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What to know about Argentina's eccentric, conservative new president-elect

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Argentina has one of the highest inflation rates in the world, and expectations are high among Argentinians that their new president-elect will bring rates down. Javier Milei won yesterday's presidential election, beating the current ruling party's candidate by 11 points. He's an ultra-conservative economist who promises that libertarian principles will solve the country's dire economic state. He's vowed to replace the country's currency with the U.S. dollar and slash all state spending, but as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, it is unclear when and if he can make such radical changes.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Javier Milei got little rest after celebrating his landslide victory last night. Early this morning, he was on local radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAVIER MILEI: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "The three rights that are under no circumstances negotiable are the right to life, liberty and private property," he told the local host. To say Milei's meteoric political rise has shocked Argentina is an understatement. Just a few years ago, the 53-year-old conservative economist with a messy mop of hair and long sideburns wasn't even in politics. He was better known as a TV pundit whose expletive-laced rants grabbed headlines and ratings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEON LEMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "It is surprising," says Leon Lemos, who was walking downtown on his way to work where he manages a bar. He says, at one point, he didn't think it could happen, but he's so glad Milei, who's not part of Argentina's establishment, won. Political forces left and right in Argentina failed to fix the economy, which has spent more years in recession lately than not.

LEMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Other politicians aren't clear about what they're going to do, but Lemos says Milei is - first up, replacing the Argentine peso with the dollar. And Milei says he'll get rid of the central bank, the main driver of inflation, according to him, because of its indiscriminate printing of money. It's unclear, though, whether Milei can do both.

(SOUNDBITE OF GATES SQUEAKING)

KAHN: As the metal gates go up and doors open to downtown businesses this morning, dozens of informal dollar changers shout to passersby.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Shouting in Spanish).

KAHN: This black-market exchange is a good indicator of the state of Argentina's economy. Today, though, is a national holiday, and the exchange rate of last Friday is still in effect - about 1,000 pesos for one U.S. dollar. A year ago, it was less than 300. Dollarizing the economy won't be easy.

MARCOS NOVARO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Marcos Novaro, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires, says politically, Milei will need congressional support to ditch the peso. He'll need to compromise. His upstart far-right party, though, has few seats in Congress, and Novaro says flexibility isn't Milei's strong suit.

NOVARO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "If he doesn't temper his plans a bit, I think he will fail, and we will find ourselves in a very serious crisis," says Novaro. Besides politics, economists warn dollarization isn't easy, especially since Argentina doesn't have a large reserve of foreign currency to buy up people's savings in pesos.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR HORNS HONKING)

KAHN: At last night's victory party in downtown Buenos Aires, Milei supporters stretched for blocks. Twenty-three-year-old Joanna Belen traveled more than two hours to come celebrate. She said she's been thinking of leaving Argentina since making a living here is too hard.

JOANNA BELEN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She said now she's staying put and is much more hopeful with Milei taking over the presidency. He assumes power on December 10. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Buenos Aires. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.