May 16, 2003

Argentina's next president prepares for office

Kirchner meets with aides after default win

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) --Nestor Kirchner prepared to take over as president
of Argentina, moving Thursday to assemble a new government after he was declared the
winner by default in the country's presidential contest.

Kirchner, a Peronist Party politician from the southern oil-rich province of
Santa Cruz, met with top aides at his Buenos Aires home to narrow down his
Cabinet choices.

The 53-year-old lawyer was catapulted into the presidency after former
President Carlos Menem abandoned his bid for a third term on Wednesday
after polls showed him trailing badly ahead of a scheduled weekend runoff.

Kirchner begins his four-year term on May 25, succeeding outgoing President
Eduardo Duhalde. He takes office lacking the support he sorely needs to
confront Argentina's deep economic and social crisis.

The three-term governor assumes the presidency on the strength of his first
round election showing, when he got 22 percent of the vote and came in
second after Menem. He has little experience on the international stage.

Among his challenges, Kirchner must cobble together the support of feuding
political leaders from his fractious Peronist party, bring along an
independent-minded Congress and the support of some 19 candidates from the
bitterly contested first round on April 27.

"He's going to have to compromise," said Alberto Bernal, an Argentina expert
at IDEAGlobal, a New-York based think tank, who predicted that the
president's ability to govern an unruly country that exploded into economic riots
in the streets in 2001 will be a real test.

Deep recession will offer immediate test

Lanky and silver-haired, Kirchner is the governor of a Patagonian province with
more sheep than people. His main challenge is to lead Argentina out of a
five-year recession.

One in five workers is without a job and half the 34 million people in this large
nation, once among the world's 10 wealthiest, live in poverty. Argentina
defaulted on $141 billion in public debt in 2001 and its economy contracted by
11 percent last year.

Railing against Menem, who dominated politics in the 1990s, Kirchner on
Wednesday blamed the former president for the recession that began in
mid-1998. It exploded into a full-blown crisis in 2001, with a run on banks and
street riots that killed dozens.

"First he robbed the Argentines of the right to work, then the right to eat, the
right to study and the right to hope," Kirchner said in a speech to supporters.

As hundreds of people mobbed him with shouts of "Long live the president!"
Kirchner promised to help build "a different country, with great humility but with
firm convictions, hope and optimism."

Could complicate Bush plan

Kirchner, a lawyer whose wife is an influential senator, insists he's up for the

He takes credit for being a good administrator of Santa Cruz, which has never
suffered the same sort of fiscal implosions that hit Argentina's other provinces.

But critics say Santa Cruz is easy to manage because it gets so much money
from oil revenue and has less than 200,000 people living in an area the size of

During his campaign, Kirchner suggested he would exert greater government
control over the oil industry and train systems, both privatized by Menem during
his 1989-1999 presidency.

While Menem pitched free-market economics and closer ties to the United
States, Kirchner campaigned for stronger government support for the economy.

Experts say Kirchner's win could complicate President Bush's ambitious
designs for a 34-nation Free Trade Area of the Americas linking North
America with South America by 2005.

Argentina's economy has shown glimmers of hope, with stocks and bonds
surging this year and the peso regaining ground against the dollar. Inflation
appears under control but the jobless rate is still 18 percent.

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press.