Argentina goes to the polls on Sunday for a crunch election that will decide if ruling coalition candidate Sergio Massa or libertarian lawmaker Javier Milei is the country’s next president.
Since the return of democracy four decades ago, the veracity of the popular vote has not been in doubt. But in the final week of campaigning, concerns are growing that Milei’s La Libertad Avanza party – which has already raised the spectre of fraud – may look to question the outcome.
The possibility of a very tight race being too close to call and the count stretching on into the early hours has been heightened by developments from the last week. The libertarians were this week accused of withholding their own ballots in what the government fears could be the prelude to further fraud claims.
On the basis of previous experience, 98.5 percent of ballots were counted on the night of October 22, leaving the equivalent of around 400,000 votes – potentially enough to swing tomorrow’s race. Counting could go into the early hours if the distance between the candidates remains slim.
Any delay in announcing a winner is likely to be met with anger from both camps, especially the libertarians who have already raised the prospect of electoral fraud.
None of the country’s recent elections have been subject to widespread fraud nor have allegations to that end been made.
A definitive vote count will begin on Tuesday or Wednesday and could take between a week and 10 days.
Argentina’s next president is due to be sworn-in on December 10 – exactly three weeks after tomorrow’s run-off.
National electoral authorities on Thursday called on La Libertad Avanza (LLA) to explain what mechanism it will apply to make up for any possible shortage of ballots in next Sunday's ballot and warned that if it fails to do so, it will be its "sole responsibility.”
The board, made up of veteran judge María Servini de Cubría and her colleagues Jorge Morán and Sebastián Picasso, issued the warning in response to LLA's insinuations of possible fraud in Sunday's elections.
The libertarian force had asked the Electoral Court to remove the authorities which usually oversee the elections and to replace them with the Armed Forces, precisely because of fears of fraud.
Yet the Electoral Board made a review of everything unfolding within the electoral process and highlighted a shortage of ballots presented by La Libertad Avanza for the second round next Sunday.
"Although this Electoral Board foresees a contingency system for the eventual lack of ballots, this does not exempt the alliance from the responsibilities established in the current legal regulations for their replacement and distribution in the event of a lack of ballots which could occur during the election day," it informed LLA.
In this context, it recalled that "the notification went unheeded and no statement was made" as to how Milei's force would proceed in the event of a possible shortage of ballots in the polling precincts.
By virtue of this, the Board "requested that within 24 hours the party expressly inform them of the procedure to be followed in this eventuality, making them aware that their silence will mean that the absence of ballots from this alliance in the different polling-stations will be their exclusive responsibility.”
‘Fraud and irregularities’
For several weeks now, leading La Libertad Avanza figures have been pushing the idea that there could be “irregularities” in the November 19 election.
Libertarian proxies appeared before the federal courts with electoral jurisdiction in Buenos Aires City on Thursday, denouncing to Judge Servini that Gendarmerie (Border Guard) officers had stolen votes and tampered with ballot-boxes.
The Times has not seen the evidence presented by the party to back up its claim.
Recently, Milei's spokesman Guillermo Francos proffered: "I will not say that there was fraud" in the first round of voting in Argentina, for a lack of concrete evidence.
Yet Milei, in an interview with Peruvian writer Jaime Bayly on YouTube, recently claimed there had been "irregularities of such magnitude that they cast doubt on the result."
In recent weeks, La Libertad Avanza figures Karina Milei (the candidate’s sister) and Santiago Viola, both proxies for the party, raised a complaint highlighting that "people on social networks" warned of "irregularities" in the October elections which could be interpreted as fraud. Those claims have since been debunked by fact-checkers.
Bullrich seeks distance
Speaking on Thursday, unsuccessful opposition presidential candidate Patricia Bullrich – who since the first-round vote has thrown her backing behind Milei – distanced herself from the "colossal fraud" claims denounced by leading libertarians but said she was aware of electoral malpractice.
"I think the word fraud means that they steal an election, that they change the ballot-boxes. Yes, I think there are undemocratic practices, like [voting-booths] being left without ballots. They go against the sovereignty of the vote. There are practices that are not very transparent, I would define it that way,” said Bullrich.
“We have to be careful with the use of the word,” added the PRO party leader, who finished third in the October 22 vote.
"The official mechanism is not distrusted, but if you put 250 ballots in a voting-booth and the first thing they do is steal the ballots, it can take a long time to replace them. This is an election where ballot theft can be much easier, because it is a single ballot. The practice of theft has become very widespread," alleged the former security minister.
Earlier this week, Bullrich claimed of the government: "The only recourse they have left is to try to win illegally what they cannot win legally."
As the week drew to a close, pro-government sources said they expected a close election and expressed concern about Milei’s potential reaction to the results, should he not finish first.
It remains unclear how many undecided voters will cast ‘blank’ or spoiled ballots, or even if they will turn out at all.
Electoral authorities also expect turnout to be dampened by the long weekend, given that Monday is a bank holiday and that some Argentines will opt to spend it away from their normal homes.
Optimism prevails in Massa’s entourage, but his team also fear for the reaction of La Libertad Avanza to a potential government victory. They believe that, if they lose, those led by Milei will be inclined to disregard the results and cause trouble.
The assertion stems from the tactics deployed by Milei’s populist predecessors in the Americas, former US president Donald Trump and Brazil ex-president Jair Bolsonaro, who both claimed widespread defeat in the wake of electoral defeats without providing consistent evidence to back up their claims.
Milei, who is on record as having praised Bolsonaro and Trump, has been advised by individuals who worked on campaigns for both former presidents, including conservative political consultant and convicted felon Roger Stone and Brazilian congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of the ex-head of state.