Argentina’s Peronists post shock election win to seal run-off with libertarian Milei

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By Nicolás Misculin, Candelaria Grimberg and Anna-Catherine Brigida

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) -Argentina’s ruling Peronist coalition smashed expectations to lead the country’s general election on Sunday, setting the stage for a polarized run-off vote next month between Economy Minister Sergio Massa and far-right libertarian radical Javier Milei.

Massa had over 36% of the vote, ahead of Milei on just over 30%, while conservative Patricia Bullrich was behind on 23.8% with near 90% of the vote counted, a result that defied pre-election polls that had predicted a libertarian win.

The surprise strength of the Peronists, despite overseeing inflation hitting triple digits for the first time since 1991, sets up an intriguing second round on Nov. 19 between two polar opposite economic models for the embattled country.

Argentines had flocked to the polls on Sunday amid the country’s worst economic crisis in two decades and rising anger with the traditional elite.

Many blamed the Peronists, but Massa – a moderate – had shot back that the government’s social safety nets and subsidies were key for many hard-up Argentines, including a recent stunt showing how train and bus fares could rise sharply if he lost.

“Peronism is the only space that offers the possibility that the poorest of us can have basic things at our fingertips,” said bricklayer Carlos Gutierrez, 61, as he went to vote on Sunday.

To win outright on Sunday, a candidate would have needed over 45% of the vote or 40% and a 10-point lead.

The result, leaving things delicately poised and pushing out of the race establishment candidate Bullrich, will likely give already wobbly markets the jitters on Monday, with little clarity about the country’s route forward.

Argentina, South America’s second largest economy, is a major exporter of soy, corn and beef, with huge lithium and shale gas reserves. Milei is proposing radical moves such as dollarizing the economy and stopping trade with China.

“We have never had so much polarization,” said 72-year-old pensioner Silvia Monto as she voted in Buenos Aires on Sunday.

‘SINKING US A LITTLE MORE’

Milei has pledged to “chainsaw” the economic and political status quo, luring angry voters to his tear-it-all-down message, fed up with annual inflation at close to 140% and poverty affecting over two-fifths of the population.

“He is the only one who understands the situation in the country and understands how to save it,” said Buenos Aires student Nicolas Mercado, 22.

Susana Munoz, 62, a retiree, meanwhile said Milei was a reflection of upheaval globally, where high inflation, conflict and migration was stoking divisions.

“The world is complicated and we aren’t immune to that,” she said as she voted on Sunday. “The right is advancing everywhere and that we have characters like Milei is unthinkable.”

Election authorities said turnout was around 74%, up from the August primaries, but considerably lower than the 81% participation at the last general election and the lowest general election turnout since the 1983 return to democracy.

Whoever emerges victorious will have to deal with an economy on life support: central bank reserves are empty, recession is expected after a major drought, and a $44 billion program with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is wobbling.

Silvana Dezilio, 37, a housewife in Buenos Aires province, said it was hard to see a positive outcome whoever won.

“All governments promise things and end up sinking us a little more. It seems unbelievable, but we are getting worse and worse. We read that other countries have overcome the problems that for us are getting worse every day,” she said.

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