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Voters in Argentina face one of the most consequential elections in recent memory

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Voters in Argentina are facing one of the most consequential presidential elections this Sunday in recent memory. They're also facing a difficult choice. The race is between the current minister overseeing Argentina's disastrous economy, where inflation now tops 140%, or a political newcomer, a far-right libertarian economist and television pundit. Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Javier Milei only became a politician two years ago when he won a seat in Congress for his new Freedom Advances party. Before that, he was the chief economist at one of Argentina's largest companies, a soccer goalie, a member of a Rolling Stones cover band and a tantric sex expert.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: In this live TV performance, his girlfriend at the time sings about his prowess, while Milei awkwardly dances off-tempo by her side. He also dresses up as his fictional creation, General AnCap.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAVIER MILEI: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Sporting a cape and black mask and holding a golden spear, Milei explains in the social media post that his superhero comes from Liberland, located between Croatia and Serbia, where residents live free of taxes. Much of his fame, however, comes from his signature mop of unkempt hair, long sideburns and sharp tongue, which he prolifically uses to espouse ultraconservative libertarian ideals on TV and radio.

CARLOS MASLATON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Milei was a great messenger of the ideology, says Carlos Maslaton, a conservative financial influencer who often invited Milei on his morning drive radio show. The two have since parted company.

MASLATON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Maslaton says more media outlets would have him on as his antics generated great ratings, like the time Milei smashed a pinata in the shape of Argentina's central bank. He often sports a chainsaw at rallies, which he says he'll use to slash state spending and vows to ditch the peso for the U.S. dollar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERGIO MASSA: (Speaking Spanish).

MILEI: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Milei's combative temperament comes up a lot on the campaign trail and during last Sunday's presidential debate as he sparred with the ruling party's candidate, Sergio Massa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MASSA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "The debate is very long. Don't get so aggressive so early," Massa scolded Milei. Massa, a veteran politician and current economy minister, has managed to distance himself from the unpopular president and the country's dismal finances. He's also run a skillful campaign, warning Argentines just what they have to lose at the end of Milei's famous chainsaw, like in this ad flooding social media.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW REVVING)

KAHN: The cartoon shows the chainsaw destroying free public education, health care and other generous government subsidies. University of Buenos Aires political science Professor Marcos Novaro says the fear campaign is working.

MARCOS NOVARO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Novaro says it's Milei's erratic style and radical politics that is alienating the very voters who should be flocking to him in protest over the government's poor handling of the economy. Recent comments by the candidate don't help him either, like his derisive digs at Argentine native Pope Francis, who Milei called a filthy leftist and supporter of murderous communists. His outsider status and bellicose behavior has drawn comparisons to Donald Trump and Brazil's former far-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro.

EDUARDO EURNEKIAN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: That may have lost him the vote of one of Argentina's richest men, Eduardo Eurnekian, Milei's former employer who told me he still not sure who he'll vote for come Sunday, although he did say Milei was a good worker. Pollsters say the race is tight and too close to call.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Buenos Aires. 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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