- By Katy Watson
- BBC News, South America
There is everything to play for in the second round of the presidential election this weekend. Few Argentines saw radical candidate Javier Milei coming until he won the primaries in August.
He may have been edged out by left-wing Economy Minister Sergio Massa in last month’s first round, but polls now put the two candidates neck and neck ahead of the decisive runoff.
One thing is certain: the economy will be the key factor in this election, which comes at a time of deep economic crisis for Argentina.
With inflation now exceeding 140% per year, repairing the country’s finances is a priority for voters and candidates alike.
“Personally, I have a little notebook with the names of people who can’t make ends meet and I give them items on credit,” explains Lourdes Monjes, who runs a grocery store in the poor neighborhood of Isla Maciel in Buenos Aires.
She has seen things become more difficult, especially in recent years. “My clients pay me back, and then they end up owing again, so it’s a vicious cycle they can’t get out of,” she says.
Isla Maciel lies in the shadow of Argentina’s largest port, with its wooden and corrugated iron houses.
On the walls are murals of Juan Perón, who gave his name to the populist political movement Peronism and whose wife Evita was hailed as a champion of the poor.
With 40% of Argentines now living in poverty, many are desperate for another savior.
Sergio Massa, Minister of Economy in the outgoing Peronist government, promises to move mountains to improve Argentina’s finances.
His critics point out that it was under his leadership that the economy collapsed to its current level and therefore cannot be trusted to turn it around.
But his supporters say he is a seasoned politician who can accomplish a lot if given the chance to run things his way.
The other choice is Javier Milei, a political outsider who has proposed drastic changes like abolishing the central bank and replacing the peso with the dollar. He also wants to liberalize gun laws and restrict the right to abortion.
With the growing difficulties of the Argentine population, there is also a growing appetite for radical change – and this is why the visibility of far-right Javier Milei has grown.
During the final televised debate between the two candidates last weekend, he argued for a shake-up of the status quo. “Ask yourself whether you prefer inflation over stability, whether you prefer this decline in output and employment or whether you prefer economic growth,” he said.
The other option, he said, is to “support this corrupt, parasitic and useless political caste, which only destroys our wealth production and sinks us deeper and deeper.”
Mr. Milei’s style caught people’s attention.
He describes himself as an “anarcho-capitalist” and at a campaign event he brandished a chainsaw to symbolize his plan to cut public spending.
He has been compared to former US President Donald Trump – and closer to home – to former Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro.
“From an economic point of view, they are very similar because they have this idea that markets solve everything and the state is not necessary,” says economist Paulo Feldman of the University of São Paulo about the parallels between Mr. Bolsonaro and Mr. Milei.
“You don’t need to plan, you don’t need to have a government, you don’t need rules,” Mr. Feldman says of Mr. Milei’s proposals.
But the academic says it’s not a viable program: “We know that’s not true. There is no country, no developed country that (does) this stupidity.”
Mr. Feldman’s views are shared by many other economists. Earlier this month, more than 100 people wrote an open letter warning that voting for Mr. Milei would be an economic disaster for Argentina.
Nervousness over Mr Milei’s brazen campaign and lack of experience are elements Sergio Massa is trying to use to his advantage. “I know that some people vote for me not because they are convinced but simply to avoid choosing the path of violence, hatred and evil,” Mr. Massa said during Sunday’s debate. “I will make sure they feel their vote was not wasted.”
Whoever wins, the next president will have a challenge to overcome.
“The rest will be difficult,” said political analyst Ana Iparraguire of the difficulties encountered in getting Argentina out of its economic hole. “It’s going to require adjustments, budget cuts, reduction in state spending and it’s going to come at a high cost, so we’re going to have to wait and see how far each of those goes.”
Back at the port, a group of young boys are playing with a ball in the street. In the distance are stacks of shipping containers.
These young people live in the shadow of one of Argentina’s economic engines, but their lives are far removed from all its benefits.
Several young footballers wear T-shirts with Lionel Messi’s name written on the back. Argentina has no shortage of sporting heroes, but people here say they need political heroes to lead the country out of this deep crisis.