Voters in Argentina Atwitter Over Menem
Comeback Elicits Both Joy and Dread
By Jon Jeter
Washington Post Foreign Service
BUENOS AIRES, April 28 -- One way or another, Carlos Menem was the topic of conversation around Argentina today.
"He is the only one who knows how to govern Argentina," said Isabel
Moreau, 45, peddling T-shirts on a downtown street. "People love him and
people hate him
but everyone knows he is the only person in Argentina who can get the job done."
Sitting on a park bench reading the newspaper Clarin, Sebastian Ameli,
28, had a different opinion. "Why can Argentina not be rid of this man?"
he said. "He is like a
ghost who haunts this country. He won't allow us to move forward. Myself, and some of my friends, we are seriously considering moving abroad if Menem is elected
Menem's advance on Sunday to a runoff election next month has brought
reactions of both delight and fear among Argentines, whose chief concern
economic stability. For some, the 72-year-old former president represents the strong hand and decisiveness the country needs to recover from a deep financial crisis.
For his opponents, Menem's previous two terms as president left a legacy of corruption and overspending that led to the economic collapse and a default on the
Menem emerged from Sunday's presidential balloting with 24 percent of
the vote, topping a crowded field of 18 candidates. He will face Nestor
southern Santa Cruz province, who took 22 percent, in a May 18 runoff. Both are members of the populist Peronist Party that has dominated politics here since it
was created by Juan Peron in the 1940s.
Throughout his campaign, Menem portrayed himself almost as a messianic
figure in Argentine politics, frequently comparing himself to Peron. At
Menem reassured voters that he would return to the presidency and save the country from the economic crisis.
Addressing a crowd of supporters Sunday evening -- shortly after it
became clear that he had advanced to the runoff -- he all but boasted of
his arrest two years ago
on charges that he had sold arms illegally while president. The charges were later dropped.
"Sixteen months ago I was in jail," he said as he stood with his wife,
a former Chilean beauty queen half his age. "I was insulted and I was slandered.
Thanks to all of
you, even those who criticized me and abandoned me."
For years the wealthiest country in Latin America, Argentina once had
a robust middle class and did not suffer the disparity between rich and
poor that characterizes
other South American countries. But a recession that began in Menem's last two years in office, followed by the devaluation of the Argentine peso in December
2001, pushed the country into a crisis. It now has an unemployment rate of about 25 percent, and more than 60 percent of the country's 37 million people live on
less than $2 a day.
During the campaign, Kirchner repeatedly questioned Menem's economic
policies, promising to revisit Menem's decisions to privatize state-owned
services such as
the railways and telephone company. Before he was picked by the caretaker president, Eduardo Duhalde, to join the race, Kirchner was little known beyond his
own, sparsely populated province. He has a reputation for running a clean government.
Despite his lack of charisma, he could appeal to voters who are weary of the traditional Peronist politics and want a new face, analysts said.
"Argentines chose two very clear priorities," wrote political columnist Joaquin Morales Sola in today's La Nacion newspaper, "governability and the economy."
Many analysts say that while Menem was the top vote-getter, he will have a tough time beating Kirchner.
"The problem for Menem is that while there are some people who love
him, there are twice as many people who say they would never, ever vote
for him," said
pollster Graciela Romer. "He has a low ceiling and I see Kirchner appealing to the broadest array of voters."