Argentina’s Javier Milei is leading the race for president

BUENOS AIRES — Argentines head to the polls on Sunday in a presidential election that could put a right-wing, Donald Trump-admiring populist in charge of one of Latin America’s largest and most volatile economies.

With the peso plummeting and inflation at nearly 140 percent, voters in this nation of 46 million are demanding a solution to the worst economic crisis in two decades. Many are backing a candidate that promises to blow up the entire system.

Congressman Javier Milei, a 52-year-old libertarian economist, stunned Argentina’s political establishment with his surprise win in the August primaries. Running on promises to destroy the country’s political “caste” — the local version of Trump’s “drain the swamp” — he has proposed shutting down the central bank, dollarizing the economy and taking a “chain saw” to government spending. He pledges to cut down the number of government ministries from 18 to eight and let radically free markets rule.

With viral TikTok videos and rock concert-style arena rallies, he has galvanized a generation of young people who are struggling to enter the workforce. They have the same concerns that led Argentines in 2019 to hand the reins to the Peronista ticket of Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, but the economy has only worsened under their stewardship. Now voters say they are eager to head down a drastically different path.

A vote for Milei is a vote of “rebellion,” 19-year-old supporter Julián Dominguez last week at the front-runner’s campaign-closing rally last week. “He represents the anger in society.”

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Polls here show Milei leading the field of five candidates. His top competitors include Sergio Massa, an economy minister for the leftist government who has portrayed himself as a moderate voice within Peronismo, and Patricia Bullrich, a center-right former security minister who has gained popularity with a tough-on-crime message.

Fernández, the president, and former president Kirchner, the vice president, did not run for reelection.

To win Sunday, a candidate must receive 45 percent of the vote, or 40 percent with a 10-point lead over the runner-up by at least 10 percent. If no candidate meets that threshold, which is considered the most likely scenario, the top two finishers will face off in a runoff election in four weeks.

If Milei wins, political scientist Juan Germano said, “Argentina, in political terms, enters an unknown territory.” In 40 years of uninterrupted democracy, he said, the country has never had a president who was “so clearly an outsider.”

Milei built his following by insulting opponents on television. Elected to the federal Chamber of Deputies from Buenos Aires in 2021, he distinguished himself from fellow lawmakers by raffling off his congressional salary each month.

His anti-establishment vitriol has earned him comparisons to Trump and Bolsonaro. He has described Pope Francis, the Argentine former archbishop of Buenos Aires, as “evil.” The leftist leaders of neighboring governments are “communists,” China, is an “assassin,” climate change, a “socialist lie.” He has proposed creating a market for the sale of organs.

But unlike Trump, who had the backing of the Republican Party, or Bolsonaro, who rose through the ranks in the military, Milei has very little political structure around him. He would be the first president not to have party allies among Argentina’s 23 provincial governors and would have little support in the legislature, raising questions about how he would be able to govern.

“The next government’s mandate will be to radically bring down inflation,” Germano said. “There’s no other demand.”

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The question is whether voters will take a gamble on the Milei experiment, one that is already upending the country.

Milei’s calls for dollarization and attacks on the peso — he has dismissed Argentina’s currency as “excrement” — have sent shock waves through the economy. Days after his primary win, the peso collapsed and inflation leaped. Argentines rushed to fill gas tanks and hoard nonperishable food before prices rose. Looters ransacked supermarkets.

In a country where 40 percent of people live in poverty, prices have been changing every week. Argentines now stuff their pockets with wads of cash to pay for groceries.

A Milei-style assault on government spending would be a dramatic shift in a country where public services are highly subsidized. To demonstrate the impact of such a cut, Fernández in recent days offered Argentines the choice to decline subsidies for public transport — and accept a tenfold increase in ticket prices.

“People aren’t even afraid of that anymore,” political analyst Mariel Fornoni said. “You tell people they’re jumping into the void and they say ‘I’m already in the void.’”

In the widely traded unofficial market in Argentina, which drives consumer prices, the cost of $1 surpassed 1,000 Argentine pesos last week for the first time. Before the primaries, $1 cost about 600 pesos. Before the pandemic, it cost 80 pesos.

“They made themselves millionaires and the country is full of poor people,” said Sergio, a 60-year-old Argentine, while walking around a Buenos Aires mall with his 17-year-old son.

The man who spoke on the condition his last name be withheld to speak candidly, said costs were now so high that he had to come out of retirement to find work. “We can’t afford to eat,” he said. “Everything is more expensive.”

Heading into the vote Sunday, Paolo Alessandroni, a 42-year-old waitperson, was still undecided. But the rise of Milei worries him. Seeing the level of passion and anger he stokes among his followers, he is reminded of the crowds he saw on the news during the Jan, 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington and the Jan. 8, 2023 assault on federal buildings in Brasília.

“History repeats itself,” he said. “It started with Trump, it continued in Brazil, and I don’t think Argentina can escape it.

David Feliba contributed to this report.

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