5 Takeaways from Argentina’s Election

After two votes, Argentina’s presidential race now heads into its decisive round with the final two political survivors vying to lead a country where people are desperate for a financial turnaround.

They are Javier Milei, a far-right libertarian economist and television pundit who has embraced comparisons to Donald J. Trump, and Sergio Massa, Argentina’s center-left economy minister who oversees an economy that has a nearly 140-percent annual inflation.

Mr. Milei won the open primary elections in August and had led the polls for months after, but in the election on Sunday night, Mr. Massa was the clear winner. He captured nearly 37 percent of the vote, compared with 30 percent for Mr. Milei, sending them to a runoff on Nov. 19.

Here are five takeaways from Sunday’s vote and the road ahead for Argentina.

Mr. Millei captured 30 percent of the vote on Sunday.Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York Times

Milei is in a weaker position than expected.

Mr. Milei had entered Sunday as the clear favorite, with some in his campaign predicting that he could win the election outright in the first round.

However, he ended the night capturing almost exactly the same percentage of the vote as he did in the primary election in August, and now he faces an opponent in Mr. Massa who looks much stronger than previously thought.

Mr. Milei has attracted a lot of attention for his promises to radically overhaul the Argentine government and economy with a plan to eliminate the nation’s central bank and replace its currency with the U.S. dollar.

But analysts said that his brash political style, which had drawn comparisons to Mr. Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s former right-wing president, likely turned away many centrist voters.

“The supporters who made memes of him with Bolsonaro and Trump didn’t do him any favors,” said Brian Winter, a Latin American analyst and former journalist in Argentina. “Argentines desperately want change, but there’s not enough demand for that brand of conservatism.”

Mr. Massa won the largest share of the vote on Sunday, but has the baggage of being the economy minister in a failing economy.Credit…Enrique Garcia Medina/EPA, via Shutterstock

Massa finished first with old-school politics.

Mr. Massa is a two-decade veteran of Argentine politics and the new leader of the Peronist political movement that has held sway in Argentina for decades and has won nine of the last 12 free and fair presidential elections.

After finishing third in the primaries, the powerful Peronist political machine came out in force on Sunday. Overall turnout increased from August by eight percentage points to nearly 78 percent on Sunday — and all of that seemed to benefit the Peronists, with the movement’s support increasing from the primary by more than nine percentage points.

“Peronism got scared and acted much more unified,” said María Esperanza Casullo, a political scientist at Argentina’s National University of Rio Negro. “Everyone did everything possible to win these elections, and in provinces where things had gone very badly, they rebounded.”

Mr. Massa also took advantage of his position as economy minister and pushed through several policies to aid his candidacy, including programs that return sales tax to certain workers and eliminate income tax for others.

Buenos Aires, the capital. Inflation in Argentina is nearing 140 percent.Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York Times

The loser of the election might be Argentina’s already ailing economy.

Those tax breaks might help Mr. Massa win the election, but they are questionable measures in a country that is already broke and struggling through one of its worst economic crises in years.

Poverty is rising, inflation is nearing 140 percent and the value of the Argentine peso is plummeting. That economic turmoil has given Mr. Milei an opening to the presidency, despite his inexperience, but some economists worry that his radical policy proposals, like dollarizing the economy, could do even more harm to an already fragile economy.

Yet Mr. Massa has led Argentina’s economy for more than a year, just as things have gotten worse, and his platform does not include plans to significantly change course. In fact, he has promised to maintain some economic policies that conservative economists criticize, such as large subsidies for residents’ energy costs.

Still, Mr. Massa has generally been more market friendly than other Peronist leaders, and with Sunday’s elections giving the Peronists the most seats in Argentina’s Congress (though still short of a majority), he will have a much better ability to govern than Mr. Milei, said Martín Rapetti, an Argentine economist.

But how would he govern? “Here we enter conjectural territory,” Mr. Rapetti said. “Massa has not said anything concrete regarding his economic program.”

The candidate that markets liked the most — Patricia Bullrich, a right-wing former security minister — was knocked out of the contest on Sunday.

Patricia Bullrich was knocked out of the race on Sunday, and her supporters may decide the outcome of the runoff.Credit…Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

The next four weeks will be a fight over Bullrich’s voters.

While Ms. Bullrich is out of the race, she still could decide the presidency.

Despite coming in third, Ms. Bullrich still earned 24 percent of the vote, and where her 6.2 million voters swing is the major question of the race.

Mr. Milei, as a conservative, is thought to have the inside track on those voters, and in her concession speech on Sunday night, she criticized the Peronists. Many of her supporters, after years of failed Peronist policies, are unlikely to switch to Mr. Massa.

Yet many other Bullrich supporters are centrists, and for them, Mr. Milei could prove to be too extreme.

The race is still a tossup.

While Mr. Massa won on Sunday, he is far from a sure bet in the runoff.

There is ample anti-Peronist sentiment in Argentina after years of corruption scandals and economic crises, and Mr. Massa also has the baggage of being the economy minister in a failing economy.

“Countries don’t usually elect finance ministers overseeing 140 percent inflation,” Mr. Winter said. “But they also don’t usually elect people like Javier Milei.”

Mr. Milei appears to have hit a ceiling of voters who truly want him to be president. Now he must convince most of the voters in play to bet on his vision of drastic change for a country that has long been resistant to change.

Both candidates took a shot at moderation in their speeches on Sunday night and will try to open their doors to the political parties that were eliminated from the final round. There is a lot of campaigning to go.

Lucía Cholakian Herrera contributed reporting.

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