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Argentina’s two presidential candidates presented starkly different visions for the struggling South American nation during a combative final debate that could prove decisive before a run-off election next Sunday.

Peronist economy minister Sergio Massa pledged to form a national unity government and build bridges to tackle Argentina’s high levels of poverty and inflation rate, which has hit 138 per cent, while libertarian outsider Javier Milei focused on attacking his rival’s performance in office and reiterated his promise to abolish the central bank as “the origin of inflation”.

With polls showing the candidates almost neck-and-neck, the televised debate offered a final chance to swing voters before an election that will decide whether the nationalist, state-centric Peronists remain in power or give way to a populist outsider with virtually no political or administrative experience who has pledged to adopt the US dollar as Argentina’s currency.

Milei, an economist and television pundit who won elected office less than two years ago, said he knew how to make an economy grow and create jobs and denied that he would slash pensions and push state workers out of their jobs as he cut spending.

“A different Argentina is impossible with the same people as always,” he said, repeating his campaign attacks on the country’s political class. “We have come to offer you the model of freedom. We want you to have a ray of hope.”

While Milei frequently went on the offensive and at times appeared nervous and uncomfortable, Massa opted for a more measured stance, emphasising his long political career and stressing his desire to build consensus and respect different points of view.

“I’m going to give you some advice: don’t get aggressive because what people expect is answers,” Massa told his opponent in the opening section of the debate, stressing that he would retain social safety nets, protect pensions and ensure education and health remained publicly funded.

Massa also sought to associate Milei with the unpopular centre-right presidency of Mauricio Macri from 2015 to 2019, suggesting that Milei’s programme was similar, and reminded the audience that Milei had worked for more than a decade for one of the country’s most powerful business people, billionaire airport operator Eduardo Eurnekian.

Milei was unsparing in his response. “With you as economy minister, you destroyed our incomes,” he told Massa. “I am going to end the central bank, which is the . . . way in which you rob us. In fact, the delinquent government in which you participate is robbing us of $90bn. Whose life do you want to carry on screwing up?”

Milei sent shockwaves through Argentine politics by placing first in August’s nationwide primaries with an upstart campaign that pledged to take a chainsaw to the state. But Massa edged past him in last month’s first-round election, although not by a strong enough of a margin to win the presidency outright.

Patricia Bullrich, the mainstream centre-right candidate who was eliminated last month, and Macri have both backed Milei. But Massa taunted Milei that neither of his two newfound political allies turned up to support him at the debate, which was held at the University of Buenos Aires.

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