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A surprise result in Argentina’s presidential election sets up a showdown

Economy Minister Sergio Massa produced a big surprise by finishing first in the opening round of Argentina's presidential election, reflecting voters' wariness about handing the presidency to his chief rival, a right-wing populist.

Runoff to be held Nov. 19

A man in a dark suit holds a microphone while he speaks during a political rally.

Economy Minister Sergio Massa produced a big surprise by finishing first in the opening round of Argentina's presidential election, reflecting voters' wariness about handing the presidency to his chief rival, a right-wing populist who upended national politics and pledged to drastically diminish the state.

Massa beat out his main rival, Javier Milei, an economist and freshman lawmaker who became known for the chainsaw he brought to campaign events symbolizing his vow to cut government spending and upend the status quo.

Massa's victory came despite the fact that on his watch, inflation has surged, eating away at the purchasing power of salaries and boosting poverty. Still, he wasn't punished in Sunday's voting.

With nearly all ballots counted early Monday, Massa had 36.7 per cent of the vote and Milei had 30 per cent, meaning the two will go to a Nov. 19 runoff. Most pre-election polls, which have been notoriously unreliable, had given Milei a slight lead over Massa.

Former security minister Patricia Bullrich, of the main centre-right opposition coalition, got 23.8 per cent to finish third in the field of five candidates.

Presidential candidate Patricia Bullrich, of the United for Change coalition, talks to supporters at her campaign headquarters after polls closed for general elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023.

Focused on opponent's planned cuts

Massa has been a leading figure in the centre-left administration in power since 2019. He successfully focused messaging on the way Milei's proposals to slash the size of the state — from halving the number of government ministries to deep spending cuts — would affect everyday life for Argentines, said Mariel Fornoni of the political consulting firm Management & Fit.

That "had a significant impact and evidently instilled more fear than anything else," Fornoni said.

Andrei Roman, CEO of Brazil-based pollster Atlas Intel, whose latest survey had been one of the few putting Massa ahead, said one key to the result was a lower abstention rate than in the primary elections held in August. Around 78 per cent of the electorate voted Sunday, some eight points higher than in the primaries that Milei won.

A man stands on a stage flanked by supporters while he addresses a crowd at a political rally.

Milei, a self-described anarcho-capitalist who admires former U.S. president Donald Trump, built a groundswell of support while calling for elimination of the Central Bank, replacement of the local currency with the U.S. dollar, and a purge of the corrupt establishment that he called the "political caste."

Cristian Ariel Jacobsen, a 38-year-old photographer, said he voted for Massa to prevent Milei's "project that puts democracy at risk."

Economic jitters

A sense of apprehension was evident on the streets of Argentina in the days before the election. People snapped up goods in anticipation of a possible currency devaluation, recalling that the government devalued the peso by nearly 20 per cent the day after the August primaries. Argentines also bought dollars and removed hard currency deposits from banks as the peso accelerated its already steady depreciation.

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 in the runoff. That contest will determine whether Argentina will continue with a centre-left administration or veer sharply to the right.

Massa, 51, finished first in Sunday's vote despite inflation surging to 140 per cent on his watch and the currency tanking. He told voters that he inherited an already-bad situation exacerbated by a devastating drought that decimated exports, and reassured them that the worst had passed.

He focused much of his firepower in the campaign's final days on warning voters against backing Milei, painting him as a dangerous upstart. He argued that Milei's plans could have devastating effects on social welfare programs, education and health care. The health, education and social development ministries are among those Milei wants to extinguish.

Appealing to other parties

Although the numbers were not yet final, the next Congress will be sharply divided, with the ruling coalition maintaining the most seats in the lower house and Senate.

Right-wing support was split between Milei and two other candidates, whereas Massa had already consolidated nearly all support from the left, Atlas Intel's Roman said.

Massa sent a signal Sunday night that he would seek to appeal to members of other parties for the runoff.

"I'm going to call for a government of national unity — a government of national unity built on the foundation of summoning the best individuals, regardless of their political affiliation," he said.

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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