Fri, 01 Dec 2023

BUENOS AIRES (CN) - As Argentina readies to elect its next leader in the decisive final round of voting Sunday, polls show the race for the presidential Casa Rosada is neck and neck.

With skyrocketing inflation and a looming recession weighing heavily on their shoulders, voters will choose between two remaining candidates: Economy Minister Sergio Massa, the ruling center-left party's candidate, and Javier Milei, a libertarian outsider who wants to dollarize Argentina's economy.

The primary consensus from public opinion polls is that the election will be competitive, though in recent days Milei has pulled slightly ahead of Massa.

"The biggest question mark is the portion of the electorate that will cast a blank ballot - in other words, people who don't like either candidate," said Ezequiel Gonzalez Ocantos, a political science professor at the University of Oxford. "How big is that portion of the electorate? I think that will, in many ways, hold the keys to the result."

Milei, an economist who made a name for himself by bringing his eccentric demeanor and radical proposals to Argentine television programs, emerged as the race's frontrunner in a shocking August primary upset. But after over two months of campaigning, it was Massa who took home the most votes in the first round of voting last month. That marked the first time since primaries were established over a decade ago that the party that won the primary did not hold onto its lead in the general election's first round.

Massa won 36.8% of the vote in the first round Oct. 22, followed by Milei at 30%. Neither candidate cleared the 45% vote threshold, or 40% with a margin of victory of at least 10%, needed to win the presidency outright.

Patricia Bullrich, a tough-on-crime political veteran who belongs to Argentina's center-right coalition, was eliminated from the race after coming in third with 23.8% of the vote. The two remaining candidates have spent much of the last month trying to win over the 6.2 million Argentines who voted for her-as well as over 3 million voters who cast their first round ballots for less popular candidates, or for no candidate at all.

"Over 9 million votes are in play, votes that belong to people who supported the three candidates who were eliminated in the first round, or who submitted a blank ballot," said Carolina Tchintian, a political science professor at the University of Buenos Aires. "That's a lot of votes, and their reconfiguration creates a lot of uncertainty regarding what will happen in the runoff."

Milei has gone after Bullrich voters with the former candidate's blessing. Just three days after she was eliminated from the race, Bullrich endorsed the ultraconservative economist, despite a heated history between them. Bullrich sued Milei for defamation after he accused her of "planting bombs in kindergartens" during her time as a teenage member of the left-wing Montoneros guerrilla group.

"With Javier Milei, we have our differences, and that's why we competed," Bullrich said at a news conference following the election. "However, we are faced with the dilemma of change or the continuation of a mafia-like governance for Argentina, and putting an end to the embarrassment of the present."

Asked about their history of conflict, Bullrich said that she had "forgiven" the candidate and was dropping legal charges.

Bullrich's characterization of Argentina's current government echoes the sentiments of Milei and his supporters. Milei has described Argentina's current Peronist government, led by President Alberto Fernandez, as a "parasitic, corrupt and useless political caste." The Peronist movement has been voted into the Casa Rosada for 16 of the past 20 years.

Valentin Mansilla, a 24-year-old student who lives in Cordoba, Argentina's second-largest city, visited Buenos Aires recently to see Taylor Swift perform. While he was in town, the self-proclaimed Peronist went to Recoleta Cemetery to visit the grave of one of the political movement's namesakes, former first lady Eva Peron. While some visitors leave flowers, Mansilla decided to leave a friendship bracelet he had made, which fans, or Swifties, are known to trade at shows.

Ahead of Swift's visit to Buenos Aires, Argentina's Swifties got political. A group of fans released a viral statement calling on fellow Swifties to vote against Milei. Outside of the Estadio Monumental, where the pop star performed over the weekend, posters proclaiming "Swiftie No Vota Milei" and "Milei = Trump" were plastered on walls and bus stops.

"The only way to be a Swiftie is to do it collectively," Mansilla said. "A candidate who's very individualist and very violent, who's concerned purely with money and a free market, a bunch of us fans have realized that that's completely antithetical to what being a Swiftie is."

Fans of Taylor Swift wait for the opening of Monumental Stadium, where she performed her Eras Tour concert, near a sign that reads "Swift does not vote for Milei," referring to presidential candidate Javier Milei, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023. Milei will face Economy Minister Sergio Massa in a runoff election on Nov. 19. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

While Milei's opponents often cite his ultraconservative ideology and extreme economic plans as reasons to vote against him, Massa's critics usually point to Argentina's disastrous economy, which the candidate has overseen as economy minister since July 2022.

According to data released Monday, Argentina's consumer prices rose 8.3% in October on a month-by-month basis, while the country's annual inflation rate hit 142.7%. This time last year, one U.S. dollar could buy around 300 pesos by the unofficial but widely used "blue dollar" exchange rate. Today, a greenback is worth about 900 pesos.

However, Massa has kept the official exchange rate at around 350 pesos to the U.S. dollar. Last month, the economy minister expanded income tax exemptions to almost all workers. In recent weeks, he also temporarily suspended taxes on fuel, which is already heavily subsidized, to limit price increases. Though popular with voters in the short run, these decisions have put more stress on Argentina's already depleted state funds.

The International Monetary Fund, to whom Argentina is struggling to pay back a $44 billion loan, reportedly does not view these measures favorably.

Throughout his campaign, Massa has tried to distance himself from the current government and has promised that as president, he would turn Argentina's economy around by incentivizing exports and renegotiating with the IMF.

Massa has "proven very politically savvy," says Oxford professor Gonzalez Ocantos. "An incumbent finance minister presiding over north of 140% annual inflation, 40% poverty rates and so on, that makes it to the second round and has a chance of winning an election - he's obviously a very savvy politician."

Milei, meanwhile, says he can solve Argentina's inflation crisis by eliminating the country's central bank and replacing Argentine pesos with U.S. dollars. Hundreds of top economists around the world have lambasted this plan in two recently published open letters, writing that Milei's idea is "likely to cause more devastation" for Argentines and that dollarization is a "mirage."

Milei also advocates for privatizing healthcare and education, protecting the right to bear arms, and criminalizing abortion, which Argentina legalized in 2020. The far-right candidate has also, without evidence, alluded to the possibility of election fraud in this year's election, echoing allegations made by former U.S. President Donald Trump and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Franco Antunes, a 21-year-old who works as a farmer with his family in La Plata, is one of many young men who has started campaigning for Milei's nascent political party, Liberty Advances, in the last year. Lately, Antunes says, he's been aligning himself with anarcho-capitalism, a libertarian philosophy often cited by Milei that seeks to abolish centralized states.

"Why do I support Milei? First of all, he wants to destroy a system that, what it ends up doing is giving people power who shouldn't have power," Antunes said. "Second, I'm really in favor of dollarizing the economy. Dollarizing the economy will help the lower class. It'll help the working class."

The economy was the first subject in a heated debate Sunday between the two candidates. Massa pressed Milei on his most radical proposals, asking him a series of yes or no questions, prompting Milei to use up his allotted speaking time much more quickly than Massa. While Milei accused his opponent of being "corrupt" and a "liar," Massa brought Milei's mental stability into question.

In an eleventh hour attempt to distance himself from previous administrations, Massa told his opponent he didn't come to the debate to discuss former presidents such as Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner or Mauricio Macri.

"It's you or me," Massa said. "And what Argentines need to choose is who has the temperance, the capacity, the mental stability, and the contact with reality to be able to carry Argentina forward."

Source: Courthouse News Service

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