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Voters in Argentina back its ruling party's candidate in presidential elections

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Voters in Argentina defied pollsters and backed the ruling party's candidate in presidential elections yesterday. The current government's economy minister placed first, ahead of a far-right libertarian who vows to take a chainsaw to the government and fix the country's dire economy. Poverty is rising, and annual inflation is in the triple digits - one of the highest rates in the world, as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: In a stunning first-place finish, Sergio Massa, the ruling party's candidate, garnered nearly 37% of the vote. Standing alone on a huge stage last night, he gave a pretty subdued victory speech. Except this version of gratitude at the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERGIO MASSA: (Speaking Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

KAHN: "Count on me, and I will count on you all," he told the crowd, yet avoiding specifics on how he will tackle the country's current economic meltdown. The peso is plummeting, and annual inflation nearly topped 140%. Massa portrays himself as a pragmatic centrist in the left-leaning Peronist Party. He distanced himself from the establishment despite running its economic policies. And that appears to be working, along with what analysts say is el voto de miedo, the fear vote, that the far-right libertarian, Javier Milei, would go too far. His supporters, largely young and male, last night embraced drastic changes. Milei won nearly 30% of the vote, coming in second.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

JAVIER MILEI: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We have to understand that we are facing a criminal organization that won't stop committing atrocities to stay in power," he told the crowd. His fix - ditch the peso for the U.S. dollar, dynamite the central bank and drastically cut government spending. He calls himself an anarcho capitalist, believing the state shouldn't play a role in the economy or much of anything else. He says climate change is a socialist lie. He wants to relax gun laws, ban abortion and only have foreign relations with Israel and the U.S. While few advocate such radical changes, there is widespread consensus that Argentina's government needs a drastic overhaul.

BENJAMIN GEDAN: Argentina needs to have a much smaller state.

KAHN: Benjamin Gedan is director of the Latin America program at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

GEDAN: It simply can't afford to spend this amount of money subsidizing every public utility you could imagine, and providing endless social services that are in need for some portion of the population, but simply not affordable.

KAHN: And, he adds, with few international borrowing options, the government can't keep printing money to sustain its large social welfare state. The two candidates will face each other in a November 19 runoff. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETE ROCK'S "A LITTLE SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.