BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Libertarian outsider Javier Milei pulled off a massive upset Sunday with a resounding win in Argentina’s presidential election, a stinging rebuke of the traditional parties that have overseen decades of economic decline.
The political newcomer surged from obscurity to oust the long-dominant Peronist coalition and its candidate Sergio Massa, who as economy minister has overseen inflation of 143 percent and record poverty levels.
Massa conceded defeat as provision results showed Milei had won with 56 percent of the vote to his 44 percent, with almost 90 percent of votes counted.
“Obviously the results are not what we had hoped for, and I have spoken to Javier Milei to congratulate him and wish him well, because he is the president that the majority of Argentines have elected for the next four years.”
Celebrations erupted in Milei’s campaign headquarters.
The 53-year-old economist with wild hair and thick sideburns has drawn comparisons with former US president Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, for his abrasive style and controversial remarks.
His main platform has been to ditch the ailing peso for the US dollar and “dynamite” the Central Bank to do away with the “cancer of inflation.”
He is against abortion, pro-gun, vowed to cut ties with Argentina’s key trading partners China and Brazil, insulted Pope Francis, questioned the death toll under Argentina’s brutal dictatorship, and says humans are not behind climate change.
He had toned down his rhetoric before the run-off to appeal to more moderate voters, but earlier in the campaign took to the stage wielding a powered-up chainsaw to symbolize the drastic cuts he plans to make to a bloated state.
Milei is a strong backer of Israel, and has vociferously condemned Hamas’s October 7 terror attack on the Jewish state. In a recent interview with The Times of Israel, he cited an Argentine rabbi as his spiritual guide and said he’d move the country’s embassy to Jerusalem.
‘The lesser evil’
Milei’s attacks against the “thieving and corrupt political class” struck a nerve with Argentines struggling to make ends meet and fed up with politicians they see as the architects of their misery.
“One has to vote for the lesser evil,” said Maria Paz Ventura, 26, a doctor, who cast her ballot for Milei in her scrubs.
“I think we are currently doing badly, so a change can’t be bad. You have to take a bet,” she said.
Others were spooked by his style in an election that has polarized the nation.
Teacher Catalina Miguel, 42, among a dejected crowd at Massa’s campaign headquarters said she was in “shock.”
“But you have to stand up and defend the attack. Milei will find us on the street defending every right he seeks to challenge. Half of Argentina does not support him.”
On the other end of Milei’s chainsaw are millions of Argentines who depend on welfare assistance and generous government subsidies of fuel, electricity and transport — with bus tickets costing only a few cents.
Meanwhile, the country’s coffers are in the red, with $44 billion debt with the International Monetary Fund looming over the incoming government.
Political analyst Ana Iparraguirre said that Argentines should brace themselves.
“Whoever comes into office has to make some quick decisions that are going to hurt people.”
‘A lot of instability’
As Milei is set to take office on December 10, leaving his rival Massa still in charge of the economy for three weeks, analysts predict a rocky ride with the strictly controlled peso ripe for devaluation.
“With almost 150 percent inflation, things could rapidly scale out of control in those weeks. So that’s a period of a lot of instability.”
The leader of the Libertad Avanza (Freedom Advances) party, which was formed only two years ago, may struggle to implement some of his ideas, even with the backing of the center-right opposition.
Carlos Gervasoni, a political science professor at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires, said that if he wins, Milei will be “completely weak in Congress. He can either moderate his policy proposals or try to become more radical by passing his proposals by decree or calling plebiscites. And that’s dangerous.”
“He will definitely not be able to implement a lot of his ideas.”
Milei, a Buenos Aires lawmaker who carried out much of his campaign on TikTok and other social media, surged to the front of the race in a primary election in August.
He then landed seven points behind Massa in an October first-round vote.
After winning the backing of the third-placed center-right opposition, he scrambled to appeal to moderate and undecided voters.
“Argentina is part of the regional trend of a real weakening of political parties and the emergence of an outsider who is anti-system, anti-establishment and has a powerful message that resonates: just get rid of the political class and then everything will be ok,” said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think-tank in Washington.