BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Economy Minister Sergio Massa pulled off a major surprise by coming first in the opening round of Argentina’s presidential election. This reflected voters’ concerns about handing the presidency to his main rival, a right-wing populist who was upending national politics and committed to drastically shrinking the state.

Massa’s victory over Javier Milei, a chainsaw-wielding economist and rookie lawmaker, came despite the fact that under his leadership inflation has risen into triple digits, reducing the purchasing power of salaries and increasing poverty. Nevertheless, he was not punished in Sunday’s vote.

With nearly all ballots counted early Monday, Massa had 36.7% of the vote and Milei had 30%, meaning the two will advance to the Nov. 19 runoff. Most pre-election polls, notoriously unreliable, had given Milei a slight lead over Massa. Former security minister Patricia Bullrich from the largest center-right opposition coalition came third in the field of five candidates with 23.8%.

Massa has been a leading figure in the center-left government since 2019. He successfully focused his message on the way Milei’s proposals to reduce the size of the state – from halving the number of ministries to deep spending cuts – would affect daily life for Argentines, said Mariel Fornoni of the political Consulting firm Management & Fit.

That “had a significant impact and obviously caused more fear than anything else,” Fornoni said.

Andrei Roman, CEO of Brazil-based pollster Atlas Intel, whose latest poll was one of the few that put Massa in the lead, said a key to the result was a lower abstention rate than in the August primaries. About 78% of voters voted Sunday, about eight points more than in the primary election that Milei won.

Milei, a self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist who admires former US President Donald Trump, caused a stir when he called for the abolition of the central bank, the replacement of the national currency with the US dollar and a purge of the corrupt establishment dubbed the “political caste”. .

His radical proposals and fiery, obscene rhetoric led some Argentines to vote for Massa, albeit not enthusiastically. Cristian Ariel Jacobsen, a 38-year-old photographer, said he voted for Massa to prevent Milei’s “project that endangers democracy.”

A sense of anxiety was palpable on the streets of Argentina in the days leading up to the election. People with disposable income bought goods in anticipation of possible currency devaluation, recalling that the government devalued the peso by nearly 20% the day after the August primary election. Argentinians 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 and dropped out of the race. This time he will have his chance in the runoff. This competition will determine whether Argentina will continue with a center-left government or make a sharp shift to the right.

Massa, 51, came first in Sunday’s vote, even as inflation rose to 140% and the currency plunged on his watch. He told voters that he had inherited an already bad situation made worse by a devastating drought that decimated exports and assured them that the worst was over.

In the final days of the campaign, he focused much of his firepower on warning voters not to support Milei, portraying him as a dangerous upstart. He argued that Milei’s plans could have devastating effects on social programs, education and health care. The ministries of health, education and social development are among those Milei wants to wipe out.

Although the numbers are not yet final, the next Congress will be heavily divided, with the ruling coalition retaining most seats in the lower house and Senate.

Right-wing support is split between Milei and two other candidates, while Massa has already consolidated almost all support from the left, Atlas Intel’s Roman said.

Massa signaled on Sunday evening that he would try to recruit members of other parties for the runoff election.

“I will call for a government of national unity – a government of national unity built on the basis of convening the best people, regardless of their political affiliation,” he said.

He was also able to find common ground with other longtime officials, many of whom were outraged by Milei’s candidacy and the threats it brought.

Milei, who turned 53 on election day, had described his two main opponents as part of the entrenched and corrupt establishment that had brought South America’s second-largest economy to its knees, but on Monday morning he made a direct appeal to Bullrich’s voters.

“All those who want to change Argentina, who want to embrace the ideas of freedom, are welcome,” Milei said in a radio interview. “It’s not about labels, it’s about who wants to be on that page.”

He has also portrayed himself as a crusader against what he calls the sinister forces of socialism at home and abroad. He opposes sex education, feminist politics and abortion, which is legal in Argentina. He rejects the idea that humans have played a role in causing climate change.

That may have turned off some voters, said Benjamin Gedan, director of the Latin America program at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Milei ran as an anti-establishment candidate and was the undisputed star of the election campaign. As he approached his polling station, so many people surrounded his vehicle that he needed a phalanx of bodyguards. Groups of supporters threw flower petals at his car.

“There was this sense of inevitability in the media around Javier Milei, but he scared too many voters and ended up with exactly the same level of support as he did two months ago,” said Brian Winter, a longtime Argentina expert and vice president of the council of the Americas based in New York. “And now I think we have a really uncertain race. It’s going to be really tight.”

In his speech on Sunday evening, Milei appeared to be trying to appeal to those who might have been trembling before his bombastic speeches and to regain his edge.

“We didn’t come here to take away rights; We have come to take away privileges,” he said.

Whatever the results, Milei has already inserted himself and his Libertarian Party into a political structure dominated by a center-left and a center-right coalition for nearly two decades. He celebrated at his campaign office and said preliminary results suggested his party would now have 40 seats in the lower house of Congress and eight in the Senate.

Still, supporters outside expressed their disappointment.

“I won’t lie; I feel some bitterness,” said Gaston Yapur, a 35-year-old coffee importer. “But well, it’s a runoff; we can not give up. Those who fight are not defeated, and we must continue the fight.”

Source : www.nbcnews.com

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