Milei's main platform has been a plan to ditch the ailing peso for the US dollar

Buenos Aires (AFP) - Libertarian outsider Javier Milei swept to victory in Argentina’s presidential election Sunday, vowing to halt decades of economic decline as the country reels from triple-digit inflation and record poverty.

The self-described “anarcho-capitalist” pulled off a massive upset after surging from obscurity to oust the populist Peronist coalition which has long dominated Argentine politics.

With 55.7 percent of the vote, Milei thumped his rival, Economy Minister Sergio Massa, who scored 44 percent of the vote and rapidly conceded defeat.

“Today begins the reconstruction of Argentina. Today begins the end of Argentina’s decline,” Milei said in his victory speech, vowing, “a limited government, respect for private property and free trade. The model of decadence has come to an end. There is no way back.”

Latin America’s third-biggest economy has suffered decades of crises under interventionist governments big on welfare that resort to money printing to finance spending, fueling inflation, while borrowing heavily only to default on their debt.

Celebrations erupted in Milei's campaign headquarters

Access to dollars is strictly controlled, leading to a thriving black market for greenbacks, and analysts warn the peso is ripe for a sharp devaluation.

“There is no room for gradualism, there is no room for lukewarmness or half-measures,” warned Milei.

Milei’s main platform has been a plan to ditch the ailing peso for the US dollar and “dynamite” the Central Bank to do away with the “cancer of inflation.”

- ‘I am not afraid’ -

Thousands of Milei supporters waved flags and chanted “freedom” as they celebrated outside his campaign headquarters.

“We are tired of Peronism. Milei is an unknown, but better a madman than a thief,” said 50-year-old writer Nacho Larranaga, wearing the blue-and-white Argentina flag as a cape.

Milei, a 53-year-old economist with wild hair and thick sideburns, has drawn comparisons with former US president Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro for his abrasive style and controversial remarks.

Both former presidents congratulated him on social media.

“This is the change that us young people want. I am not afraid of Milei, I am afraid my dad won’t be able to pay his rent. The Argentine peso isn’t worth a thing,” said Juan Ignacio Gómez, 17.

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

Milei is against abortion, pro-gun, vowed to cut ties with Argentina’s key trading partners China and Brazil, insulted Pope Francis, questioned the death toll under Argentina’s brutal dictatorship, and says humans are not behind climate change.

Earlier in his campaign he took to the stage wielding a powered-up chainsaw to symbolize the drastic cuts he plans to make to a bloated state.

Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva wished “good luck and success” to the new Argentine government.

- ‘The lesser evil’ -

Argentine Economy Minister Sergio Massa conceded defeat

Milei’s red-faced rants against the “thieving and corrupt political class” struck a nerve with Argentines struggling to make ends meet and fed up with politicians they see as the architects of their misery.

He carried out much of his campaign on TikTok and other social media, firing up young people.

Others were spooked by his style in an election that has polarized the nation.

Teacher Catalina Miguel, 42, among a dejected crowd at Massa’s campaign headquarters said she was in “shock.”

“Milei will find us on the street defending every right he seeks to challenge. Half of Argentina does not support him.”

On the other end of Milei’s chainsaw are millions of Argentines who depend on welfare assistance and generous government subsidies of fuel, electricity and transport – with bus tickets costing only a few cents.

Meanwhile, the country’s coffers are in the red, with $44 billion debt with the International Monetary Fund looming over the incoming government.

Political analyst Ana Iparraguirre said that Argentines should brace themselves.

“Whoever comes into office has to make some quick decisions that are going to hurt people.”

- ‘A lot of instability’ -

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

As Milei is set to take office on December 10, leaving his rival Massa still in charge of the economy for three weeks, analysts predict a rocky ride with the strictly controlled peso ripe for devaluation.

“With almost 150 percent inflation, things could rapidly scale out of control in those weeks. So that’s a period of a lot of instability,” said Iparraguirre.

Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think-tank in Washington said Argentina “is part of the regional trend of a real weakening of political parties and the emergence of an outsider who… has a powerful message that resonates: just get rid of the political class and then everything will be ok.”