The Miami Herald
Apr. 20, 2003

Disappointed Argentines sitting out political contest

Polls indicate no clear leaders emerge from economic crisis


  BUENOS AIRES -Cesar Andrés Zamudio passively smoked a borrowed cigarette as the carnival of a presidential rally held recently in Argentinas capital erupted around him.

  Twenty years old and unemployed, Zamudio did not appear moved by the massive banners, the pounding drums, the swaying supporters of Néstor Kirchner, governor of the sparsely populated Patagonian province of Santa Fe and a candidate in the April 27 presidential election.

  ''We are going hungry,'' Zamudio said of his family of five, among the victims of the worst economic crisis in the countrys history, ``and I dont see how any politician will put food on the table.''

  In a country once inflamed by politics, Zamudio is part of a growing group of Argentines standing in the shadows of the presidential race.


  Disheartened by the corruption and mismanagement that led to the collapse of South Americas second-largest economy in December 2001, many unemployed and
  underemployed Argentines say that none of the five leading candidates fuel any hope.

  ''My generation doesnt believe in any candidate,'' said Luciana Rossi, a stylish 24-year-old law clerk, as she hurried through the traffic jam caused by a political rally for
  Kirchners rival, Carlos Menem, the former president many blame for the economic collapse. ``We are disillusioned.''

  Polls show five candidates with lukewarm support of between 10 and 20 percent -- and record numbers of Argentines vowing to vote for no one or not show up.

  In the cafés that dot this bustling city, Argentines once consumed by politics now seem to prefer to debate the war in Iraq or soccer scores.

  ''Everyone used to talk politics. Campaigns were intense, almost exaggeratedly so,'' said Manuel Mora y Araujo, a leading pollster whose surveys consistently predict
  Kirchner and Menem will meet in a May 15 runoff. ``No longer.''


  A bitter battle for president can feel remote to the struggles of the 22 million people, 58 percent of the country, who live in poverty, or on less than $250 a month for a
  family of four.

  Adding to the disgust is the messiest primary season in the 20 years since Argentina returned to democracy following a brutal military dictatorship.

  The countrys leading political party, the Peronists, scrapped its primary election when current President Eduardo Duhaldes handpicked successor, Kirchner, appeared
  headed for an embarrassing loss to Menem. For the first time, the splintered Peronists are fielding three candidates, including Adolfo Rodríguez Saá, who was appointed president during the December 2001 crisis and lasted just a week.

  The dissolution of the opposition Radical Party is as severe. Its two leading candidates, centrist former economics minister Ricardo López Murphy and left-leaning
  congresswoman and anticorruption crusader Elisa Carrió, defected to form their own parties. The Radicals official candidate, Leopoldo Moreau, barely registers in polls.

  The deep divisions in the countrys traditional two-party system could lead to stalemates in Congress and an unproductive presidency, Mora y Araujo and others predict.
  That would make consensus on fiscal affairs harder to build and could stall an incipient recovery.

  Peronist party hatreds are particularly intense. Duhalde was Menems vice president in 1989 but their falling out now deeply divides Peronists.

  Kirchners rivals have even speculated in recent weeks that Duhalde may resort to fraud to prop up his preferred candidate, potentially setting the stage for a legal
  challenge to election results.

  ''If the Peronists cant have an election without fraud or gunshots,'' asked Horacio Verbitsky, a leftist columnist and leading investigative reporter, ``how are they going to govern without fraud or gunshots?''

  In December 2001, already mired in a four-year recession, the government devalued the peso, wiping out overnight the life savings of many Argentines. Violent protests followed, leading to the resignation of President Fernando de la Rúa and three appointed successors. Disgusted demonstrators took up the slogan: ''Que se vayan todos.'' Kick them all out.

  ''If politics isnt seen as improving peoples lives, it loses respectability,'' Verbitsky said. ``People are now hypercritical of politicians. They believe politics only improves the lives of politicians.''

  Like many in attendance, Zamudio watched the Kirchner rally with sullen eyes.

  He and his friends had only come because the political boss from their devastated middle-class neighborhood of Villa Luro promised free food once they arrived.