Votes in crisis-hit Argentina put the radical frontrunner in the spotlight

BUENOS AIRES, Oct 22 (Reuters) – Argentines went to the polls on Sunday in a national election that a far-right libertarian appears best placed to win, transformed from a radical outsider to a front-runner in the fallout from the country’s worst economic crisis in two decades .

Polls opened at 8:00 a.m. (1100 GMT) in a vote that is likely to roil financial markets, set a new political and social path for the nation – a major grain exporter with huge reserves of lithium and shale gas – and affect relations with trading partners, including China and Brazil.

Libertarian economist Javier Millay is one of three candidates likely to split the vote and the man to beat after pulling off a shock victory in August’s open primary.

Centrist Peronist Economy Minister Sergio Massa and conservative Patricia Bulrich are tipped to trail him by a narrow margin, and pollsters don’t expect a clear winner, meaning a runoff would be needed.

Milei, who promises to “chainsaw” the economic and political status quo, saw angry voters flock to his shrill message fed up with annual inflation of nearly 140% and poverty affecting more than two-fifths of the population.

“Milei is the embodiment of all the demands of society,” said Juan Luis Gonzalez, who wrote his biography titled “El Loco,” which means the crazy one. He believes Millay, a brash former TV pundit who has been compared to Donald Trump and former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, will win despite being a “volatile” character who could further damage Argentina.

“I see a very troubling situation,” Gonzalez said.

SHOCK THERAPY

To win outright on Sunday, a candidate would need more than 45% of the vote, or 40% and a 10-point lead over rivals. The groups will close at around 18:00 (21:00 GMT) and the first results are expected at 21:00 (00:00 GMT).

Each runoff will take place on November 19.

Whichever trio emerges victorious will have to deal with an economy on life support: central bank reserves are empty, a recession is expected after a major drought and a $44 billion program with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is faltering.

Milei’s prescription for shock therapy includes promises to dollarize the economy, close the central bank, reduce the size of government and privatize state-owned enterprises. He criticizes China, supports looser gun laws, opposes abortion and is anti-feminist.

“He is the only one who understands the situation in the country and understands how to save it,” said 22-year-old Buenos Aires student Nicolas Mercado.

Massa, the current economy chief, is in the race despite inflation reaching triple digits for the first time since 1991. He has said he will reduce the fiscal deficit, stick to the peso and protect the Peronist social safety net.

“Masa represents some traditional guarantees that I was raised with: public health, public education, which I want to protect with my voice,” said astrologer Flavia Vasquez.

Bulrich, a former security minister who is popular in business circles, saw his support eroded by Millay’s unexpected appearance. Sociologists see her as the most likely of the top three contestants to miss the second round.

“I voted, I’m really happy. Democracy is the best system,” 69-year-old Emilio Betesh at a polling station in Buenos Aires on Sunday morning. “I think there’s going to be a runoff between Miley and somebody. Who? I do not know. Let’s see what happens.”

Reporting by Nikola Miskulin; Additional reporting by Claudia Gaillard, Leo Benassato; Editing by Adam Jourdan, Chizu Nomiyama, Barbara Lewis and John Stonestreet

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