By Maximilian Heath
BUENOS AIRES, Oct 23 (Reuters) – Argentina voted in a general election on Sunday, with Peronist Economy Minister Sergio Massa posting a surprisingly strong first-place finish despite a major economic crisis, ahead of the wild-haired pre-vote favorite, radical libertarian Javier Milei.
Massa and Milei will go to a run-off vote on Nov. 19 to take the presidency from mid-December, replacing outgoing center-left Peronist President Alberto Fernandez. Massa ended the night with 36.7% of the vote versus Milei on around 30%.
Conservative Patricia Bullrich, popular with the establishment and business circles, ended with some 24%.
Here are some key takeaways:
WINNERS AND LOSERS
The embattled ruling Peronist government is the big winner of the night, managing to pull off an escape act given it has overseen inflation near 140%, net foreign currency reserves dropping below zero and two-fifths of Argentines in poverty.
Milei’s supporters will feel deflated after he did less well than some expected, but he still got nearly 8 million votes – more than he achieved in the primary and a huge haul for a relative newcomer who only got into politics in 2021. He remains in the race for the second round.
The main conservative bloc’s candidate, Bullrich, was the big loser of the election. The Together for Change coalition had once been the favorite to win the presidency, but saw its vote diluted by the abrupt rise of Milei.
LAST TWO STANDING
Milei is a 53-year-old economist running for the libertarian La Libertad Avanza bloc, who often wears leather jackets and has drawn comparisons with former U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian former leader Jair Bolsonaro for his abrasive style.
Massa, the government’s wheeler-dealer 51-year-old economy chief, represents the ruling Union por la Patria (UP) coalition. He is seen as a pragmatist within the Peronist movement, which has helped him win over more moderate votes.
TIGHT HEAD-TO-HEAD BATTLE LOOMS
Massa goes into the second round with the momentum, but there’s plenty to play for. Milei could pick up more of conservative Bullrich’s 6.3 million voters, who are often highly critical of the big-government Peronist model.
Given Bullrich was in the middle of the three politically, both may have to moderate their stance to win her votes over. Juan Schiaretti, who got a higher-than-expected vote share of nearly 7%, could also play an important king-maker role.
There is likely to be a heated campaign over the next month as the two remaining candidates pitch opposing plans for the economy. Massa pledges to protect the country’s social safety net while Milei wants to “chainsaw” through a system that has left the country in its worst economic crisis in decades.
POLLS CAN’T BE TRUSTED
Once again the country’s pollsters and pundits were caught cold by the result. Almost all pre-election polls had shown Milei in first place ahead of Massa, though they did get right the under-performance of Bullrich.
That comes after pollsters also failed to spot the rise of Milei in the August primaries, when he won a shock first place, and a major forecasting miss at the last election in 2019.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
Argentina’s election race comes at a time of major uncertainty for the South American country facing its worst economic crisis in two decades. Milei wants to dollarize the economy and cut the size of government. Massa would stick with the peso and try to bolster the labor market and growth.
Any incoming government will have to resuscitate an economy facing triple-digit inflation, negative net foreign exchange reserves, and a sliding currency. Meanwhile, a $44 billion loan program with the International Monetary Fund is creaking.