Voter Frustration Looms Over Argentine Elections
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
BUENOS AIRES, Oct. 11 -- Jittery foreign investors are losing faith
in the ability of Argentine politicians to put this recession-plagued country
back on track, and
now those same politicians are facing another credibility problem -- with their own electorate.
Argentines vote Sunday in key legislative elections, and opinion polls
show the country's 25 million registered voters are harboring their deepest
sense of disgust with
politicians since democracy was restored in 1983. Angry over what many call the governing coalition's ineptitude in dealing with Argentina's economic crisis and petty
bickering and corruption among all parties, one in four Buenos Aires voters said they will cast a blank or spoiled ballot. Nationwide, polls suggest the protest vote
could reach 15 percent -- more than double the average in past elections.
All 72 seats in the opposition Peronist-controlled Senate are being
contested Sunday. Half -- or 127 seats -- in the lower house, now dominated
by the governing
center-left coalition are up for grabs. The Peronists are expected to post moderate gains, retaining control of the Senate, and perhaps gaining enough seats to win
control of the lower house as well. Voting is compulsory.
But one big winner, according to opinion polls, may be a write-in candidate,
Clemente, a popular Argentine cartoon character who has no arms so that
he cannot rob
from the people.
"I look at all the politician advertisements on television and all I
hear are lies, lies and more lies," said Eduardo Gonzalez, 45, a Buenos
Aires veterinarian. "I wish all
of these politicians would just disappear."
The sentiment here represents what analysts call a growing frustration
among Latin Americans with their elected leaders. All countries in the
region except Cuba now
have democratically elected governments, yet in countries as diverse as Argentina, Peru, Brazil and Colombia, opinion polls show a sharp drop in public support for
elected leaders. Even the once-stratospheric approval ratings for the region's most popular presidents -- Mexico's Vicente Fox and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez -- are
beginning to erode.
Analysts say the polls reflect not a rejection of democracy, but a profound
disappointment with individual politicians at a time when the region seems
locked in a
pattern of economic downturns. Analysts said many Latin American leaders, especially in Argentina, have failed to deliver on promises for a better future and have
often dramatically changed their platforms after winning office.
"No one wants a return to the [military governments] of the past," said
Marita Carballo, president of the polling firm Gallup Argentina. "This
is not a rejection of
democracy; this is a sign of displeasure with the politicians who have emerged thus far."
Nowhere is that more true than in Argentina, where a deepening political
crisis is partly to blame for a worsening three-year recession that analysts
said has increased
the risk of a currency devaluation and debt default.
President Fernando de la Rua was elected in 1999 on a center-left platform,
but his indecision, multiple cabinet changes and seeming inability to deal
recession has sent his public approval ratings plummeting to around 20 percent. Today he heads a coalition that has all but fallen apart, lurching from one crisis to
another without any overall strategy.
Candidates from the Front for a Country in Solidarity, or FREPASO Party,
which made up the left-wing of his Alliance coalition, have largely withdrawn
support for de la Rua. Leading members of the president's own, more moderate Radical Civic Union have also turned against him. They have criticized de la Rua for
sticking by Domingo Cavallo, his controversial economy minister who helped secure an $8 billion rescue package for Argentina from the International Monetary
Fund in August.
Many Argentines object to some provisions in Cavallo's "zero deficit"
budget plan, which was essential to obtaining the loans. It imposed deep
cuts in pensions and
government salaries to avoid a default on Argentina's $132 billion debt. Critics say that Cavallo, a Harvard-trained economist who devised Argentina's opening to a
free market economy in the 1990s under former President Carlos Menem, has yet to come up with a viable plan to jump-start the economy.