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Police clash with protesters in Argentina as Milei reform bill hangs in balance

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Argentina’s Senate began debating a sprawling bill on Wednesday that is key to libertarian President Javier Milei’s economic reform plans, while protesters set fires and clashed with police in the streets outside Congress.

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The upper house, which is divided almost down the middle over the bill, which is designed to boost investment by privatising state entities and providing incentives for businesses, is set for a marathon debate. The bill passed the lower house of deputies in April following many changes after it was rejected in a first vote in February.

Milei’s government, which controls only a minority of seats in both chambers, has been bargaining to win over allies. It knows the bill will be modified, but is hoping to at least get general approval. Outright rejection would be a major blow.

Local legislators and media outlets estimated that senators were evenly split. The bill needs 37 votes out of the 72 total legislators in the chamber to get a majority.

“It is a very even vote: it’s 36 and 36,” Guadalupe Tagliaferri, a conservative lawmaker from the government-allied Together for Change, told reporters. She said the vote could come down to the vice president, who presides over the Senate, to break the tie.

The main left-leaning Peronist opposition bloc, closely allied to the unions, is likely to vote down what is known as the “bases” bill and a separate fiscal package. The main bill includes plans for privatising public firms, granting special powers to the president and spurring investment.

“Argentine people’s lives are at play. We’ve drunk this poison several times: to have zero inflation with zero economic activity,” protester and social leader Luis D’Elia said as thousands protested the planned reforms.

“This poison has failed several times in Argentina and we won’t allow this to carry on.”

Reuters footage from the streets of Buenos Aires showed a car set on fire, with scattered protesters throwing rocks and bottles, while police with riot gear used tear gas, water hoses and rubber bullets.

Milei’s office issued a statement congratulating the security forces for holding back “terrorist groups” armed with sticks and grenades who “tried to perpetrate a coup d’etat.” It did not provide further evidence.

‘Change Argentina’

Milei, a brash economist and former pundit who has clashed with lawmakers and regularly called Congress a “nest of rats,” has tied a lot to the bill. His government says it is key to undoing a major economic crisis that it inherited.

“We are going to change Argentina. We’ll make a liberal Argentina,” Milei said on Wednesday, adding that if his reforms didn’t get through Congress now he’d try again in 2025.

A government official speaking on condition of anonymity said that they expected the bill to get general approval in the Senate, but would be “more altered than we would like”. If it is approved with changes it will go back to the lower house.

“If the Bases law is passed, it accelerates the growth process, mainly by getting investment into the country. If it is not passed, we keeping going, though perhaps more slowly,” the person said.

Argentina has annual inflation near 300%, myriad capital controls that stymie business and trade, depleted foreign currency reserves and a high debt load that needs servicing. The economy is in recession and poverty is rising.

The Senate debate is expected to continue late on Wednesday, with voting potentially set to take place in the evening.

“They are going to have to buy popcorn,” La Libertad Avanza Senator Francisco Paoltroni told local channel C5N. “It is going to be a long night of trying to break the deadlock.”

(REUTERS)

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