Argentines Turn Against Peronists
Tarnished by Corruption, Internal Rifts, Party Loses Its Most Loyal Followers
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
BUENOS AIRES, Oct. 25—Enrique Victor Murillo was a proud member
of Juan and Eva Peron's not so silent army. As a teenager from a humble
family, Murillo stood for hours outside the Casa Rosada presidential house
to hear the pro-labor speeches of Argentina's president in the 1940s. The
cheers grew deafening when Peron's wife--Evita--stepped onto the
But Juan and Eva Peron must be rolling in their graves today. Murillo,
along with many current and former members of the ruling Peronist party in
Argentina, voted Sunday in ways that made it one of the darkest days in
the legendary party's history. In the shadow of the obelisk in Buenos Aires,
Murillo, a 69-year-old retired store clerk waved the flag of opposition
candidate Fernando de la Rua, the austere mayor of the capital who
trounced the Peronist candidate, Eduardo Duhalde, to become Argentina's
Although the margin of victory was not as wide as some analysts had
predicted--with 97 percent of votes counted, de la Rua had 48.5 percent
versus 38 percent for Duhalde--the ideologically diverse opposition
nevertheless came out ahead in many provinces long considered Peronist
Peronists took a key victory by holding on to the governorship of the
province of Buenos Aires. But they lost in two other large provinces to de
la Rua's Alliance for Work, Justice and Education. The Peronists also lost
their majority in the lower house of Congress to the Alliance, which picked
up 16 seats.
"The Peronists are not the party I remembered," said Murillo, as tears
stained his face. "My beautiful Evita, the strong [Juan] Peron, are only
memories. . . . All that is left is corruption and selfishness."
The vote underscored deep-seated problems in the party that Juan and
Eva built into a machine but which today is struggling to find a new role in
modern Argentina. De la Rua, 62, will replace President Carlos Menem on
Dec. 10, breaking 10 consecutive years of Peronist rule during which
Menem and his Peronists were both lionized and demonized, facing
corruption scandals along with successes and failures in their ambitious
For the political movement that became one of the most important in Latin
American history--not to mention the stuff of a Broadway musical--the
worst problems are internal. A power struggle between Duhalde and
Menem, who had wanted to run for a third term but was forbidden to do
so by the constitution, fragmented the party machinery into warring
factions. Since Duhalde's maneuvering stopped Menem from changing the
constitution, the two have engaged in open verbal warfare.
"All I can say," said Duhalde, the outgoing governor of Buenos Aires
province, "is that I was not the father of this defeat."
Over time, Duhalde's loss will likely leave Menem as the party's standard
bearer--something analysts say Menem was shooting for in Duhalde's
"It's going to take us several months to recover and rebuild this party
the elections--and what we're going to have to do is reinvent ourselves, get
new leaders and find a way to make Argentines trust the party again," said
Jorge Telerman, Peronist ally of Duhalde and former Argentine
ambassador to Cuba.
Some analysts suggest the Peronists may have become victims of their own
style. They say that like Peron, Menem was a caudillo, a strong,
paternalistic populist who tended to put personal ambitions before his
party. Indeed, even before Duhalde ended his campaign last week,
Menem's supporters launched the president's bid for the 2003 race, when
he is legally permitted to run again.
"Menem is a man who craves power above all else," Telerman said. "And
if we are to modernize as a party, we are going to have to start by putting
egos in check."
Menem has also alienated many hard-core Peronist voters. Since Peron
came to power in 1946 and continuing after his death in 1974, the party
had been grounded in a complicated mix of nationalism and socialism.
Above all, it survived off the support of labor.
Menem won concessions from the unions, ended hyperinflation by pegging
the Argentine peso to the dollar and slimmed down the public work force
by selling off virtually every state-run industry. But the wealth has been
largely concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, while unemployment and
poverty rates have soared. This has been a particularly difficult adjustment
for Argentina, where even unskilled workers had long enjoyed one of the
highest standards of living in Latin America.
The Alliance includes de la Rua's centrist Radical Civic Union, one of
Argentina's oldest and most traditional parties, and the Front for a Country
in Solidarity, former Peronists who opposed Menem's reforms. De la Rua
scored points with the disenfranchised. Although he remains an advocate
of the free market, he has promised to spread the benefits to a wider group
of people, cracking down on tax evasion by the rich to fund new social
The Peronists are also back to battling an old reputation for corruption--an
issue that became pivotal in the campaign. At least 10 of Menem's top
advisers have been fired or are under indictment for corruption charges,
mostly stemming from privatization kickbacks. De la Rua's honest image
and pledges to fight corruption and be fiscally conservative hit the mark.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company