Capping off a remarkable rise from political outsider to president in just two years, outspoken La Libertad Avanza lawmaker Javier Milei has won the race to be Argentina’s next president.
Just after 8pm on Sunday evening, Economy Minister Sergio Massa, the candidate for the ruling Unión por la Patria coalition, took to the stage at the ruling coalition’s bunker to concede the election, admitting that he had lost the race for the Casa Rosada.
“It was a difficult campaign,” Massa told Peronist supporters at the party’s bunker in Chacarita.
He said he had called Milei to congratulate him on his victory.
Minutes later, the first official results of the provisional count emerged. With 86.59 percent of polling stations reporting, the libertarian was on 55.95 percent to Massa's 44.04 percent.
Prior to the release of provisional results, a number of opposition leaders had hinted that the La Libertad Avanza candidate had won the run-off.
In the opposition bunker, sources briefed that there was "expectation" to know the results. Government sources said they were "calm and optimistic."
By way of contrast, most voters were gripped by fear, uncertainty and resignation as they cast ballots on Sunday, with few confident either candidate could right Argentina’s economic wrongs.
Argentina’s National Electoral Chamber (CNE) informed that at 6pm close to 76 percent of the electoral roll had cast a ballot. Some voters were still waiting in line.
Julio Vitobello, secretary-general to the Presidency, said that results would be released when they were “consolidated and representative.”
"The election has developed normally and in peace," Vitobello remarked.
Candidates and complications
Argentina's two presidential candidates could not be more different.
Massa, 51, is a charismatic and seasoned politician seeking to convince the nation to trust him despite his performance as economy minister which has seen annual inflation hit 143 percent.
His rival Milei is an anti-establishment outsider who has vowed to halt Argentina's unbridled spending, ditch the peso for the US dollar, and "dynamite" the Central Bank.
Polls had shown the candidates in a dead heat, with some 10 percent of voters undecided just days before the vote.
"You simply have to choose from what is available," said 33-year-old architect Sofía Speroni, who came to vote with her two toddlers.
She went with Milei, "simply to say no to corruption and the current situation we are in."
Milei's rants against the "thieving and corrupt" traditional parties have fired up voters tired of the Peronist coalition that has long dominated Argentine politics and whom they blame for the country's misery.
"One has to vote for the lesser evil," said doctor María Paz Ventura, 26, who cast her ballot for Milei in her scrubs.
"I think we are currently doing badly, so a change can't be bad. You have to take a bet," she said.
Provisional results are expected by 9pm, three hours after polling stations closed.
"There is no possibility that the tendency will not be known on Sunday, but it may happen that in the event of a tie, it will be necessary to wait until the final count to know the winner," a spokesperson for the CNE electoral commission said.
Prior to voting, it warned that "with a very close result" it could take up to five days for a final count.
'Change for the worse'
Milei, a 53-year-old economist, showed up to vote dressed all in black and in a leather jacket, as dozens of police tried to wrangle a throng of supporters to the side.
"We are very calm. Now it is time for the ballot box to speak," said Milei, sporting his trademark wild hair and thick sideburns.
The libertarian arrived accompanied by his sister Karina, his campaign manager and legal proxy, and will return to the Hotel Libertador in Microcentro to await results.
"We are very satisfied, we did a great job despite the campaign of fear and all the dirty campaigning they have done against us," Milei said after casting a ballot.
"Let's hope that tomorrow there will be more hope and not a continuation of decadence,” he concluded.
Earlier he shared on social media a cartoon of himself carrying a chainsaw – a symbol of cuts he wants to make to spending – standing in front of former US president Donald Trump and Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro.
Milei, who has also raised the spectre of electoral fraud – which analysts say is one problem Argentina does not have – often draws comparisons with the two former leaders.
Massa, who has sought to present himself as the calm, statesmanlike opposite of Milei, also cast his ballot, telling voters "we are beginning a new stage of Argentina."
"The most important thing, with respect to transparency, was yesterday when the National Electoral Chamber summoned the [legal] proxies who raised doubts and left certainty that they were going to comply with the rules and respect the result and we hope that this is the case," he said.
"The election is developing normally, that's why I want to invite all Argentines to spend this day with reflection and serenity, thinking about the future, with hope,” said Massa, who said he would share an asado barbeque with his family as he waited for the results.
The economy minister surprised Argentina by coming in seven points ahead of Milei in the first round, and both candidates have scrambled to shore up undecided voters.
Massa has in particular sought to distance himself from the deeply unpopular outgoing President Alberto Fernández and Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
"I voted for Massa. The situation in the country is horrible, the economy is very bad. People want a change but it would be a change for the worse with Milei," said 16-year-old Trinidad Bazan, voting for the first time.
'I feel like crying'
Milei has in recent weeks put down his chainsaw and toned down his rhetoric to appeal to more moderate voters, imploring the public not to give in to fear stoked by Massa's campaign.
However, he has previously said he is opposed to abortion, pro-gun, and does not believe humans are responsible for climate change. He has vowed to cut ties with key trading partners China and Brazil if elected.
He has also rubbed many Argentines the wrong way by insulting Pope Francis and questioning the official toll of 30,000 disappeared under the country's brutal 1976-1983 dictatorship.
"I feel like crying over the risk that Milei could win. His ideas scare me. I trust Massa," said María Carballo, 40, an architect.
Whoever wins, analysts warn Argentina is in for a tough road ahead, with debt of US$44-billion with the International Monetary Fund and the strictly controlled peso long overdue for a devaluation.
With Central Bank reserves in the red and no credit line, the next government "will be digging Argentina out of an unbelievably deep hole with very few resources to do so," said Benjamin Gedan, director of the Argentina Project at the Washington-based Wilson Center.
Nevertheless, the proposals put forth by the two finalists couldn’t be more different, from how to handle the economy to the ideal role and size of the state to how to carry out foreign policy.
Massa, who’s been in charge of the economy as inflation soared into triple digits, has pledged gradual changes to balance the budget next year while slowly unwinding the byzantine currency controls his own government has introduced.
Milei, on the other hand, has vowed to slash government spending and replace the peso with the US dollar as part of a strategy to rein in inflation.
The new president will take office on December 10.