The Washington Post
Monday, March 31, 2003; Page A08

Voter Apathy Marks Run-Up to Argentine Elections

Failure of Political Parties to Address Economic Crisis Fuels a Deeply Rooted Cynicism

By Jon Jeter
Washington Post Foreign Service

BUENOS AIRES -- "Who will I vote for?" Alberto Dima repeats the question with a tone of bemusement as he sits in the barber's chair. "I am torn," he says,
"between Shaquille O'Neal and Homer Simpson."

"No, no," Omar Menendez says as he trims Dima's thick beard. "Bart Simpson. I like Bart Simpson for president." Menendez lifts the scissors for a moment and
turns to his partner, Guillermo Fonzi, awaiting customers in the chair next to him. "Guillermo, who will you vote for for president?"

"You are both crazy," replies Fonzi without lifting his gaze from a magazine. "I am voting for Clemente," referring to a popular cartoon character here.

"Ah, this country," he adds with disgust. "We have this horrible economic crisis and our politicians give us nothing but clowns and crooks to choose from for our next

Perhaps the most jarring element of the gravest economic crisis this country has ever known is a lack of faith among Argentines in their politicians' willingness or
ability to help. With less than a month left before they go to the polls to choose a new president, voters responding to public opinion polls here show only contempt
and indifference toward the five front-running presidential candidates.

"People were angry initially," said Victor Abramovich, executive director of the Center for Legal and Social Studies. "But we've seen that anger dissolve into disgust
and that disgust dissolve into apathy. There is this abiding cynicism in most of our politicians, our political parties, virtually all of our democratic institutions. People
don't believe that they are going to make their lives better and you're really seeing this revolution of indifference in Argentina."

So far, no one candidate has been able to muster as much as 20 percent of voter support in any published opinion poll. According to election rules, a candidate must
capture at least 46 percent of the vote or outdistance the next closest candidate by at least 10 percentage points to avert a runoff.

"People are hungry both for food and for leadership, said Dima, 54, a wholesale liquor salesman. "We have neither. And so there is this . . . gallows humor, that the
people have adopted. We are not giving up but no one is placing their faith in our politicians to improve our situation even though they are responsible."

The apathy stands in contrast to the rage in December 2001 that led thousands of Argentines into the streets to protest after the government devalued the peso.
Depositors' life savings were wiped out virtually overnight and the sometimes violent demonstrations forced the resignation of President Fernando de la Rua, and, in
short order, three of his appointed successors.

There are signs that the country may start to rebound from its deep recession, but the situation is grave. Once Latin America's most prosperous country, Argentina
has an unemployment rate of almost 20 percent. Government statistics indicate that since December 2001, the percentage of Argentina's 37 million people living on
less than $250 a month has jumped from 38 to 58.

Many Argentines participate in nascent grass-roots efforts to provide the poor with jobs, health care and education rather than depending on the promises of political
parties. Even the vaunted Peronist Party, founded by the late dictator Juan Peron and his wife, Eva "Evita" Peron, is in disarray.

A party feud between the caretaker president, Eduardo Duhalde, and his bitter rival, former president Carlos Menem, has led to an unprecedented electoral season
in which no presidential candidate will appear on the ballot with the official Peronist endorsement.

Instead, three Peronists are running -- Menem; Duhalde's handpicked successor, Nestor Kirchner; and Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, who was driven from office after
serving for only a few days as one of the caretakers appointed to succeed de la Rua. They will face off on April 27 against Ricardo Lopez Murphy of the opposition
Radical Party and Elisa Carrio, a former Peronist who has now joined a small party called Alternative for a Republic of Equals.

Kirchner holds a slight advantage in the polls against Menem, who stepped down in 1999 after 10 years in office. His administration instituted a broad program of
privatization and free-market reforms, but was marked by widespread charges of corruption.

With campaign slogans such as "Menem knows how to do it," the former president has managed to capitalize on the electorate's nostalgia but has been unable to
surpass even 15 percent of voter support in the polls, typically trailing the moderate Kirchner by a few percentage points. The largest proportion of voters are
undecided. The Duhalde government has acknowledged that voter apathy is high.

"The numbers on public participation are not the ones we would like to see," Interior Minister Jorge Matzkin told reporters recently.

Adults here are required by law to cast ballots, but in October 2001 midterm elections, nearly 40 percent of the electorate cast spoiled or blank ballots or voted for
write-in candidates. Political analysts say that next month's election totals could easily rival that figure.

"Many of my friends say they will cast their ballot for Clemente," said Axel Kraefft, 21, a computer programmer, who said he would vote for Lopez Murphy.

"People really feel like our politicians are the same: out of touch or corrupt," he said. "I think probably the two most popular politicians in Argentina right now are
Lula and [Rudolph W.] Giuliani," he said, referring to Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil's newly elected populist president, and the former mayor of New York.
Giuliani, known here for his crackdown on crime, is popular among Argentines weary of growing urban lawlessness.

Some say that the leadership crisis is a product of Argentina's history. Democracy returned only 20 years ago, following a brutal military dictatorship that came to
power in a 1976 coup that created a vacuum in the development of democratic institutions.

Human rights groups have said as many as 20,000 people were killed in the "dirty war" of the 1970s, when the Argentine military abducted university students,
teachers, intellectuals and labor organizers, all of whom became known as the disappeared.

"There is an entire class of our potential leaders gone," said Abramovich. "It is impossible to replace them, and so the consequence is a greatly diminished political

The impact of the dirty war has not been forgotten.

"We're essentially missing an entire generation of our best and brightest," said Menendez, the barber. "The bill has to come due sooner or later. Who can say how
many people were among those . . . who disappeared who could have actually inspired Argentines?"

                                               © 2003