarcho-capitalist who admires former U.S. President Donald Trump, built 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 corrupt 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 enthusiastically. Cristian Ariel Jacobsen, a 38-year-old photographer, said he voted for Massa to prevent Milei’s “project that puts democracy at risk.”

A sense of apprehension was evident on the streets of Argentina in the days before the election. People with any disposable income snapped up goods in anticipation of a possible currency devaluation, recalling that the government devalued the peso by nearly 20% the day after the August primaries. Argentines also bought dollars and removed hard currency deposits from banks as the peso accelerated its already steady depreciation.

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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 in the runoff. That contest will determine whether Argentina will continue with a center-left administration or veer sharply to the right.

Massa, 51, finished first in Sunday’s vote despite inflation surging to 140% on his watch and the currency tanking. He told voters that he inherited an already-bad situation exacerbated by a devastating drought that decimated exports, and reassured them that the worst was past.

He 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.

Although the numbers were not yet final, the next Congress will be sharply divided, with the ruling coalition maintaining the most seats in the lower house and Senate.

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

Massa sent a signal Sunday night that 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.

He also could find common ground with other longserving public servants, many of whom have bristled at Milei's candidacy and the threats it posed.

Milei, who turned 53 on election day, had characterized his two main opponents as part of the entrenched and corrupt establishment that brought South America’s second-largest economy to its knees, but on Monday morning he made a direct appeal to Bullrich's voters.

“All who want to change Argentina, who want to embrace the ideas of freedom, are welcome,” Milei said in a radio interview. “It’s not a matter of labels, it’s a matter of who wants to be on this side.”

He has also cast himself as a crusader against what he calls 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.

That may have turned 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 was 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.

“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 his 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,” he said.

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 at his campaign headquarters, saying the preliminary results indicated his party would now have 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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Associated Press writers Patricia Luna and Almudena Calatrava contributed to this report.

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