The Miami Herald
March 22, 1999
Menem surprises political foes with bid for third term

             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 it. The
             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 will
             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?'' said
             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 8 --
             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 January
             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 steady rise
             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
             supermarket looting.

             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 miracle
             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 will
             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 for a
             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
             be changed.

             Thanking his opponents for their proposal in a speech Tuesday night, Menem said,
             ``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 dared
             to offer a substitute for his main legacy: a peso pegged firmly to the dollar and
             freely convertible.

             ``They're like statues,'' Menem scoffed last week. ``They do no harm, but take
             you nowhere.''

             Menem's most threatening foe within his own party is the grim, hefty Buenos Aires
             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 would
             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 so
             honest that any little wind could knock him down.''

             Menem's maneuverings have won him this obvious triumph: Neither Duhalde nor
             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.


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