Argentina goes to the polls in the face of a severe economic crisis

Workers load ballot boxes and voting materials into a truck ahead of the presidential election, Buenos Aires, Argentina, October 21, 2023. REUTERS/Mariana Nedelcu/File Photo Acquire Licensing Rights

BUENOS AIRES, Oct 22 (Reuters) – Argentines will go to the polls on Sunday to vote in a general election in the shadow of the South American country’s worst economic crisis in two decades, which has contributed to the rise of a far-right libertarian outsider in pole position to wins.

The vote is likely to shake Argentina’s already shaky markets, impact its relations with trading partners such as China and Brazil, and chart a political path for the country, a major grain exporter with vast reserves of lithium and shale gas.

Polls open at 8:00 a.m. (11:00 GMT) and the three main candidates are likely to split the vote: libertarian economist Javier Milei, centrist Peronist economy minister Sergio Massa and conservative Patricia Bullrich.

Promising to “chainsaw” the economic and political status quo, Milei is the candidate to beat, with angry voters rallying to his riotous message fed up with 138% inflation and poverty affecting more than two-fifths of the population.

“People want change,” said Federico Aurelio, president of consulting firm Aresco. “How? They have no idea, but they want change.”

Milei, a brash former TV pundit compared to Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, posted a shock victory in August’s open primary, although Massa and Bullrich were not far behind and the race could prove to be a close one. Pollsters do not expect an outright winner.

To avoid the second round, which will take place on November 19, a candidate needs more than 45% of the votes, i.e. 40% and a 10-point advantage. Voting on Sunday will end around 6 p.m. (9 p.m. GMT). and the first results are expected at 21:00 (00:00 GMT).

Whoever wins will face an economy on life support: central bank reserves are empty, a recession is looming after a severe drought, and the $44 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) program is reeling.

In the face of the crisis, Milei surged, promising shock therapy to repair the economy, including dollarization, closing the central bank, drastically reducing the size of government, and privatizing state entities.

“He is the only one who understands the situation in the country and knows how to save it,” said Nicolas Mercado, a 22-year-old student from Buenos Aires.

Massa, the current economy chief, remains in office despite inflation reaching triple digits for the first time since 1991. He vows to reduce the budget deficit, stick to the peso and defend the Peronist social safety net.

“Massa represents some traditional guarantees in which I was raised: public health, state education, which I want to defend with my voice,” said astrologer Flavia Vzquez.

Bullrich, a former security minister popular in business circles, lost support over Milea’s unexpected appearance. Polls consider her to be one of the top three candidates most likely not to advance to the second round.

Reporting by Nicolas Misculin; Editing: Adam Jourdan and Chizu Nomiyama

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