BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — A prosecutor launched a criminal case Friday against Argentina’s frontrunner in this month’s presidential elections, accusing Javier Milei of deliberately causing a drop in the Argentine currency when he encouraged citizens not to save in pesos.
Milei denounced the move as political persecution, just days ahead of the Oct. 22 polling.
President Alberto Fernández had called for the investigation in a complaint filed Wednesday, saying that the right-wing populist candidate was trying to scare the public and that his actions were “a severe affront to the democratic system.”
Prosecutor Franco Picardi on Friday referred a criminal case to a federal judge, going off Fernández’s accusation that claimed Milei and other candidates on his party’s ticket were inciting public fear — a charge that carries possible prison terms of up to six years. Federal Judge María Servini will later decide whether there is enough evidence to indict.
Milei is considered the frontrunner in the Oct. 22 election, after rocking Argentina’s political landscape when he unexpectedly received the most votes in August primaries that are widely seen as a massive poll of voter preferences.
He pushed back against the criminal case Friday, characterizing the prosecutor as an ally of the government and saying that Picardi is “persecuting the political option most voted by the Argentine people.”
In a post on social media, Milei added: “Nothing will prevent the beating we’re going to give them at the polls.”
In a news conference earlier this week, Milei said those who criticized him were trying to “tarnish the electoral process or even forcibly ban the most popular political force … because they know we’re just a few points away from winning.”
In his initial complaint, Fernández cited a radio interview Monday in which Milei recommended that Argentines not renew fixed rate deposits in the local currency, saying the “peso is the currency issued by the Argentine politician, and therefore it is not worth crap.”
Another member of Milei’s self-described libertarian party, a candidate for the Buenos Aires mayoralty, also called on citizens to drop the peso.
“Today more than ever: Don’t save in pesos,” Ramiro Marra wrote on social media Tuesday.
Marra and Agustín Romo, a candidate for the Buenos Aires province legislature in Milei’s Liberty Advances party, also were included in the prosecutor’s filing.
Many of Milei’s rivals blamed him for a sharp depreciation of the peso, which lost 10 percent of its value over the past week.
The so-called blue rate, as the informal exchange rate is known, reached as high as 1,050 pesos to the U.S. dollar on Tuesday, a sharp increase from 880 pesos the previous week. It later moderated that increase and ended the week at around 980 pesos to the dollar.
Stringent capital controls mean that access to the official foreign exchange market, which currently prices a dollar at 367 pesos, is extremely limited.
Milei is a fiercely anti-establishment candidate who has said that the answer to Argentina’s red-hot inflation, which is running at around 140% per year, is to dollarize the economy. He had recently suggested the sharp depreciation of the peso could be convenient for his eventual presidency.
“The higher price of the dollar, the easier it is to dollarize,” Milei said earlier this month.
Polls show Milei is leading the race for presidency although he does not appear to have enough votes to win outright without a runoff next month.