Javier Milei vs. Sergio Massa in the Argentine elections: what to know

For months Argentina was consumed by a single question.

Will Javier Milei – a far-right libertarian whose brash style and embrace of conspiracy theories have drawn comparisons to former President Donald J. Trump – be your next president?

On Sunday, voters will finally be able to decide.

Milei, an economist and former television pundit, is facing Sergio Massa, Argentina’s center-left economy minister, in a runoff. Massa led the first round of elections last month, with 37% to Milei’s 30%. But polls suggest Sunday’s race will be a dead heat.

The backdrop to the competition was Argentina’s worst economic crisis in decades, with annual inflation topping 140%, behind only Lebanon and Venezuela globally. Two out of five Argentines today live in poverty. These men offered starkly different visions for how to turn around the economic situation in a nation of 46 million people – a feat no Argentine leader has been able to accomplish for decades.

But the economic debate has been overshadowed by Milei’s rise, his eccentric personality and his radical ideas for reshaping the country.

With Milei now on the doorstep of the presidency, Sunday’s vote is a test of strength for the global far-right movement. Milei welcomed comparisons to Trump and Brazil’s right-wing former president, Jair Bolsonaro. And, like them, she warned that if he loses, it may be because the election was stolen.

Here’s what you need to know about Argentina’s elections.

Before running for president, Milei, 53, was the frontman of a Rolling Stones cover band, an economist with strongly libertarian views and a TV pundit known for his fiery outbursts. In 2021 he was elected to the Argentine Congress.

Milei centered his campaign on an economic overhaul that would involve cutting both spending and taxes, closing Argentina’s central bank and replacing its currency with the U.S. dollar. Economists and political analysts are skeptical that the economic conditions or political coalition needed to pull off such an extreme change exist.

During the campaign, Milei portrayed his opponent, Massa, as the leader of a shadowy “caste” of political elites who steal from average Argentines – and himself as the intrepid outsider who will confront them. His campaign events paint him as a roaring lion while his supporters chant: “The caste is afraid.”

Yet his eccentric personality and combative politics have often attracted the most attention. There were his harsh attacks on the Pope, his clashes with Taylor Swift’s fans, his claims to be one a tantric sex guruhis statement that Climate change is a socialist conspiracyhis disguise as a libertarian superhero and his close relationship with his Mastiff dogs who are named after conservative economists – and are also all clones.

Massa, 51, has spent his entire career in politics, serving as mayor, congressman, chief of staff and president, swinging from right to left and earning a reputation as a pragmatist.

This is the same approach he took during the presidential campaign, while ensuring his ability to lead government, partner with industry and build a political coalition to heal the economy.

But for many Argentines he has little credibility on economic issues. He has overseen Argentina’s economy for the past 16 months, just as it collapsed. Inflation soared and the value of the Argentine peso plummeted. In July 2022, when Massa was appointed Minister of Economy, 1 dollar could buy around 300 pesos on the main unofficial market. Now with 1 dollar you buy 950 pesos.

Argentina’s troubles didn’t start with Massa. For decades, failed economic policies, including high government spending and a protectionist approach to trade, have left Argentina with one of the world’s perennially unstable economies, despite its abundant natural resources.

The fault lies with Mr. Massa a record drought AND 44 billion dollars in international debt for hurting so many Argentines during his run as Minister of Economy. “We lost half of our agricultural exports” because of the drought, he said in an interview, “so the main challenge was to sustain the level of activity and employment.”

Argentina’s economy contracted 4.9% in the second quarter of this year, the latest data available, the first decline after nine consecutive quarters of growth as the country recovered from the pandemic. Unemployment has also largely declined in recent quarters, falling to 6.2% at the end of June.

Milei’s platform centers on his promises to shut down the central bank anddollarize the economy. During the campaign, Milei allegedly destroyed miniature versions of the central bank and held aloft giant $100 bills with his face on them.

Mr. Milei also had other support for the campaign: a chainsaw that was waved at rallies. The saw shown the deep cuts it offers to government, including tax cuts; sharp regulations; privatize state industries; reduce the number of federal ministries from 18 to eight; move public education to a voucher system and public health care to an insurance system; and cut federal spending by up to 15% of Argentina’s gross domestic product. He recently softened some proposals after backlash.

He also said he would like to ban abortion, loosen gun regulations and largely cut ties with any country besides the United States and Israel.

In an interview, Massa called Milei’s proposals “suicidal” for the country.

His plans for change are much more modest. Massa has said he wants to increase production of oil, gas and lithium; simplify the tax system; reduce overall spending, while increasing spending on education and vocational training. “Austerity,” he said.

His calls for austerity, however, they were weakened by his moves in recent months cut taxes, give bonuses to workers and distribute more money to the poor. Critics called the policies irresponsible cronyism during an economic crisis.

For months, Milei claimed, without evidence, that he was cheated out of more than a million votes in the August primary election, or 5% of the total. He also said the first round of last month’s general election was rigged against him.

He claimed that scammers are stealing and damaging his ballots at polling stations, preventing his supporters from voting for him. (In Argentina, citizens vote by placing a paper ballot of their preferred candidate in an envelope and leaving the sealed envelope in a box. Campaigns distribute ballots with the candidate’s name at polling stations.)

Election officials dispute Milei’s claims, and his campaign has offered little evidence. Her campaign’s legal director said in an interview that he had direct knowledge of only 10 to 15 written voter complaints.

Last week, Milei’s campaign stepped up its fight, submitting a document to a federal judge alleging a “colossal fraud” claiming that Argentine officials had switched votes for Milei with Massa. The campaign cited anonymous sources.

Milei has openly questioned the results of the 2020 U.S. and 2022 Brazilian elections, which were dogged by unfounded allegations of fraud that led to violent attacks on those nations’ capitals.

Now, Argentinians are preparing for what might happen if Mr. Milei loses. His supporters staged protests outside the electoral agency headquarters after the polls closed on Sunday.

Milei said Friday that Massa’s incumbent party “is showing up very gross signs of desperation” and would most likely try to cling to power if Milei wins. In this scenario, he added, his government “will apply justice with all due force”.

Lucia Cholakian Herrera AND Natalie Alcoba contributed to the reporting.