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Far-right populist Javier Milei fails to win first round of Argentina’s presidential election

The eccentric far-right populist Javier Milei has failed to win the first round of Argentina’s presidential election, with the centrist finance minister Sergio Massa unexpectedly beating his radical challenger.

Supporters of Milei, a potty-mouthed political outsider described as an Argentinian mashup of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Boris Johnson, had hoped he was heading for a sensational outright victory similar to Bolsonaro’s shock triumph in Brazil in 2018.

However, with nearly 99% of votes counted, it was his Peronist rival Massa who won the day with 36.6% of the 27m votes cast. Milei – who has promised to abolish Argentina’s central bank and shun its biggest trade partners, China and Brazil – came second with 29.9%. The third main candidate, the conservative former security minister, Patricia Bullrich, finished third, with about 23.8%.

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Massa, 51, and Milei, 53, will now face off in a second round on 19 November.For an outright victory, a candidate would have needed more than 45% of votes or more than 40% with a more than 10-point lead over their closest rival.

Addressing hundreds of euphoric supporters at his campaign HQ, Massa gave a sober speech vowing to lead a national unity government that would kickstart “a new phase in Argentina’s political history”. “Know that as president I will not fail you,” he said, promising “a country without uncertainty”. “Argentina is a big family and what it needs is someone to work 24/7 to protect it.”

Milei urged deflated followers to celebrate the “historic achievement” of reaching the run-off only two years after their party, La Libertad Avanza (Freedom Advances), was founded. “Today is a historic day because two-thirds of Argentinians voted for change,” Milei declared, adding: “Either we change or we sink.”

The result leaves Argentina poised for another month of profound uncertainty, economic turbulence and fake news before the showdown between Massa and Milei, a libertarian economist who only entered the world of politics when he was elected to congress in 2021. A Massa victory is not assured given that many of Bullrich’s right-wing voters may migrate to Milei.

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Presidential candidate for the Union por la Patria party, Sergio MassaPresidential candidate for the Union por la Patria party, Sergio Massa Photograph: Emiliano Lasalvia/AFP/Getty Images

As he cast his vote on Sunday, Milei, who shot to fame as a television pundit prone to rhapsodizing about tantric sex, claimed he could lead “the best government in history” if elected.

“We’re going to decide whether we can make Argentina a power again or turn ourselves into the biggest shantytown on Earth,” the raggedy-haired populist said after jostling through a sea of supporters and journalists to reach a university polling station.

Marcela Pagano, a television journalist running for a place in congress for La Libertad Avanza, predicted angry voters were poised to “boot out” the traditional politicians many blame for plunging 40% of citizens into poverty and triple-digit inflation.

“I believe he’s the only one who can get Argentina off the ground,” Pagano said of Milei, who made the chainsaw one of the main emblems of his campaign – supposedly to symbolise plans to slash spending and dismember the political establishment.

Prominent members of South America’s extreme-right flew to Argentina hoping for a Milei triumph that would boost their movement after its leading light, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, lost power last year to the leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in October 2022.

Bolsonaro’s congressman son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, travelled to Buenos Aires to hail Milei’s “unstoppable movement” – comments the Argentinian newspaper Clarín said violated the country’s electoral laws. “The phenomenon you see in the streets is the same phenomenon we experienced in Brazil in 2018,” Eduardo Bolsonaro claimed in reference to his father’s landslide win.

South American leftists had also appeared in Buenos Aires in the lead up to the election to bolster Massa’s initially sluggish campaign, including several Brazilian spin doctors who helped Lula overcome Bolsonaro in last year’s historic election.

A Brazilian-made social media video released on the eve of Sunday’s election compared Milei to Bolsonaro and exhorted Argentinian voters to oppose him. “This man was elected in Brazil and it was a nightmare,” a Spanish-language narrator said of Bolsonaro’s administration during which hundreds of thousands died of Covid and Brazil became an international pariah. “Argentina doesn’t need to go through this.”

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A Massa poster campaign warned citizens about Milei’s most radical ideas, which include legalizing the sale of human organs, and claimed he would plunge Argentina into a 2001-style economic meltdown. “The Economist says Milei is a risk to Argentine democracy,” said one. “Are you seriously going to vote for him?”

Massa and his allies stepped up their campaign after Milei’s stunning victory in August’s primary – a dress rehearsal for the election – scrapping income tax for most citizens and seeking to distance themselves from former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Those efforts appeared to have borne fruit on Sunday as voters turned out to choose Argentina’s new president and vice-president as well as about half of its 257-member congress, a third of the senate and several governors, including those of the city and province of Buenos Aires.

Axel Kicillof, a Massa ally seeking a second term as governor of Buenos Aires province – a crucial electoral battlefield that is home to nearly 40% of all Argentinian voters – also fared better than expected, winning by nearly 20%. Milei’s candidate came third. “This vote means dictatorship never again,” Kicillof told supporters in reference to Milei’s decision to downplay the number of people killed during Argentina’s military regime during his campaign.

Milei’s candidate to become mayor of Buenos Aires, Ramiro Marra, finished in a distant third place with just 13.9% of votes.

Crestfallen Milei supporters who had gathered outside their leader’s hotel claimed, without evidence, that the vote had been rigged, just as Bolsonaro devotees did after he lost the 2022 election in Brazil.

“It hurts my soul. I expected he’d win in the first round. I was surprised,” admitted Ivan González, a 22-year-old Mileísta who wore a Donald Trump hat and carried a yellow Gadsden flag – an American Revolution-era banner used by the US extreme right and Milei’s movement.

González blamed Milei’s “fear mongering” opponents for Sunday’s setback but insisted he had not given up hope of a second round win.