Economy Minister Massa grabs surprise lead over right-wing populist in Argentina’s presidential vote

Presidential candidate Javier Milei waves as he prepares to cast his vote during general elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Mario De Fina)

Economy Minister Sergio Massa and presidential candidate leaves a polling station after casting his ballot during general elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Daniel Jayo)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Economy Minister Sergio Massa held the lead Sunday night in early results from Argentina’s presidential election, a surprise reflecting voters’ reluctance to hand the presidency to his chief contender, a right-wing populist who has pledged to drastically overhaul the state.

With 86% of the votes counted, Massa had 36.2%, compared to the anti-establishment candidate Javier Milei’s 30.3%, meaning the two were poised to face off in a November second round.


Most pre-election polls, which have been notoriously unreliable, gave Milei a slight lead and put Massa in second place. Massa, a leading figure in the center-left administration in power since 2019, appeared to have outperformed predictions by growing support significantly in the critical Buenos Aires province, home to more than one-third of the electorate, said Mariel Fornoni of political consultancy Management &Fit.

The highly polarized election will determine whether Argentina will continue with a center-left administration or elect one of the right-leaning leaders who both promised profound changes to a country plagued by triple-digit inflation and rising poverty. Former Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, of the main opposition coalition, trailed well behind Massa and Milei in third place.

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.

He held the first place in the preliminary vote count despite the fact that inflation surged 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.

“On Monday, Argentina continues,” Massa said after casting his vote in Buenos Aires. “We have the enormous task … regardless of who governs, to address a multitude of problems.”

In order to win outright and avoid a Nov. 19 runoff, a candidate would need 45% of the vote, or 40% with a 10-point lead over the runner-up.

Milei, a self-described anarcho-capitalist who admires former U.S. President Donald Trump, sent shockwaves through the nation after receiving the most votes in the August primaries.

The chainsaw-wielding economist and freshman lawmaker said he wants to slash public spending, halve the number of government ministries, eliminate the central bank and replace the local currency with the U.S. dollar.

He first made a name for himself with angry tirades blasting what he calls the “political caste” on television, and has gained support from Argentines struggling to make ends meet amid annual inflation of 140% and a rapidly depreciating currency. His platform also calls for reshaping Argentine culture, and he casts himself as a crusader against the sinister forces of socialism at home and abroad.

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.

On the streets of Argentina, citizens this week were 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%.

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