Argentina Election Decides Between Javier Milei and Others

Argentines head to the polls on Sunday to pick a new president to lead the nation of 46 million out of its worst economic crisis in decades, choosing between two establishment politicians and a far-right libertarian economist who embraces comparisons to Donald J. Trump.

The economist, Javier Milei, has led the polls since winning Argentina’s open primary election in August, but he has dominated the national conversation by an even greater margin.

Mr. Milei, a former television pundit who turned 53 on Sunday, has received nearly blanket media coverage in Argentina and upended the race with a brash, outsider campaign centered on his radical proposals to eliminate Argentina’s central bank and ditch its currency for the U.S. dollar.

Here’s what else you need to know about Sunday’s election.

Mr. Milei’s proposals have gained traction with millions of Argentines because the country has been grappling with triple-digit inflation for nearly a year, with prices now rising 138 percent annually, while the value of the Argentine peso plummets. In April 2020, at the start of the pandemic, $1 bought 80 pesos, using an unofficial rate based on the market’s view of the currency. Last week, $1 bought more than 1,000 pesos.

Yet many economists worry that Mr. Milei’s libertarian economic theories, which have little history of real-world application, could instead inflict even more damage on an already fragile economy, one of Latin America’s largest.

Emmanuel Alvarez Agis, Argentina’s former deputy minister of the economy under a leftist government, said Mr. Milei’s economic proposals would be a sort of experiment. “And we would be the mouse,” he added. “Forty-six million of us.”

To millions of Argentines, Mr. Milei represents an exciting — if an unorthodox — break from policies and politicians that have not been working. But to many other voters and officials, Mr. Milei’s combative rhetoric, his questioning of science and his early claims of voter fraud are worrisome.

Mr. Milei is facing off against Sergio Massa, Argentina’s center-left minister of the economy, and Patricia Bullrich, a right-wing former security minister.

Mr. Massa, 51, represents the incumbent Peronist party, which has led Argentina for 16 of the last 20 years and is responsible for much of the economic mismanagement that has led the nation into such a deep financial hole. Mr. Massa has taken to apologizing for his party’s handling of the economy and promised to stabilize the situation as president by investing in local industries and expanding energy production.

His Peronist party — led in recent decades by Argentina’s leftist former presidents, Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — has a fiercely loyal base, helping Mr. Massa place second in most recent polls, but it has also drawn strong opposition across the nation after a string of corruption scandals and economic crises.

That anti-Peronist sentiment has created a wide opening for a right-wing candidate this year. So far, Mr. Milei and Ms. Bullrich have split that vote.

Ms. Bullrich, 67, has aimed to position herself as a sort of common-sense candidate who would push fiscally conservative policies that are less radical than Mr. Milei’s. She wants to cut spending, prohibit the central bank from printing more money to finance debts, and simplify the tax system. She also has backed a currency scheme in which the peso and dollar “coexist.”

Both candidates appear to be battling to make a runoff against Mr. Milei next month, according to polls, while Mr. Milei is hoping to win the election outright on Sunday. If no candidate receives at least 45 percent of the vote, or 40 percent with a 10-point margin of victory, the top two finishers will face off on Nov. 19.

Mr. Milei has already signaled that if he does not win on Sunday, he could claim voter fraud, as he did in the primary elections.

In recent days, Mr. Milei and his campaign have again said that he was robbed of up to 5 percent of the votes in the primary election because his party’s ballots were stolen from some polling stations, which are needed to cast a vote for him.

Election authorities said they never received a formal complaint. Both Argentina’s electoral court and the separate national elections agency said that there was no evidence of systematic fraud in the primary elections.

In an interview, Marcos Schiavi, the elections agency chief, called the fraud claims “implausible and out of place.” He added, “These issues are only being put forth by one political party when there are five” parties competing for the presidency.

No other party has alleged fraud, and Argentina, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary of democracy since the end of a military dictatorship, has had largely smooth elections for decades.

On Friday, a federal prosecutor opened an official investigation based on Mr. Milei’s public comments and called on Mr. Milei’s party to present evidence. In response, his campaign said it would soon send what it said was evidence of fraud, including videos from social media that showed destroyed or discarded ballots, as well as a clip of apparent Peronist operatives saying they aimed to “make Milei’s ballots disappear.”

Mr. Milei’s campaign said it had recruited more than 105,000 volunteers from social media to monitor polling stations on Sunday for any sign of fraud. Such poll monitors are common in Argentina, and other parties will also use them.

Mr. Milei has drawn comparisons to Mr. Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s former president, both of whom pushed false claims of fraud after losing re-election.

While Mr. Milei has a more libertarian bent economically, his bellicose political style resembles those of Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolsonaro, with harsh attacks against the press, his rivals and foreign leaders. He has also called for looser gun regulations and questioned the science behind climate change, calling it part of “the socialist agenda” in an interview with the former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

The global far-right movement showed up in force in Argentina over election weekend to support Mr. Milei, including representatives from far-right parties in Brazil, Chile, Spain and France.

Mr. Milei has also attracted attention for his eccentric personality. His supporters have nicknamed him “The Wig” for his unruly hairdo (another echo of Mr. Trump) and embraced his love for his five cloned mastiff dogs, four of which are named for conservative economists.

His brash, offbeat style has been particularly popular with Argentina’s youth, in part because of his campaign’s intense focus on social media to reach voters. Much of that work has been done by a group of unpaid, college age internet influencers who travel with Mr. Milei to post videos of him from across the nation.

Franco Antunez, 21, a YouTube influencer with 216,000 followers, was traveling with Mr. Milei in Argentina’s mountainous northwest this month for a campaign event where Mr. Milei wielded a chain saw as a metaphor for the deep cuts he aims to inflict on the Argentine government.

Such stunts, along with his sometimes profane rhetoric against elites and the political class, have made him the “cool” candidate among young Argentines, Mr. Antunez said. “He is something exotic,” Mr. Antunez said. “Hey, this dude is cool, he’s a rock star, this dude here with the chain saw.”

Ms. Bullrich, in her closing campaign event on Thursday, said that instead Mr. Milei was dangerous. “Moms and dads, listen to me carefully, so you can talk to your children,” she said. “I’m worried about Milei’s ideas.”