BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — The Argentine peso plunged Monday after a shaggy-haired 52-year—old anti-establishment candidate who admires former President Donald Trump came first in primary elections that will help determine the country’s next president.
Javier Milei rocked Argentina’s political establishment Sunday by receiving the biggest share of primary votes for presidential candidates in the October general election to determine who leads a nation battered by economic woes.
Milei wants to replace the peso with the dollar, and says that Argentina’s Central Bank should be abolished, and that he thinks climate change is a lie. He has characterized sex education as a ploy to destroy the family and has said that he believes the sale of human organs should be legal and it should be easier for Argentines to own handguns.
Argentina’s government decided to devalue the local currency by 20% early Monday morning after the surprising Milei showing that turned Argentina into the latest country where voters have chosen an outsider candidate to express anger against the status quo. Two mainstream political coalitions have traded power for a decade in Argentina.
Operators were watching nervously Monday as the value of the peso also decreased in the parallel, or blue, market, dropping 12% by early afternoon.
Argentina requires that citizens vote, and 69 percent of the country’s 35 million voters went to the polls, each choosing candates for positions ranging from local councilman to president.
The major parties had contested races to be its presidential candiate. Millei was uncontested, and got a few points more than the candidates of parties that have dominated Argentine politics.
After doing much better than expected, the upstart candidate who gained notoriety and a rockstar-like following by angrily ranting against the “political caste” is now a real contender for the presidency.
With around 97% of polling locations reporting, Milei had around 30% of the total vote, according to official results. The candidates in the main opposition coalition, United for Change, were at 28% and the current governing coalition, Union for the Homeland, had 27%.
In order to win the vote in two months, Milei would have to increase his share of the nation’s votes by 15%, a high hurdle even in a nation where voters tend to favor candidates they see as winners.
If one candidate doesn’t receive 45% of the vote, they would need 40% and a 10-point lead over the second-place candidate. Otherwise the race would go to a November runoff between the top two.
Celebrating in his election headquarters, Milei vowed to bring “an end to the parasitic, corrupt and useless political caste that exists in this country.”
“Today we took the first step toward the reconstruction of Argentina,” he said. “A different Argentina is impossible with the same people as always.”
Milei has been a lawmaker in the lower house of Argentina’s Congress since 2021.
Argentina is struggling with annual inflation over 100%, rising poverty and a rapidly depreciating currency, and Milei first attracted wider support by calling for the country to replace the peso with the U.S. dollar.
“I’m very happy, we’re looking for a change. We’re tired of living like this,” Franco Lesertessur, 19, said as he celebrated outside Milei’s election headquarters in downtown Buenos Aires. “All the countries that have been dollarized ended up moving forward and stopped having inflation.”
The main opposition coalition, United for Change, moved more to the right as former Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, who made toughness on crime a centerpiece of her campaign, handily beat a more centrist contender.
In the currently governing coalition, Union for the Homeland, the more business friendly candidate — Economy Minister Sergio Massa — easily beat a leftist contender but still took an overall beating from voters frustrated over the poor state of the economy, finishing in third place for total votes.
At Milei’s electoral headquarters, party leaders were ecstatic while people celebrated outside, expressing optimism that their candidate’s support would only grow in the run-up to October.
“I like his ideas about freedom. His ideas don’t scare me. People are free to choose what they want,” said Orlando Sánchez, 26, a retail worker. “If criminals walk around with guns on their belts, why can’t an ordinary citizen have one lawfully and with the proper documentation? People are clearly tired of politics, being constantly lied to.”
Associated Press journalists Almudena Calatrava, Débora Rey and Natacha Pisarenko contributed to this report.