By Nicolás Misculin
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina may be about to leap into the political unknown.
The South American country, the region's No.2 economy after Brazil, will vote in presidential elections on Sunday with a radical outsider, libertarian Javier Milei, in pole position to win, though he will likely face a second round run-off.
The wild-haired, chainsaw-wielding economist - who has risen from relative obscurity over the last year - came top in an August open primary and leads all opinion polls ahead of economy minister Sergio Massa and conservative Patricia Bullrich.
Milei, 52, is a poster child of Argentine voters' anger at inflation that may hit 200% this year, rising poverty levels and a sliding peso currency that erases the real-world value of people's salaries and savings. Many blame the political elite and have latched on to Milei's burn-it-all-down rhetoric.
"I'm not interested in politics but Milei is a clean slate. He may be crazy, but at least he says what he thinks," said Sebastián Pizzo, 33, a restaurant employee in Buenos Aires.
The vote marks a major crossroads for Argentina, one of the world's top grains exporters, the no. 4 producer of electric battery metal lithium, and a growing shale oil and gas play that has been luring investment and interest from Asia to Europe.
The country is also the largest - by far - debtor to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) with an outstanding $44 billion loan program, as well as huge international debts with bondholders and a large currency swap line with China.
Whoever wins will have a huge impact on the country's standing in the world. Milei has criticized China, pledged to "burn down" the central bank, privatize public sector entities, and dollarize the economy. He is anti-abortion and anti-feminist.
Milei is the candidate to beat, but the election remains a three-way race, and with polls having proven unreliable for the August primary (failing to spot Milei's sharp ascent), no-one should be ruling out another surprise.
"The truth is that all scenarios are possible," said Mariel Fornoni, director at consultancy Management & Fit.
Pollsters generally agree the most likely result is that Milei comes first, but faces a second-round head-to-head with Massa on Nov. 19. A candidate needs 45% of the vote or 40% with a 10-point lead over second place to win outright on Sunday.
Political analyst Carlos Fara said Milei's rise appeared to mark the end of the domination of the country's two main political factions, the left-leaning Peronists currently in power and the main conservative opposition bloc.
"We may be at the end of one historical cycle and the beginning of the next," he said.
'WE WAKE UP ANGRY'
Argentines will start voting at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday (1100 GMT) with first results expected at 9:00 p.m. (00:00 GMT).
Whoever wins will face a bleak economic outlook: the central bank's coffers are practically empty, a recession is looming, two-fifths of the population live in poverty and most expect a sharp currency devaluation that could fan inflation further.
"We are tired now. We wake up angry, we can't feed our children the daily bread and milk they ask for," said 57-year-old homemaker Mariel Segovia in Tapiales near Buenos Aires. "We don't know where the money is going to come from."
Bullrich backers, including business leaders, cite her moderate views and stability, while others say the country should go with Massa and the Peronists to safeguard the subsidies that have kept utilities and transport costs low.
"I am retired and I have grandchildren and children at the public university. Massa is the only one who defends the values of the Argentine people," said retiree Adriana Schedfin, 63.
Mabel Baez, 69, said she would vote for Bullrich as a strong female candidate who has pushed a law-and-order platform that harks back to her time as security minister. "She is going to defend us," Baez said.
The election will likely split the vote between the top three runners, with a further two candidates polling at under 5%. That will impact the make-up of Congress, which is being partially renewed and will likely end up fragmented.
No coalition is expected have a majority in either chamber, forcing the next president to negotiate across political divides. Frontrunner Milei would have a relatively small number of seats in Congress and little regional government support.
Many voters, however, appeared resigned to a Milei win - a reflection of how the former television pundit has managed to take hold of the political narrative, leveraging memes and videos online that have resonated with younger voters.
"I'm going to vote for Massa, but Milei is going to win," said Stella Buk, 65, who has a book stall at the Parque Centenario fair. "At this point I don't see any other way. Here now all the poor people are right-wing."
(Reporting by Nicolas Misculin; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Daniel Wallis)