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Radical libertarian Javier Milei elected president of Argentina

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Javier Milei, a radical libertarian economist and first-term congressman, has secured a decisive victory in Argentina’s presidential elections, defeating economy minister Sergio Massa and pulling the country’s politics far to the right amid its worst crisis in two decades.

With 93.4 per cent of votes counted, Milei had won 55.8 per cent, against 44.2 per cent for Massa, according to the electoral commission. Pollsters had predicted a very closely fought election.

Before the official results were published, Massa, who hails from the moderate wing of the ruling, left-leaning populist Peronist movement, announced that he had called Milei to concede.

He added that the two had spoken and come to agreements about the transition that would take place ahead of Milei’s December 10 inauguration to ensure that “no one has any doubts about the . . . economic, social, political and institutional functioning of Argentina”.

Milei’s campaign centred on a pledge to take a “chainsaw” to the state — slashing spending by up to 15 per cent of gross domestic product — and to dollarise the economy to stamp out inflation. Argentina’s annual price rises hit 142.7 per cent in October.

Milei, a self-described “anarcho-capitalist”, has stirred controversy throughout the campaign, expressing support for ideas such as legalising the sale of human organs and eliminating all gun laws. 

He also referred to China, Argentina’s largest trading partner, as “murderous”, the Argentine Pope Francis as “a filthy leftist”, and climate change as “a socialist hoax”.

However, Milei has walked back several of those statements in an effort to win over centrist voters in the weeks following October’s first round vote. He was aided by endorsements from former president Mauricio Macri and Patricia Bullirch, the candidate for centre-right coalition Juntos por el Cambio (JxC), who was eliminated in the first round with 24 per cent of the vote.

The win for Milei, a former television commentator who became famous for rants against economic mismanagement and corruption among Argentina’s governing elite, is a rebuke to Massa’s Peronist movement, which has dominated politics since the country returned to democracy in 1983. 

Over the past two decades, left-leaning Peronist governments have doubled the size of the public sector and introduced expensive subsidies and tight regulation across the economy. Milei’s inauguration will mark a sharp change in political direction for the country.

Inflation has put unprecedented pressure on the Peronists’ model this year. Massa has resorted to money-printing to finance spending and tightened strict trade and exchange restrictions to protect scarce foreign currency reserves. 

Argentina’s economy minister Sergio Massa waves to supporters after conceding defeat on Sunday © AP

He had promised, if elected, to build a national unity government with the opposition and to shift towards orthodox policy.

Prior to the result, Augustina Romanelli, a 60-year-old staff member at the public University of Buenos Aires, had said she was unconvinced by Massa’s campaign.

“The Peronists have totally ruined Argentina, which has so much natural wealth,” she said. “Milei scares me, because of all the cuts he wants to make. But he is right: we need a deep change.” 

Milei’s critics had argued that he and his running mate — Victoria Villaruel, a longtime defender of Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship — pose a threat to democracy. Milei, who has no executive experience and is known for his irascible personality during interviews, faces major questions about his ability to govern and realise his agenda, analysts say.

His La Libertad Avanza (LLA) coalition, founded in 2021, will hold just eight of 72 seats in Argentina’s senate and fewer than 40 of the 257 in the lower house. It has no governors in any of Argentina’s 23 provinces.

While Macri has said the JxC coalition will support LLA in “reasonable” reforms, other leaders in the coalition remain harsh critics of Milei.

Most economists in Argentina say Milei’s flagship plan to replace the peso with the US dollar is unworkable in the short term, given that Argentina has almost no dollars in its central bank and no access to international credit.

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