Polls show the Argentine candidates -- Javier Milei (L) and Sergio Massa (R) -- in a dead heat, with some 10 percent of voters undecided just days before the vote

Buenos Aires (AFP) - Argentina braced Sunday for the outcome of a knife-edge presidential election between Economy Minister Sergio Massa and outsider Javier Milei, who represent wildly different visions for the country’s future.

Voters cast their ballots gripped by fear, uncertainty and resignation, with few confident either candidate could halt decades of economic decline and financial mismanagement of an economy that is Latin America’s third-biggest and one of the world’s most volatile.

To many, Massa, 51, the economy minister who has overseen the latest economic quagmire, represents more of the same. The charismatic politician has taken pains to convince Argentines to trust him despite his performance.

His rival, Milei, is an anti-establishment outsider who has vowed to halt Argentina’s unbridled spending, ditch the peso for the US dollar, and “dynamite” the central bank.

Voters were gripped by fear, uncertainty and resignation as they cast their ballots, with few confident either candidate could put an end to decades of economic decline

Polls showed the candidates in a near-dead heat, with Milei holding a slight advantage.

Provisional results were expected Sunday evening, but the electoral commission has warned that “with a very close result” it could take up to five days for a final count.

Milei’s rants against the “thieving and corrupt” traditional parties have fired up voters tired of the Peronist coalition that has long dominated Argentine politics and which they blame for the country’s 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.

- ‘Change for the worse’ -

Change in Argentina's annual consumer price index, by month, from January 2020 to October 2023

Milei, a 53-year-old economist, showed up to vote dressed all in black and in a leather jacket, as dozens of police tried to wrangle a throng of supporters to the side.

“We are very calm. Now it is time for the ballot box to speak,” said Milei, sporting his trademark wild hair and thick sideburns.

Earlier he shared on social media a cartoon of himself carrying a chainsaw – a symbol of cuts he wants to make to spending – standing in front of former US president Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

Milei, who has also raised the specter of electoral fraud – which analysts say is one problem Argentina does not have – often draws comparisons with the two former leaders.

Massa, who has sought to present himself as the calm, statesmanlike opposite of Milei, told voters “we are beginning a new stage of Argentina” after casting his ballot.

Milei is thronged by supporters as he showed up to vote

The economy minister surprised Argentina by coming in seven points ahead of Milei in the first round, and both candidates have scrambled for support from undecided voters.

Massa has in particular sought to distance himself from the deeply unpopular outgoing president, Alberto Fernandez, and Vice President Cristina Kirchner.

“I voted for Massa. The situation in the country is horrible, the economy is very bad. People want a change, but it would be a change for the worse with Milei,” said 16-year-old Trinidad Bazan, voting for the first time.

- ‘I feel like crying’ -

Milei has in recent weeks put down his chainsaw and toned down his rhetoric to appeal to more moderate voters, imploring the public not to give in to fear stoked by Massa’s campaign.

However, he has previously said he is opposed to abortion, is pro-gun, and does not believe humans are responsible for climate change. He has vowed to cut ties with key trading partners China and Brazil if elected.

Argentine Economy Minister Sergio Massa cast his vote in Tigre, Buenos Aires

Milei has also rubbed many Argentines the wrong way by insulting Pope Francis, who was born in Buenos Aires, and questioning the official toll of 30,000 disappeared under the country’s brutal 1976-1983 dictatorship.

“I feel like crying over the risk that Milei could win. His ideas scare me. I trust Massa,” said Maria Carballo, 40, an architect.

Whoever wins, analysts warn Argentina is in for a tough road ahead, with debt of $44 billion with the International Monetary Fund, and the strictly controlled peso long overdue for a devaluation.

With central bank reserves in the red and no credit line, the next government “will be digging Argentina out of an unbelievably deep hole with very few resources to do so,” said Benjamin Gedan, director of the Argentina Project at the Washington-based Wilson Center.

The new president will take office on December 10.