BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Far-right populist Javier Milei rocked Argentina’s political establishment Sunday by emerging as the biggest vote-getter in primary elections to choose presidential candidates for the October general election in a nation battered by economic woes.

Milei, an admirer of former U.S. President Donald Trump, says Argentina’s Central Bank should be abolished, thinks climate change is a lie, characterizes sex education as a ploy to destroy the family, believes the sale of human organs should be legal and wants to make it easier to own handguns.

Votes were still being counted late Sunday, but analysts agreed that the upstart candidate who gained notoriety — and a rockstar-like following — by angrily ranting against the “political caste” did much better than expected and is a real contender for the presidency in this South American country.

With around 92% 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%.

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.”

“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.
“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.

Before the election, analysts had warned that a better-than-expected showing for Milei, 52, would likely upset financial markets and lead to a sharp plunge in the value of Argentina’s peso amid uncertainty about what economic policies he might implement if he became president.

Though Sunday’s voting was officially to pick candidates for various political blocs, it was also viewed as a nationwide poll on where candidates stand with Argentines going into the October election.

Milei, who has been a lawmaker in the lower house of Argentina’s Congress since 2021, did not have a competitor in the presidential primary of his Liberty Advances party.

The initial results suggested Argentina has become the latest country in the region where voters are looking to an outsider candidate as a way of expressing anger against traditional politicians.

Discontent is widespread in Argentina, which is struggling with annual inflation over 100%, rising poverty and a rapidly depreciating currency, Milei attracted 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.”

In the main opposition coalition, United for Change, voters also appeared to be ready to move more to the right as former Security Minister Patricia Bullrich handily beat a more centrist contender, Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta.

Bullrich made clear she would work with her competitor ahead of October.

“As Argentines we live with distress, with fear, unable to dream, plan or live a normal life. But today we have reasons to work together, to guide and lead a profound change in Argentina, a change that leaves corruption behind forever, paving the way for austerity,” Bullrich said.

The governing coalition, Union for the Homeland, took a beating from voters over the poor state of the economy, finishing in third place for total votes. As expected, Economy Minister Sergio Massa became the coalition’s presidential candidate, easily defeating leftist Juan Grabois.

“We have 60 days to turn this election around,” Massa told supporters.

But in the big result for Milei, many voters sent a message that they are tired of the two coalitions that have dominated Argentina’s political scene for years.

The results “reflect people’s fatigue on the political leadership, and the lack of solutions within the spaces that have been in power consecutively,” said Mariel Fornoni, director of Management and Fit, a political consulting firm.

Fornoni said that during the campaigns, the political establishment was “focused on their own group dynamics rather than addressing the actual needs of the people,”

At Milei’s electoral headquaters, 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.