Libertarian lawmaker Javier Milei rocked Argentina’s political establishment on Sunday, emerging as the most-voted-for presidential candidate in a key primary election.
Initial results from a ballot defining the candidates for the October 22 presidential election showed the outspoken La Libertad Avanza leader had taken 32.57 percent of all votes with 61.21 percent of polling stations reporting. He held a five-point lead over the combined vote total of the opposition Juntos por el Cambio coalition.
In second place was Economy Minister Sergio Massa, the frontrunner to win the ruling Unión por la Patria coalition’s presidential nomination for October with 20.64 percent. His party rival, social leader Juan Grabois had 4.84 percent, lifting the ruling alliance’s tally to 25.48 percent.
Trailing in third and fourth were Patricia Bullrich and Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, the candidates for the opposition Juntos por el Cambio coalition.
Bullrich, a former security minister who represents the hard-line right of the opposition centre-right alliance, had 17 percent. Rodríguez Larreta, the mayor of Buenos Aires City, the nation’s capital, had 10.57 percent, a disappointing tally for the once-presidential frontrunner.
Speaking to the press upon arrival at her party's bunker in Costa Salguero, Bullrich said that her rival had called her to congratulate her on winning the primary.
Government officials warned that voting was running slow in some districts and that final results could still take some hours to arrive.
Speaking to the TN news channel prior to the publication of initial results, former president Mauricio Macri said that voters backing Milei were expressing their anger.
"We are going to have many surprises tonight. Milei’s growth demonstrates that there is anger with politics," anticipated the PRO leader.
Córdoba Province Governor Juan Schiaretti confirmed on Sunday that Milei had topped voting in the influential central region, congratulating the libertarian lawmaker and highlighting that his ‘third way’ ticket had finished second, pushing the nation’s two main coalitions into third and fourth place.
Citizens went to the polls amid a deep economic crisis that has fuelled scepticism among voters towards traditional politicians. A decisive victory for Milei would shake up Argentina’s political establishment and hint at a rightward turn for the country in the coming years.
The outspoken economist has vowed to deliver a “complete reform of the state” if elected, cutting public spending, closing down government ministries, privatising state-owned companies and eliminating the Central Bank. On the campaign trail, he railed against the “political caste” and promised sweeping change, including the dollarisation of the economy.
Underlining the sense of apathy, election authorities reported Sunday that only 68.5 percent of the electoral roll had cast a ballot by the time polls were closing at 6pm – the second-lowest tally since the PASOs were introduced in 2011.
Argentines nationwide were voting for their preferred candidate for the upcoming presidential election. The PASO primaries determine which parties will take part – and who their hopefuls will be – in the general election set for October 22.
Citizens in Buenos Aires City also chose their preferred mayoral candidate while voters in the country’s most-populous region, Buenos Aires Province, selected a gubernatorial hopeful. Candidates for governor were also selected in Entre Ríos Province.
Turnout in the 2021 primaries reached only 67.78 percent, but only legislative posts were being chosen and the Covid-19 pandemic was still ongoing.
Voting in Buenos Aires City was also affected by failures with the single electronic ballot system. Federal Judge María Servini to issue a resolution extending voting hours at polling stations with queues until 7.30pm. According to reports, at least four schools had long lines of voters waiting to cast their ballots.
In a statement, Servini said that more than 200 voting machines had not functioned. The judge also expressed concern over the “degree of improvisation” in the handling of the machinery.
Apathy and anger
Argentina’s economic turmoil dominated campaigning. Year-on-year inflation is running at 115 percent, the economy is expected to enter a recession this year, poverty has soared, and the value of the peso has plummeted. The government, battling dwindling foreign reserves, has imposed strict currency controls and slapped businesses with higher import taxes to shore up dollars.
Unpopular President Alberto Fernández chose not to seek re-election, but polls didn’t point to a clear favourite to succeed him. Voter apathy, as well Milei’s candidacy and anti-system rhetoric, drew the attention of political observers.
"I want a government that restores the economy, but I know it will take time. We have a lot of debts and it will not be easy to recover everything that was lost by other governments," said Agustina Rossi, a 16-year-old student, as she arrived at a polling station.
Suffrage in Argentina is extended to those of Rossi's age and older.
With 35.4 million citizens eligible to vote, the presidential primary can be a strong predictor of who will win the election if one candidate soars. Not voting incurs a fine, but analysts had already anticipated a lower turnout than usual amid increased apathy.
"Argentina has been in economic decline for more than 10 years, in a crisis that is slowly worsening. There is a growing disaffection of the electorate in a country that had clear political identities," said Juan Negri, a professor of political science at the Torcuato di Tella University.
Dissatisfaction with the current government, as well as the opposition coalition, has opened up space for non-traditional candidates such as Milei
Heading to the presidential election unchallenged, as his party's only candidate, Milei – an outspoken lawmaker and economist with a soft spot for former US President Donald Trump and Brazil's ex-leader Jair Bolsonaro – had lashed out at the “political caste” for their failures on the campaign trail.
Milei "reflects the disenchantment that has caused many voters to disbelieve in political parties," said Negri, especially those who have drifted further right after former president Mauricio Macri's tenure from 2015 to 2019.
"I think it's time to try someone new: Milei. I like him because he says a bit what we all think," Carlos Reyes, a 66-year-old electrician, said before casting his ballot.
Primary candidates must garner more than 1.5 percent of the vote to advance to the general presidential election.