By KATHERINE ELLISON
Herald Foreign Staff
BUENOS AIRES -- President Carlos Menem, the wily author of Argentina's
historic economic transformation, has plenty of reasons not to seek a third term.
The constitution forbids it. More than 70 percent of Argentines oppose
president's own party is at war over it, and Menem's low ratings suggest he'd be
Yet, to the surprise of few who know him, Menem said last week that he
indeed run if a plebiscite, now suddenly under debate, clears the way.
Big, blue ``MENEM 1999 -- The Country Needs Him'' posters have popped up
throughout the elegant Argentine capital. And biographer Olga Wornat says the
68-year-old president, whose short stature and lofty ambitions match Napoleon's,
recently told her he intends, like his hero, ``to die with his boots on.''
``A rational, Western view would make you wonder, why take this big risk?''
Menem's pollster Julio Aurelio, ``but Menem is special. He is known for turning a
bad hand to his advantage.''
The will-he-won't-he drama, which must come to some conclusion by April
the deadline for candidates to state their intention to run in the May 9 Peronist
party primary -- is pure Argentine theater, with its heavy doses of ego and political
intrigue. Yet it also poses two important questions. Will most voters, come the
Oct. 24 election, feel safe choosing anyone else? And if not, what does that say
about their 16-year-old democracy?
Adding urgency is the state of Argentina's economy, which took a dive in
when Brazil, its main trading partner, allowed a steep devaluation in its currency.
Economists project economic output to shrink by 3 percent this year, with
unemployment rising up to 15 percent.
Aurelio said the Brazil impact was clearly a factor in what he called a
from the president's single digit popularity rating last year to what is now at 23
percent. Menem's main strength is his record of steering through such crises. Few
Argentines forget how he took over the presidency five months early, in 1989. His
predecessor, Raul Alfonsin, the first democratically elected president following the
1976-83 military rule, had abandoned office amid raging hyperinflation and
Then a vivid figure -- with his ponchos, high heels, bushy sideburns, flamboyant
marital troubles, and $66 million presidential jet called Tango 01 -- Menem made
equally vivid policy changes. He tamed inflation to less than 1 percent from 5,000
percent, sold off state firms and produced an average 6 percent growth rate from
1991 to 1997. International confidence in Argentina soared; U.S. investment in
this nation of 36 million now amounts to $14 billion.
First term wildly successful
So brilliant was Menem's first term that he managed to pull off the political
of a pact with then-opposition leader Alfonsin to change the constitution so that he
could be reelected for a four-year term in 1995. He tamed his image -- losing the
sideburns, heels and ponchos -- but not his ambitions: shortly thereafter, rumors
arose that he wanted a third term.
Last July, Menem seemed to put the rumors to rest, declaring, ``This president
leave power unfailingly on Dec. 10, 1999.'' But those who doubted him then had
their suspicions reawakened this month when a federal judge in Cordoba province
ruled that he could be a candidate in his party's primary.
Call for referendum
Menem's political rivals, seeking to stop him once and for all, then called
plebiscite to ask voters whether the constitution should be changed again. But
Menem called their bluff and raised the stakes -- by agreeing, on the condition the
vote would be ``binding,'' meaning that if voters called for it, the constitution would
Thanking his opponents for their proposal in a speech Tuesday night, Menem
``I am sure we will win by a landslide in every part of Argentina, and then I will be
the Peronist candidate.''
Rivals lack charisma
Menem's two closest rivals notably lack his political genius. Nor has either
to offer a substitute for his main legacy: a peso pegged firmly to the dollar and
``They're like statues,'' Menem scoffed last week. ``They do no harm, but
Menem's most threatening foe within his own party is the grim, hefty Buenos
provincial governor, Eduardo Duhalde. Duhalde is viewed as representing a return
to the patronage and social welfare spending programs of Gen. Juan Peron, who
dominated the country's politics for three decades until his death in 1974.
Within the opposition coalition, known as the Alliance, the candidate who
beat Menem if elections were held today is the grim, slim, Buenos Aires Mayor
Fernando de la Rua, renowned for his integrity.
Some say that's not an advantage in the contest of national politics, where
Menem's reputation as a rule breaker boosts his power.
``De la Rua,'' said accountant Roberto DiCostra, an undecided voter, ``is
honest that any little wind could knock him down.''
Menem's maneuverings have won him this obvious triumph: Neither Duhalde
de la Rua have been able to seize center stage, despite expensive imported advice
from two former Clinton aides. James Carville is helping Duhalde's campaign,
while de la Rua is supported by Dick Morris.
Copyright © 1999 The Miami Herald