Argentina’s Sergio Massa concedes presidential election to Javier Milei

BUENOS AIRES – Argentina elected libertarian outsider Javier Milei as its new president on Nov 19.

The country is betting on an outsider with radical views to fix an economy battered by triple-digit inflation, a looming recession and rising poverty.

Mr Milei had some 56 per cent of the vote in the country’s presidential run-off, well ahead of Peronist Economy Minister Sergio Massa on 44 per cent, the first official results showed.

Mr Massa conceded in a speech before the official tally was announced.

“I have called Javier Milei to congratulate him,” Mr Massa said from his campaign headquarters in Buenos Aires.

His candidacy was hampered by the country’s worst economic crisis in two decades while he has been at the helm.

Mr Milei is pledging economic shock therapy.

His plans include shutting the central bank, ditching the peso, and slashing spending, potentially painful reforms that resonated with voters angry at the economic malaise, but sparked fears of austerity in others.

“Milei is the new thing, he’s a bit of an unknown and it is a little scary, but it’s time to turn over a new page,” said 31-year-old restaurant worker Cristian as he voted on Nov 19.

But Mr Milei’s challenges are enormous. He will have to deal with the empty coffers of the government and central bank, a creaking US$44 billion (S$59 billion) debt programme with the International Monetary Fund, inflation nearing 150 per cent and a dizzying array of capital controls.

With many Argentines not fully convinced by either candidate, some had characterised the vote as a choice of the “lesser evil”: fear of Mr Milei’s painful economic medicine versus anger at Mr Massa and his Peronist party for an economic crisis that has left Argentina deeply in debt and unable to tap global credit markets.

Mr Milei has been particularly popular among the young, who have grown up seeing their country lurch from one crisis to another.

“Our generation is pushing the presidency of Milei to stop our country being a pariah,” said Ms Agustina Lista, 22, a student in Buenos Aires.

Mr Milei’s win shakes up Argentina’s political landscape and economic roadmap, and could impact trade in grains, lithium and hydrocarbons.

Mr Milei has criticised China and Brazil, saying he won’t deal with “communists”, and favours stronger US ties.

The shock rise of the 53-year-old economist and former TV pundit has been the story of the election, breaking the hegemony of the two main political forces on the left and the right – the Peronists and the main Together for Change conservative bloc.

“The election marks a profound rupture in the system of political representation in Argentina,” said Mr Julio Burdman, director of the consultancy Observatorio Electoral, ahead of the vote.

Supporters of Mr Massa, 51, an experienced political wheeler-dealer, had sought to appeal to voter fears about Mr Milei’s volatile character and “chainsaw” plan to cut back the size of the state.

“Milei’s policies scare me,” teacher Ms Susana Martinez, 42, said on Nov 19 after she voted for Mr Massa.

Mr Milei is also staunchly anti-abortion and favours looser gun laws. He used to carry a chainsaw in a symbol of his planned cuts but shelved it in recent weeks to help boost his moderate image.

After October’s first-round vote, Mr Milei struck an uneasy alliance with the conservatives, which boosted his support.

But he faces a highly fragmented Congress, with no single bloc having a majority.

This means he will need to get backing from other factions to push through legislation.

Mr Milei’s coalition also does not have any regional governors or mayors.

That may temper some of his more radical proposals. Long-suffering voters are likely to have little patience, and the threat of social unrest is never far below the surface.

His backers say only he can uproot the political status quo and economic malaise that has dogged South America’s second-largest economy for years.

“Milei is the only viable option so we do not end up in misery,” said Mr Santiago Neria, a 34-year-old accountant. REUTERS