By Nicolás Misculin, Eliana Raszewski and Candelaria Grimberg
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) -Argentine voters punished the country’s two main political forces in a primary election on Sunday, pushing a rock-singing libertarian outsider candidate into first place in a huge shake-up in the race towards presidential elections in October.
With 65% of ballots counted, far-right libertarian economist Javier Milei had 32.2% of the vote, far higher than predicted, with the main conservative opposition bloc behind on 27.7% and the ruling Peronist coalition in third place on 25.8%.
The result is a stinging rebuke to the center-left Peronist coalition for inflation scraping 116% and a cost-of-living crisis that has left four in 10 people in poverty.
“It is a historic moment for all of us, it’s unthinkable,” said Victoria Villarruel, vice presidential candidate on Milei’s ticket.
The primaries are obligatory for most adults and each person gets one vote, making it in effect a giant dress rehearsal for the general Oct. 22 general election and giving a clear indication of who is the favorite to win the presidency.
That will be key for policy affecting Argentina’s huge farm sector, one of the world’s top exporters of soy, corn and beef, the peso currency and bonds, and ongoing talks over a wobbling $44 billion debt deal with the International Monetary Fund.
The economic crisis has left many Argentines disillusioned with the main political parties – the Peronists and conservative opposition Together for Change – and had opened the door for Milei, who struck a chord especially with the young.
“Inflation is killing us and job uncertainty doesn’t let you plan your life,” said Adriana Alonso, a 42-year-old housewife.
As polls closed in the early evening after voting system glitches caused long lines in capital Buenos Aires, all the talk in campaign hubs was about Milei, a brash outsider who has pledged to shutter the central bank and dollarize the economy.
“Milei’s growth is a surprise. This speaks of people’s anger with politics,” said former conservative President Mauricio Macri as he arrived at Together for Change’s election bunker.
HARD ELECTION TO PREDICT
In the most important leadership race, within the Together for Change coalition, hard-line conservative Patricia Bullrich, a former security minister, was well in front of moderate Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Larreta with 65% of the votes counted.
The unpredictable factor had been Milei, whose loud rock-style rallies are reminiscent of ex-U.S. President Donald Trump, but he far outperformed all forecasts. Most polls had given him just shy of one-fifth of the likely vote, though were also badly wrong four years ago in the 2019 primaries.
Turnout was under 70%, the lowest for a primary election since they started to be held in Argentina over a decade ago.
Whoever wins in October, or more likely in a November runoff, will have big decisions to make on rebuilding depleted foreign reserves, boosting grains exports, reining in inflation and on how to unwind a thicket of currency controls.
Jorge Boloco, 58, a merchant, said Argentina need a “course into the future,” but no party offered a clear way forward.
Maria Fernanda Medina, a 47-year-old teacher, said she had also lost some optimism about politicians truly bringing change after many years of revolving economic crises.
“I don’t have much hope because in every election I feel a little disappointed,” she said as she cast her ballot in Tigre, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. “But hey, we can’t lose all hope, right?”
(Reporting by Nicolás Misculin; Additional reporting by Candelaria Grimberg, Walter Bianchi, Lucila Sigal, Maximilian Heath and Jorge Otaola; Editing by Chris Reese and Stephen Coates)