ROME – Despite underperforming with respect to pre-election polls, an anti-papal libertarian nevertheless succeeded in forcing a Nov. 19 runoff in the race to become the next president of Pope Francis’s home country of Argentina.
Some observers believe that self-described “anarcho-capitalist” Javier Milei’s explicit attacks on Francis, including a call from a key ally to suspend relations with the Vatican in protest over the pontiff’s “totalitarian” leanings, may have cut into his support.
Milei had been the surprise winner in Argentina’s presidential primary in August, capturing roughly 30 percent of the vote in a three-way race, and had been widely expected to come in first in Sunday’s first round of balloting.
Instead, Sergio Massa, the candidate of the country’s ruling center-left coalition, came in first with 36.33 percent, according to data released by Argentina’s National Electoral Chamber, despite a deep economic crisis in the country with the inflation rate standing at an estimated 138 percent.
Milei garnered 30.18 percent, according to election officials, putting him in second place.
Under Argentine law, a candidate needed to win over 45 percent of the total vote, or 40 percent and a 10-point lead, in order to win in the first round. Since no once crossed that threshold, Massa and Milei now will face one another in a Nov. 19 runoff.
The outcome likely will depend in part on where the votes go of third-place finisher Patricia Bullrich, a former minister in Argentina’s previous conservative government, who captured 23.8 percent.
Analysts say that while most Bullrich supporters would hesitate to back Massa, the candidate of the main political rival, some may prefer institutional stability to the potential chaos that might follow a win for Milei.
Milei has shaken the political establishment in Argentina with a radical platform including, among other positions, eliminating Argentina’s public health and education systems, disbanding the central bank, dollarizing the economy and allowing people to sell their organs.
Milei has also made his disdain clear for Pope Francis and his social justice agenda, at various points referring to the pontiff as a “communist,” an “imbecile,” and a “son of a bitch.”
In an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson last month, Milei affirmed that the pontiff “has an affinity with murderous communists” and violates the Ten Commandments by defending “social justice.”
During a rally closing Milei’s campaign, economist Alberto Benegas Lynch, an ally, declared that Argentina “should suspend diplomatic relations with the Vatican as long as a totalitarian spirit prevails at the helm of the Church.”
“Under the guise of traditional values,” Benegas Lynch said, “the influence of Marxism often acts within the Church.”
Although there’s so far no exit polling on the impact of Milei’s frequent criticism of the pope, some observers in Argentina believe it may have helped galvanize support for the center-left Massa. In September, so-called “slum priests” in Argentina held a public Mass to defend Pope Francis from the attacks launched by Milei.
“It is shameful for a candidate to say these things,” said Father José María “Pepe” Di Paola, a well known advocate for the poor in Argentina.
“To say that social justice is bullshit, excuse my language, when justice starts from the gospel,” Di Paola said during the Mass.