BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Economy Minister Sergio Massa held the lead Sunday night in early results from Argentina’s presidential election, a surprise reflecting voters’ reluctance to hand the presidency to his chief contender, a right-wing populist who has pledged to drastically overhaul the state.
With 86% of the votes counted, Massa had 36.2%, compared to the anti-establishment candidate Javier Milei‘s 30.3%, meaning the two were poised to face off in a November second round.
Most pre-election polls, which have been notoriously unreliable, gave Milei a slight lead and put Massa in second place. Massa, a leading figure in the center-left administration in power since 2019, appeared to have outperformed predictions by growing support significantly in the critical Buenos Aires province, home to more than one-third of the electorate, said Mariel Fornoni of political consultancy Management & Fit.
The highly polarized election will determine whether Argentina will continue with a center-left administration or elect one of the right-leaning leaders who both promised profound changes to a country plagued by triple-digit inflation and rising poverty. Former Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, of the main opposition coalition, trailed well behind Massa and Milei in third place.
Massa’s campaign this year follows another eight years ago, when he finished a disappointing third place and was knocked out of the running. This time, he will have his shot at a runoff.
He held the first place in the preliminary vote count despite the fact that inflation surged on his watch and the currency tanked. He had told voters that he inherited an already-bad situation exacerbated by a devastating drought that decimated the country’s exports, and reassured voters that the worst was past.
“On Monday, Argentina continues,” Massa said after casting his vote in Buenos Aires. “We have the enormous task … regardless of who governs, to address a multitude of problems.”
In order to win outright and avoid a Nov. 19 runoff, a candidate would need 45% of the vote, or 40% with a 10-point lead over the runner-up.
Milei, a self-described anarcho-capitalist who admires former U.S. President Donald Trump, sent shockwaves through the nation after receiving the most votes in the August primaries. The chainsaw-wielding economist and freshman lawmaker said he wants to slash public spending, halve the number of government ministries, eliminate the central bank and replace the local currency with the U.S. dollar.
He first made a name for himself with angry tirades blasting what he calls the “political caste” on television, and has gained support from Argentines struggling to make ends meet amid annual inflation of 140% and a rapidly depreciating currency. His platform also calls for reshaping Argentine culture, and he casts himself as a crusader against the sinister forces of socialism at home and abroad.
Whatever the results, Milei has already inserted himself and his libertarian party into a political structure dominated by a center-left and a center-right coalition for almost two decades.
On the streets of Argentina, citizens this week were bracing for impact. Those with any disposable income snapped up goods in anticipation of a possible currency devaluation. The day after the primaries, the government devalued the peso by nearly 20%.
Argentines were also buying dollars and removing hard currency deposits from banks as the peso accelerated its already steady depreciation.
Massa focused much of his firepower in the campaign’s final days on warning voters against electing Milei, painting him as a dangerous upstart. He argued that Milei’s plans could have devastating effects on social welfare programs, education and health care.
The health, education and social development ministries are among those Milei wants to extinguish.
Milei characterized Massa as part of the entrenched and corrupt establishment that brought South America’s second-largest economy to its knees. That message resonated among many Argentines who watched their economic prospects wither.
Running as an anti-establishment candidate, Milei became the undisputed star of the election campaigning. So many people surrounded his vehicle as he approached his polling station that he needed a phalanx of bodyguards. Groups of supporters threw flower petals on his car and sang “Happy Birthday.” He turned 53 on Sunday.
“First round, damn it!” supporters chanted as Milei left the polling station.
Julieta Le Bellot, a 34-year-old student, was waiting for her boyfriend to vote and couldn’t believe her eyes as people waited for Milei to arrive.
“That there are so many people who have come to see him is something I don’t understand,” she said, noting that she intended to vote for Massa because “he’s the least worst” option.
But for Ignacio Cardozo, 20, casting his ballot for Milei was a vote of hope. “I’m young, and I want a different Argentina for when I grow up, for my children,” he said before voting in a middle-class neighborhood of Buenos Aires.
Milei also railed against what he called the “socialist agenda.” He opposes sex education, feminist policies and abortion, which is legal in Argentina. He called the notion of social justice “an aberration” and disputed that humans have had a role in causing climate change.
“What madness are we living in? The madness of stupid political correctness where, basically, if you don’t recite the ‘cool socialism,’ if you aren’t ‘woke,’ then you’re violent, you’re a danger to democracy,” he said in a television interview last month.
Cristian Ariel Jacobsen, a 38-year-old photographer, said he voted for Massa in hope of preventing Milei’s victory and his “project that puts democracy at risk.”
As a rising star in the global culture wars, Milei received support from several like-minded leaders, including Brazil’s former far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro’s lawmaker son, Eduardo, planned to follow the election from Milei’s campaign headquarters along with several leaders of Spain’s far-right Vox party.
Like Trump and Bolsonaro, Milei already cast doubt on the electoral system. He said fraud cost him as many as five points in the primaries, although he never filed a complaint in court. Political analysts warned that Milei could be setting the stage to question the results of Sunday’s election.
The election comes at a time when several Latin American countries have seen elections marked by anti-incumbent sentiment and political outsiders amid general discontent over the economy and crime. Daniel Noboa, an inexperienced politician who is the heir to a banana fortune, won the presidency in Ecuador earlier this month.