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Anti-establishment candidate Javier Milei faces Economy Minister Sergio Massa of the mainstream Peronist coalition.

Argentinians have cast their ballots and are bracing for the outcome of a nail-biter presidential election race between embattled Economy Minister Sergio Massa and the libertarian outsider Javier Milei amid a crippling economic crisis.

The two men competing on Sunday represent starkly different futures for Latin America’s third-largest economy, creaking under triple-digit inflation after decades of debt, financial mismanagement and currency volatility.

Polls show the candidates in a dead heat, with Milei holding such a slight advantage that no one wants to predict an outcome.

Polls closed at 6pm local time (21:00 GMT), with provisional results expected on Sunday evening, though the electoral commission has warned that “with a very close result” it could take up to five days for a final count.

Massa, 51, is a charismatic and seasoned politician seeking to convince Argentines to trust him despite his performance as economy minister, which has seen annual inflation hit 143 percent and record poverty levels.

His rival Milei is an anti-establishment outsider who has promised to halt Argentina’s unbridled spending, ditch the peso for the US dollar, and “dynamite” the central bank.

“One has to vote for the lesser evil,” Maria Paz Ventura, 26, told the AFP news agency.

“I think we are currently doing badly, so a change can’t be bad. You have to take a bet,” said the doctor, who cast her ballot for Milei in her scrubs.

Milei, a 53-year-old economist, is a political newcomer who stunned observers by surging to the front of the electoral race just months ago.

He showed up at the ballot box dressed in black and in a leather jacket, as dozens of police tried to wrangle a throng of supporters to the side.

Earlier he shared on social media a cartoon of himself carrying a chainsaw – a symbol of cuts he wants to make to spending – standing in front of former US president Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

Milei, who has also raised the spectre of electoral fraud – which analysts say is one problem Argentina does not have – often draws comparisons with the two former leaders.

The economist’s screeds resonated widely with Argentines angered by their struggle to make ends meet.

Massa, who has sought to present himself as the calm, statesmanlike opposite of Milei, told voters “we are beginning a new stage of Argentina” after casting his ballot.

Milei tones down rhetoric

In a first-round election in October, Massa confounded the polls by coming first with almost 37 percent, while Milei scored about 30 percent of the vote.

Both have scrambled to shore up millions of votes from the three losing candidates.

Third-placed candidate Patricia Bullrich, from the powerful centre-right opposition, has thrown her weight behind Milei.

Milei has toned down his rhetoric to appeal to her more moderate voters, imploring the public not to give in to fear stoked by Massa’s campaign.

“If you are afraid you will be paralysed and… nothing will change. We are not going to privatize health and education. We are not going to allow the unrestricted carrying of guns,” he said.

He previously said he was going to ditch those ministries entirely and was in favour of making it easier to carry guns and even sell human organs.

Massa represents the Peronist coalition, a populist movement heavy on state intervention and welfare programmes that has dominated Argentinian politics for decades.

“I voted for Massa. The situation in the country is horrible, the economy is very bad. People want a change, but it would be a change for the worse with Milei,” said 16-year-old Trinidad Bazan, voting for the first time.

Massa has sought to distance himself from the deeply unpopular outgoing President Alberto Fernandez and his Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who was last year convicted of fraud. Both have vanished from the public eye.

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