Menem Abandons Race For Argentine Presidency
Kirchner, a Rival Peronist, to Be Named President-Elect
By Brian Byrnes
Special to The Washington Post
BUENOS AIRES, May 14 -- After days of intense speculation and a countrywide
media frenzy, Carlos Menem, the flamboyant former president of Argentina,
withdrew today from the presidential runoff election scheduled for Sunday.
Menem's decision clears the way for Nestor Kirchner, governor of the oil-rich Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, to assume the presidency on May 25.
"This was a completely crooked election, against liberty and democracy,"
Menem told reporters outside the governor's residence in his home town
of La Rioja. "But
on Monday we will begin to work again."
The announcement by Menem, 72, was seen as a last-ditch effort to avoid
an embarrassing defeat in the Sunday election. Opinion polls showed Menem
Kirchner by 40 percentage points; Menem has never lost an election.
The decision followed a week of speculation on whether Menem would abandon
his candidacy. On Tuesday he canceled public appearances; this morning
he left his
campaign headquarters in Buenos Aires and flew to La Rioja.
Menem finished first among a field of five major candidates in a first
round of polling on April 27, despite accusations of corruption that plagued
presidency from 1989 to 1999.
Kirchner's surge in public opinion polls was credited in large part
to the endorsement of caretaker president Eduardo Duhalde, who has enormous
clout in the
populous Buenos Aires province and worked hard to promote Kirchner, while also working to take votes away from Menem, his archrival in the splintered Peronist
"Everybody knows that Kirchner was going to win and everybody knows
that Menem is quitting because he has no chance of winning Sunday's election,"
Carlos Gervasoni, an Argentine political scientist. "Now I think Kirchner will be seen as successful, in that he succeeded in actually defeating Menem, not electorally,
but just pushing him out of the race."
Speaking before supporters and journalists at a Buenos Aires hotel today,
Kirchner, also from the Peronist Party, criticized Menem's prolonged posturing,
Menem "stole the people's right to vote. He has ridiculed Argentina in front of the world."
Under Argentine electoral law, Menem's formal withdrawal will make Kirchner
the president-elect by default. After taking the presidential oath, Kirchner,
expected to follow many of the economic policies put in place by Duhalde. He also is expected to retain Roberto Lavagna as economy minister.
"The consequences are not going to be significant, particularly because
the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development
[President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva] in Brazil and [President Ricardo] Lagos in Chile, everybody is supporting the possible government of Kirchner, so there is going
to be wide support of this," said Jose Nun, an Argentine political scientist.
During the campaign, Kirchner has criticized the influence of foreign
corporations and other international institutions. He spoke today of solving
crisis from within.
"We will have to construct a different country, one with humility, but with a firm attitude," he said.
Many Argentines expressed dismay over the chaos caused by Menem's last-minute
withdrawal. Some said he undermined Argentine hopes for a smooth electoral
process after two years of political and economic uncertainty. The country defaulted on a portion of its $141 billion debt in December 2001 as it slid into a deeper
recession, and sharply devalued the peso. In the political and social turmoil that followed, the president resigned and was followed by a rapid succession of
appointed leaders before Duhalde took office.
"This kind of charade was irresponsible," said Gonzalo Schapira Toobe, 36, a businessman who voted for Menem in the first round of balloting in April.
"Kirchner only has the support of the anti-Menem people now, but later on he will face severe criticism and have lots of problems to solve on his own," he said.