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‘I’m 50-50 until Sunday’: Argentina’s voters on a knife-edge as election nears

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© Workers unload ballot boxes and voting material from a truck, ahead of the presidential election, at a school on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina October 21, 2023. REUTERS/Mariana Nedelcu

By Horacio Soria

BUENOS AIRES () – Argentine voters are sharply divided ahead of a historic and uncertain presidential election on Sunday, with some saying they might not make up their mind until they reach the ballot box, opening up the potential for last minute drama.

The vote is a tight three-way race between frontrunner radical outsider Javier Milei, ruling Peronist Economy Minister Sergio Massa and center-right former security minister Patricia Bullrich, all offering starkly different visions for Argentina.

“I will vote for whomever seems the least bad. But I tell you I’m 50-50 until Sunday,” said Soledad Sanchez, a public accountant in Buenos Aires, adding that she was oscillating between the two main opposition candidates Bullrich and Milei.

“Let’s see what vote I put in the envelope.”

Libertarian economist Milei is in pole position to win, though would likely face a second round. Polls suggest Massa is ahead of Bullrich to claim the second run-off spot, though pollsters failed to predict the result of an August open primary, leaving plenty of room for doubt.

The vote marks a major crossroads for Argentina, one of the world’s top grains exporters, the largest debtor by far to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and which has large troves of shale oil and gas, as well as electric battery metal lithium.

Yamila Papina, a public sector worker in the capital, said she was backing the current center-left government’s candidate Massa, adding she was worried about proposals by Milei to cut the size of the state and sharply reduce spending.

“In that system the divides are going to be increasingly wide. … I don’t want that model at all,” she said. “There’s no debate who I will vote for in these elections. It will be Sergio Massa.”

Bullrich, whose support has been diluted by the abrupt rise of far-right rival Milei, is the conservative establishment candidate and backed by many in the local business world, who like her strong and stable message as well as security focus.

“Bullrich is the most rational, which means proposing change that is a little more, perhaps, expected and reasonable,” said Hernan Etchaleco, director of a local communications consultancy firm. “That’s what I would want for the country.”

Milei, however, has been the talk of the campaign since posting a shock win in the August primary and leading most of the recent polls. He has clicked with voters, especially the young, angry at years of economic malaise that is sharpening now with inflation at 138% and two-fifths of people in poverty.

“I have lived my entire life with issues going on,” said Agustin Geist, 24, who was born just before the last major economic crisis in 2001-2002, the shadow of which still looms over Argentina today.

“It seems to me that it is time for change, to see how we can alter the reality of the country.”

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