Milei Echoes Trump With Fraud Claims that Inject Uncertainty into Argentina’s Presidential Runoff

(AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko
The image of presidential hopeful Javier Milei fills the side of a bus carrying his supporters, left, parked by a wall along the sidewalk where a sign promoting his rival Sergio Massa, during Milei’s closing campaign rally in Ezeiza, Buenos Aires Province, Argentina, Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — This may sound familiar: A self-styled outsider aims to win the presidency and purge the political establishment so he can restore order to a broken nation — if only he can overcome a system rigged against him.

But this isn’t former President Donald Trump, or even happening in the U.S. It’s Argentine presidential candidate Javier Milei, the latest politician to follow Trump’s playbook and claim that election results are dubious and that gatekeepers may deprive him of the nation’s top job.

Analysts say it is a tactic to fire up Milei’s base and promote vigilance at polling stations, or set the stage for refusing to concede a loss.

The right-wing economist rose to fame blasting the political class on television and has welcomed comparisons to Trump. His message that a corrupt elite has left the country behind resonates with Argentines coping with rising poverty and 142% annual inflation.

Milei represents upheaval, and casting doubt on the electoral system — in a nation where it is widely trusted — is true to form. Since Argentina’s return to democracy a half-century ago, no candidate in any national race has formally challenged results, according to the electoral appeals court.

Pre-election polls in the Nov. 19 runoff between Milei and Economy Minister Sergio Massa show a dead heat.

Before the first round, most had shown Milei narrowly ahead, yet Massa won handily, by 7 percentage points. Claims of fraud exploded on social media, and some Milei supporters volunteered to monitor the vote at the country’s more than 100,000 polling stations.

Luis Paulero, 30, is one of them. He cared little for politics and, although voting is mandatory, had never before cast a ballot. But Milei “sparked passion in me,” Paulero said at a small rally in Ezeiza, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Argentina’s capital.

He says he is disgusted that the governing party might steal the presidency. “I’ve been watching it on TikTok videos; all the fraud that was done seems wrong, it’s undemocratic,” said Paulero, a delivery app driver.

At least partly, Milei is stoking fraud claims himself. In an interview Nov. 7, he said the first-round vote wasn’t clean.

“There were irregularities of such proportion that they put the result in doubt,” Milei said. He continued: “Whoever counts the vote controls everything.”

Earlier, Milei had said that were it not for fraud during the August primaries, he would have snagged 35% of the vote instead of 30%.

He has provided no evidence in either instance. Still, die-hard boosters have brought signs reading “Don’t Screw With My Vote!” and “One Stolen Vote is Fraud!” to small rallies.

Elections in Argentina have always had some irregularities, but not enough to alter results, said Gala Díaz Langou, executive director of Center for the Implementation of Public Policies Promoting Equity and Growth, a Buenos Aires-based think tank.

Many allegations on social media have noted that nearly 1,700 polling stations recorded zero votes for Milei in preliminary results of the first round — “statistically impossible,” Milei and his supporters said.

But an analysis by Argentine fact-checking agency Chequeado showed that nearly all those stations had no votes for any candidate, indicating their results hadn’t been uploaded. The number of stations where one candidate received zero votes but others had votes were comparable for Milei and Massa.

The voting process in Argentina is decidedly antiquated. Polling stations have paper ballots for each party and voters pick the one they want, put it in an envelope that they place into a cardboard ballot box.

It is easy for voters to steal ballots or rip them up because they go into a room alone where the ballots are located. Voting monitors make sure they are replaced, and oversee the vote count. Recruiting enough of them is a challenge for Milei’s fledgling Liberty Advances party.

While questioning the shortcomings of Argentina’s voting system shouldn’t be taboo, Milei sowing doubt about it is a political strategy, said Brian Winter, a longtime Argentina expert and vice president of the New York-based Council of the Americas.

“It shows that he sees some risk that he could lose. You don’t say these things from a position of strength,” he said.

Milei’s national network is far outmatched by the muscle of Massa’s Peronism, a nebulous movement with both left- and right-wing factions that has been the dominant force in Argentine politics for decades. As such, he has summoned his faithful to monitor the election.

Milei’s party on Thursday presented a complaint to an electoral judge, initially asserting “colossal fraud” and grabbing headlines, but later walked back claims and said its goal was merely to nudge authorities to take “extreme precautions.”

Milei is working to “make sure he mobilizes people and gives his base a reason to fight for, make them feel they’re being bullied and not considered, that Peronism is trying to impose its will on everybody else,” Ana Iparraguirre, partner at pollster GBAO Strategies, said by phone from Buenos Aires.

But many Argentines are loath to spend 12 hours observing the vote then scrutinizing the count, said Carlos Andrés Ferreira, the campaign chief of Milei’s party in Fiorito, a working-class city on Buenos Aires’ outskirts.

In the first round, Milei’s party had observers in just over half of Fiorito’s 200 voting stations, Ferreira said. At one school, Ferreira was horrified to find seven of his party’s eight monitors had failed to show. He said that some of his peers speculate Peronists paid them to stay home and that he believes vote counters at unmonitored tables trashed half of Milei’s votes.

“They’re bandits. They don’t believe in democracy. They’re fascists,” said Ferreira, adding that the number of votes for Milei in stations where his party had monitors was about double that of other stations. “I don’t believe in coincidences.”

The ability to dispute results is a fundamental part of any democratic process. But there are indications that Trump-style, unsubstantiated challenges have spread around the world, Kevin Casas-Zamora, secretary-general of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, said by phone from Stockholm.

Some of Trump’s statements were echoed in fraud claims by Myanmar’s military-backed party after it was routed in Nov. 2020 — which were rejected by the Asian nation’s election commission — as well as in unsubstantiated fraud allegations of Peruvian candidate Keiko Fujimori after she lost the 2021 race.

His clearest copycat was former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Like Trump, he first challenged the results that put him in the presidenc; he argued his margin of victory should have been larger, though never provided any evidence. Ahead of his reelection bid, Bolsonaro attacked the reliability of the system and then sought an audit that failed. He refused to concede, and his supporters rioted in the capital.

Milei is undoubtedly “laying the groundwork to not recognize the result of the election if they lose,” said Beatriz Busaniche, president of the Via Libre foundation, a nonprofit that has worked on voting reform issues.

Speaking Thursday, Massa told reporters it would be “very detrimental” to follow Trump and Bolsonaro’s rejection of results.

While Milei’s claims of fraud clearly reflect the influence of Trump and Bolsonaro, they represent no existential risk to Argentina’s democracy that is strong, said Winter, of the Council of the Americas. And unlike the former American and Brazilian presidents, he doesn’t control the levers of power he would need to overturn results.

What’s more, his new allies appear reluctant to back fraud claims.

Patricia Bullrich, the candidate for the country’s main opposition coalition who placed third in the first round then endorsed Milei, said in an interview that she didn’t believe there was fraud on the scale of swaying an election. At the same time, she called on supporters to become monitors.

Díaz Langou, of the Buenos Aires-based think tank, said he thinks it would be “difficult, if not impossible” to steal an election in Argentina. Fraud claims are, however, still a threat, he said.

“These rumors of fraud can erode the legitimacy of any government assuming power, regardless of the winner, and this could lead to problems in the medium term, transcending the election.”