When voters go to the polls this Sunday to elect Argentina’s next president, they will have to choose not only between two candidates, but between two opposite ideas of what type of country they want to live in.
That is an old adage in the era of identity politics. Still, it is hardly truer anywhere than in Buenos Aires, where Sergio Massa, the country’s current finance minister and a scion of the political establishment, is squaring off against Javier Milei, a former television pundit who entered politics less than 36 months ago.
The runoff between Massa, from the government coalition Union por la Patria (Union for the Homeland), and Milei of La Libertad Avanza (Freedom Advances), brings to an end a polarizing political campaign that has seen a series of surprising reversals, beginning in August when Milei stunned the country with a victory in a preliminary vote. After a weaker showing in the election’s first round in October, Milei was seen as being on the backfoot; this week he is once again leading in the polls.
One of the biggest questions now facing voters in this soccer-obsessed nation is: which of these two political polar opposites, both of whom played as goalkeepers in their youth, is the safest pair of hands for an economy currently suffering some of the highest inflation in the world?
More than 35 million Argentinians will be asked to cast their vote on Sunday on whether they trust Massa to lead the country out of its worst economic crisis of the past two decades through familiar policies that have failed before, or to dive into the unknown with Milei who proposes the radical idea of ditching the Argentinian peso in favor of the US dollar as national currency.
Argentine law prohibits the publication of opinion polls up to eight days ahead of the vote, but recent results from the past few weeks have shown the candidates almost neck-and-neck, and most analysts believe the election will be close.
On a personal level, the two candidates could not be more different: Massa is a family man who has dreamt of becoming a politician since he was 11 years old and has spent his career in and out of elected office; Milei lives alone with five English mastiffs – all genetically identical clones from a previous pet – and was elected to Congress in 2021.
Massa has carefully selected his political alliances to propel his ascent to government, while Milei rose to fame with political stunts, like wielding a chainsaw at rallies, and vowing to unleash a wrecking ball on the administrative class his opponent represents.
The Brave New World of Javier Milei
It is Milei who has attracted the most attention this year, not only because of his political style – on top of wielding chainsaws, he’s prone to raging outbursts and has embraced the nickname of ‘The Crazy One’ since climbing in the polls – but also because his proposed reforms would decisively shift Argentina to the right.
Outside of his controversial plan for dollarization, his political program includes slashing regulations on gun control and transferring authority over the penitentiary system from civilians to the military; both measures part of a tough-on-crime approach.
Milei proposes using public funds to support families who choose to educate their children privately – as a child he attended a Catholic private school in Buenos Aires – and privatizing the health sector, which in Argentina has always been in public hands in Argentina.
In recent weeks, Milei triggered an uproar when it appeared he was in favor of opening a market for organ transplants, although he later retracted his declarations.
He was similarly forced to apologize after calling Pope Francis, who is from Argentina and is seen as an icon of progressive politics in South America, “an envoy of Satan” in 2017. The apology, however, did not stop him from accusing Francis of siding with “bloodthirsty dictators” in an interview with right-wing commentator Tucker Carlson in September.
At university, Milei studied economics and idolized Milton Friedman, to the point of naming one of his beloved dogs after the free-market theorist.
But his most controversial proposal concerns public finances, as he plans to drastically cut government spending and, famously, eliminate the central bank and completely dollarize the country.
Can Argentina dollarize?
The idea to dollarize is not new – two other nations in Latin America, Ecuador and El Salvador, have dollarized in the past 30 years to combat inflation – but it’s untested in a country as big as Argentina.
Milei’s pitch is simple: Argentina’s rate of inflation, regularly among the highest in the world, is caused by politicians and central bankers who print new pesos to finance their social programs and electoral promises. As a result, the peso loses value, and everyone gets poorer. To fix the problem, Argentina should abandon the peso and adopt the dollar, whose value is set by the US Federal Reserve and cannot be printed at will.
The downside of dollarization is that a nation loses the power to influence the economy through monetary policy. For that reason critics of dollarization often refer to it as a straightjacket.
Because Argentina’s inflation rate is so high – just this week new data revealed prices had risen 142% from 2023 – the proposal has attracted interest from foreign institutions as well.
In recent months, for example, The Economist, a conservative international publication, warned against the allure of dollarization, arguing that Argentina does not possess enough dollars to finance the currency switch and that the downsides would far outweigh the benefits.
Conversely, analysts from the Cato Institute, a US-based rightwing economics think tank, favor the move as the only viable strategy to tame what is a decades-long problem.
In the early 1990s the Argentinian peso was ‘pegged’ to the dollar, which meant its value was fixed to the US currency, but Argentinians would still use pesos for their shopping.
Inflation came roaring back once the currency was allowed to float.
Massa has criticized the plan for dollarization as a surrender of national sovereignty and attempted to show that the government’s current actions are already paying dividends.
While still high – 142% year on year – , inflation in October was 35% lower than in September.
Other mainstream politicians, including former the President Mauricio Macri and another former election candidate, Patricia Bullrich, have endorsed Milei despite sharing some reservations on dollarization.
The world is watching
Interest in this Sunday’s elections goes far beyond Argentina’s borders.
Abandoning a tradition of non-intervention in another country’s elections, leftwing politicians in the region including Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Colombia’s Gustavo Petro and Spain’s José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero have endorsed Massa.
Milei meanwhile can count on the support of Brazilian former President Jair Bolsonaro, Peruvian-Spanish writer Mario Vargas Llosa and Spanish conservative former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
The stakes are high because a victory for Milei could be seen as a boost for far-right populist politicians like Bolsonaro and former US President Donald Trump just ahead of the 2024 US presidential election, while a win by Massa would be a showcase for center-left policies.
What else do you need to know?
Polls close at 6 p.m. local time (4 p.m. ET) and the vote count is expected to be quick – barring any unforeseen problems or objections, that is.
Milei appeared to question the results of the first round of voting in October, although his party did not formally appeal.