Peronists gain in voting
BY LAURENCE NORMAN
BUENOS AIRES -- Recession-weary Argentines turned on President Fernando De la Rúa in a congressional election Sunday, casting a high number of blank or nullified ballots out of disgust with all politicians. Opposition Peronists commanded an early lead in races around the nation.
The vote posed the first major test of De la Rúa's fractious coalition government since his 1999 election and was seen as a referendum on his attempts to drag the South American country out of recession and stave off a default on its $132 billion public debt.
Early exit polls showed that nearly 30 percent of voters in the capital, Buenos Aires, cast spoiled ballots in a public outcry over the largely unpopular austere policies of the beleaguered De la Rúa. The president's approval ratings have plunged to 18 percent.
At polling stations across Buenos Aires, thousands of voters annulled
their votes. Others cast ballots scribbled with the names of cartoon characters
-- part of what
analysts called the vota bronca, or a vote of anger.
Exit polling signaled a better than expected showing for the opposition Peronist Party, which seemed poised to become the leading party in the lower house but fell short of a majority. With about 10 percent of the votes counted, election officials said the Peronist candidates were leading in Senate races in 16 of the 23 provinces.
Voters were electing the entire Senate, 127 of the 257 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, at least 11 provincial legislatures, a provincial governorship and many municipal posts.
In the most closely watched Senate race, powerful Peronist Eduardo Duhalde was ahead of Radical party leader Raúl Alfonsín by a margin of 36 percent to 18 percent.
Throughout his campaign, Duhalde openly criticized the government's economic policies, saying De la Rúa should consider restructuring Argentina's hefty debt load.
``We must change our economic policies because we're headed for
disaster,'' Duhalde said, calling the election a reflection of public opinion
about the government's
Argentines are in a foul mood after 40 months of recession that
has raised the jobless rate to more than 16 percent while seven austerity
programs in two years have
added to popular discontent.
De la Rúa and his powerful economy minister, Domingo Cavallo,
have exacted punishing cuts in the education and health budgets, trimming
state worker wages and
pensions by 13 percent.
Despite tough medicine, the economy remains in crisis and the specter of a debt default looms.
The vote was not expected to drastically alter the balance of power in Argentina. The two largest parties -- De la Rúa's centrist Radicals and the opposition Peronists -- are expected to continue to dominate.
In the Senate, the Peronists, who currently have 39 of 72 seats,
appeared to be maintaining that majority despite pre-election predictions
that they might lose some
In the Chamber of Deputies, the Peronists have 99 seats to 102 held by De la Rúa's ruling Alliance coalition of the Radicals and the leftist Frepaso party. The opposition was expected to make some gains, but not enough to end the Alliance majority.
Those with the most to lose, analysts say, are De la Rúa himself and Cavallo.
Many of the new lawmakers elected from De la Rúa's ruling Alliance coalition are expected to be his political foes, weakening his control of the coalition and making it difficult to pass legislation.
``The De la Rúa administration will be even weaker after the election,'' political analyst Rosendo Fraga predicted. ``As a result, its big political challenge will be to maintain its ability to govern.''
The president also insisted that he will keep Cavallo on if he reshuffles his Cabinet after the vote. Cavallo turned around Argentina's inflation-ridden economy in the early 1990s but has since seen his popularity plunge.