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Voters in Argentina will select a new president

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Voters in Argentina will pick a new president tomorrow against the backdrop of one of the worst economic crises there in years. Inflation now tops 140%, one of the highest in the world. On the ballot is an ultra-conservative libertarian economist who vows to try and fix all that by ditching Argentina's peso for the U.S. dollar and dramatically slashing public funding. He is opposed by the current ruling party's candidate and country's economy minister, who says change must be gradual. NPR's South America correspondent Carrie Kahn joins us now from Buenos Aires. Carrie, thanks so much for being with us.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning.

SIMON: Please tell us about the libertarian candidate. He's attracted a lot of attention.

KAHN: He's Javier Milei. He calls himself an anarcho-capitalist. He believes that markets should be unfettered, completely free of the state. And before getting into politics, only two years ago, he was this TV pundit known for outrageous and expletive-laced tirades against the political elites here. He calls them the corrupt, thieving caste. His style draws many comparisons to Donald Trump and neighboring Brazil's former far-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro.

Scott, he sports this mop of uncombed hair, long sideburns. He says he's a tantric sex expert. He has five dogs he cloned from a past pet. He denigrates the Pope, which doesn't go over well here. The Pope is, of course, Argentine, and Milei calls him a filthy leftist and says if he wins, Argentina will only have diplomatic relations with Israel and the U.S. - no communists, and that includes China.

SIMON: Kind of an all-embracing agenda. Argentina's economy is in such dire straits. Does the current ruling party have much of a chance of winning?

KAHN: You'd think that would be impossible, given Argentina's nearly 150% inflation. Practically every day, the peso here loses value. And the candidate for the party in power is the current economy minister. He's Sergio Massa. He's 51, and he's a veteran politician with the Peronist Party here, which is one of, if not the dominant political forces since democratic return. And to answer your question more precisely, yes, he can win. The Peronists have quite a vote-generating machine, and it is in full gear, especially among its stronghold, the poor and the working class, who are quite accustomed to Argentina's vast subsidies. And that's subsidies on everything from education to public transportation to home energy costs.

SIMON: Carrie, is there something about Argentina that lends itself to an outsider coming so close to possibly and sometimes winning?

KAHN: Look, the two main political forces here have traded power for decades, and the economy remains dismal. Forty percent of Argentines now live in poverty. And Ben Gedan, who runs the Latin America program at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., he summed it up best for me.

BEN GEDAN: If you were in a science lab creating the perfect conditions for a populist radical outsider, you would create Argentina in 2023.

KAHN: And the situation is particularly bad for young, social media plugged-in Argentines who've just been shut out of any possible job market and stuck living at home with their parents. They are among Milei's most ardent supporters.

SIMON: What do you hear from voters?

KAHN: Voters are mad. They want to punish the Peronists - all politicians. It's called the voto bronco, and that's the angry vote. But then you have voters egged on by Massa, who are afraid of Milei's radical plans, all his cuts to Argentina's vast social safety net. And they are the voto de miedo, the fear vote. So you have a lot of people that are just now undecided, and they say they're stuck with two bad choices. Listen to Sheila de la Fuente. She's a schoolteacher and mother of two.

SHEILA DE LA FUENTE: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: She says, "it just feels like we are on this tightrope, teetering, ready for this horrible fall, when it comes to everything from education, crime and the economy." So we just have to see who comes out more and votes tomorrow. Is it the angry voter or is it the fearful voter? And polls are just too close to call now.

SIMON: NPR's Carrie Kahn in Buenos Aires, thanks so much.

KAHN: You're welcome. 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.
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