The New York Times
April 27, 2003

A Muddled Electoral Field for Weary Argentines


BUENOS AIRES, April 26 Argentines, battered by the worst economic crisis in their country's history, complaining of a lack of capable leadership and badly divided along class and regional lines, will trudge to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president, their sixth in little more than a year.

Polls indicate that the race is much too close to call. But political analysts say that reflects the uncertain economic situation and a disgruntled electorate's lack of
enthusiasm more than it does the strengths or appeal of individual candidates.

"Anything can happen," with the main contenders bunched so tightly, Roberto Bacman, a pollster and political consultant here, said Thursday. "Everything is changing
up to the last moment," and "the only certainty in my mind is that there will have to be a second round."

Argentine law prohibits the publication of opinion surveys during the 48 hours before an election, and different polls have come up with varying results. But a final poll
published Friday in the conservative, historically anti-Peronist daily La Nación showed Carlos Menem, a Peronist who served two terms as president in the 1990's,
narrowly leading the field, with the support of 20.1 percent of those who said they intended to vote.

The poll indicated that two other candidates were within striking distance, locked in a dead heat for the right to participate in a runoff. Ricardo López Murphy of the
conservative Federal Recreate Movement is the favorite of 18.1 percent of voters polled, and Néstor Kirchner, an anti-Menem "reformist" Peronist, was favored by
17.9 percent.

Nearly 20 candidates will be on the ballot, ranging from 3 veterans of military uprisings on the extreme right, to Communists and Trotskyites on the far left. But only
five are thought to have a real chance to advance to the second round, which would be on May 18, with the victor to be sworn in a week later.

The other candidates considered to have a chance to qualify for the runoff are Adolfo Rodríguez Saá, a populist former Peronist president-for-a-week, and Elisa
Carrió, of the left-leaning Alternative for a Republic of Equals. But the entire field has been hurt by the negative attitude toward politicians that prevails here.

"I don't really like any of them," said Mariana Nieto del Castillo, a schoolteacher here. "Some displease me more than others, but none of them really give me any
confidence in the future of this country."

Sunday's election is the fifth since a military dictatorship was toppled 20 years ago. But it takes place with Argentina still struggling to recover from the crisis that
followed the collapse of the financial system in December 2001, which led the economy to contract by 12 percent last year and pushed 60 percent of the population
into poverty.

Violence caused by a government decision to freeze bank accounts led to food riots, the deaths of 28 people in demonstrations and the resignation of President
Fernando de la Rúa. In the turmoil of the two weeks that followed, as Peronist factions tried to consolidate power, this nation of 37 million had five presidents,
including Mr. Rodríguez Saá. The election was originally scheduled to be held near the end of the year, but it was moved up when the interim president, Eduardo
Duhalde, said he intended to leave office early.

The vote is also the first with Argentina's traditional two-party system in complete disarray. The dominant Peronist party is so badly split that it is fielding three
candidates, while its traditional rival, the Radical Civic Union, has spawned two dissident offshoot campaigns, in Ms. Carrió and Mr. López Murphy, in addition to an
official nominee who has virtually no support.

"Both parties are imploding," which makes it even more difficult to predict the outcome of the vote, said Graciela Romer, a pollster and political consultant here. "The
electorate is extremely heterogeneous and fragmented and no longer polarized along an ideological axis. People are voting their pocketbooks, and for what they see
as the lesser of evils."

At one point or another, each of the five principal candidates has taken the lead in at least one of the half-dozen or so main polls, each of which uses a somewhat
different methodology and sample population. As a consequence, questions about the reliability and impartiality of the results have been rife, and all of the main
candidates predict that they will qualify for the second round.

Argentina's electoral code specifies that a runoff is not necessary if any candidate either wins 45 percent of the vote or gets 40 percent and has a 10-point margin over
the closest competitor. But with no candidate having emerged from the pack, the possibility a first-round triumph is dismissed as virtually impossible.

Under Argentine law, voting is obligatory for everyone from ages 18 to 70, and 25 million people are registered. But because of the electorate's disgust with the
country's situation and leadership, the no-show level is expected to be high.

In addition, concerns have been expressed about the possibility of fraud during the balloting and the vote count. Mr. Duhalde sought to allay those concerns on Friday
after meeting with international election observers, telling voters to "discount the possibility there will be problems" because "we have a transparent system" that will
allow ballots to be cast in "peace and tranquillity."

Early this year, though, the Peronist party was forced to cancel its primary, choosing instead to allow three candidates to run, in part because Mr. Duhalde himself said
that voter registration rolls were suspect. A March election for governor of an interior province also had to be postponed after supporters of a disqualified Peronist
candidate seized and burned ballot boxes and prevented voters from going to the polls.

No matter the outcome, candidates who do not make the runoff are expected to challenge the results in court. "Certainly the lawyers for all parties have already
prepared their injunction requests" to halt the second round until a recount is conducted, Mr. Bacman said.