Argentina: economy minister Massa beats populist Milei in first round

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Argentina's presidential candidate Sergio Massa speaks during a press conference a day after the first round of Argentina's presidential election, in Buenos Aires, Argentina October 23, 2023. REUTERS/Cristina Sille

Economy Minister Sergio Massa surprised everyone on Sunday night by emerging as the top candidate in Argentina’s presidential election’s first round. This outcome reflects voters’ concerns about electing his primary rival, a right-wing populist who has disrupted national politics and pledged to significantly reduce the government’s role.

Despite the fact that inflation soared into triple digits under Massa’s tenure, eroding purchasing power and increasing poverty, voters did not penalise him. With 98.3% of the votes counted, Massa secured 36.7% of the vote, while his rival, Javier Milei, a controversial economist and newcomer to politics, garnered 30%, requiring a runoff in November. Most pre-election polls had shown Milei with a slight lead and Massa in second place. Patricia Bullrich, a former Security Minister from the main centre-right opposition coalition, came in third with 23.8%.

Massa has been a prominent figure in the centre-left government since 2019. He successfully focused his campaign on highlighting the potential negative impact of Milei’s proposal to drastically reduce the size of the government, from cutting government ministries in half to making deep spending cuts, on the daily lives of Argentines. This messaging appeared to instil more fear in voters than Milei’s platform did.

Lower abstention rates in the general election compared to the primary elections in August were a key factor in Massa’s victory. Approximately 78% of eligible voters participated in the election, which was about eight points higher than the primaries, where Milei had triumphed, causing a significant shakeup.

Milei, a self-described anarcho-capitalist and admirer of former U.S. President Donald Trump, gained substantial support by advocating for the elimination of the Central Bank, replacing the local currency with the U.S. dollar, and purging what he called the “political caste” in the establishment. His radical proposals and profanity-laden rhetoric led some Argentines to vote for Massa to prevent what they saw as a threat to democracy.

Massa’s campaign this year follows a disappointing third-place finish eight years ago, which eliminated him from the race. This time, he has secured a spot in the runoff, which will determine whether Argentina continues with a centre-left government backed by Kirchner, or veers toward the right.

Massa’s focus in the final days of the campaign was on warning voters about the potential dangers of supporting Milei, emphasising the possible detrimental effects on social welfare programmes, education, and healthcare. Milei’s desire to extinguish ministries responsible for health, education, and social development was a point of concern.

Milei positioned himself as an anti-establishment candidate, and he became the campaign’s standout figure. However, his controversial stances, such as opposing sex education, feminist policies, abortion (which is legal in Argentina), and denying human involvement in climate change, may have alienated some voters.

The Argentine public has been bracing for potential economic impacts, with citizens hoarding goods in anticipation of a possible currency devaluation. The government devalued the peso by nearly 20% the day after the primaries, leading many to buy dollars and withdraw hard currency deposits from banks as the peso continued to depreciate.

The election results have created uncertainty, as Milei’s popularity remained at a similar level to two months ago. Regardless of the final outcome, Milei and his libertarian party have significantly influenced a political landscape dominated by centre-left and centre-right coalitions for nearly two decades. Although his supporters expressed disappointment, Milei celebrated the preliminary results, indicating gains for his party in both the lower house of Congress and the Senate.

In his speech, Milei attempted to reach out to those who may have been put off by his bombastic rhetoric, declaring that he aimed to eliminate privileges, not rights. He portrayed Massa as part of the entrenched and corrupt establishment that had brought the country’s economy to its knees.

The runoff election promises to be closely contested, with supporters on both sides determined to keep fighting for their vision of the country’s future.

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