The Miami Herald
Mon, Apr. 28, 2003

May runoff to decide Argentina's presidency

Former President Menem, rival Peronist in historic vote


  BUENOS AIRES -A flamboyant former president and a little-known provincial governor are headed to a runoff in Argentina's tightest presidential race since
  the nation returned to democracy two decades ago.

  The two top vote-getters in Sunday's presidential election -- Carlos Menem, whose fiscal policies are blamed by many Argentines for setting up the worst
  economic crisis in the country's history, and newcomer Néstor Kirchner, the hand-picked candidate of Eduardo Duhalde, the country's current caretaker
  president and Menem's arch-rival -- will face off May 18, the first runoff in Argentina's 200-year history. Both candidates are members of the Peronist party.

  With 95 percent of ballots counted, Menem led with 24 percent of the vote, followed by Kirchner, governor of the sparsely populated province of Santa Cruz
  in Patagonia, with 22 percent. Ricardo López Murphy, a conservative economist, was third with 17 percent, leftist Congresswoman Elisa Carrió was fourth
  and populist Adolfo Rodríguez Saá in fifth out of 19 presidential candidates, according to a government tally taken late Sunday evening.

  The new president of South America's second largest country is scheduled to take office May 25.

  As election results trickled in, Menem waved to about 500 supporters late Sunday from a second-floor window of his campaign headquarters at the aptly
  named Hotel Presidente in downtown Buenos Aires.

  ''The second round will be a mere formality,'' Menem said at a news conference. ``We will bring Argentina out of this genuine tragedy.''

  Meanwhile, from his office in Santa Cruz, Kirchner thanked voters for supporting his ``platform of job creation, stability and dignity.''

  The election appeared to run smoothly in the 66,820 voting places spread throughout the Federal Capital of Buenos Aires and the country's 23 provinces,
  despite incidents of heckling when some candidates went to vote. International election monitors did not report any initial problems.


  However, López Murphy, a former economy and defense minister who enjoyed a late surge in the polls, claimed his ballots were being ''stolen or
  destroyed'' in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Córdoba and Tucumán. Other losing candidates also alleged irregularities.

  While legal challenges could delay official results, political observers said such complaints are weakened by the sizable gap between second and third place
  of about five percentage points. Despite early indications of public indifference and predictions that many voters would not show up, the tight race drove
  participation to about 80 percent, close to historical averages for presidential contests. Voting is mandatory for Argentines between ages 18 and 70,
  though the law is rarely enforced. An official count will be certified by a national electoral committee within two weeks.

  The runoff pits two powerful factions within the Peronists, officially known as the Justicialist Party.

  Menem, 72, enjoys huge support among the poor voters in the interior of the country, and the free-market changes during his 10-year presidency that
  ended in 1999 make him a favorite of the international financial community.

  But Menem is dogged by accusations of corruption and scandal, and a powerful anti-Menem sentiment in the sizable middle class could make his eventual
  victory difficult.

  Kirchner, 53, a virtual unknown on the national political scene, will call on a well-oiled political machine built by Duhalde during his time as governor of
  Buenos Aires province, which boasts a third of the country's 37 million people. Kirchner has pledged to continue Duhalde's center-left policies, which have
  led to an incipient economic recovery but put off real fiscal change.

  Opinion polls released before the election showed Menem losing to Kirchner in a runoff. In the coming three weeks, Menem and Kirchner will battle for the
  loyalty of millions of newly poor Argentines, considered the nation's swing vote.

  ''Your politics change when you feel hunger,'' said Marcel Contardo, 28, an unemployed electrician with a wife and two children.


  The fifth presidential election since the end of a violent military dictatorship in 1983 -- and the first since the December 2001 economic collapse -- was
  fractured and muddled compared to earlier contests. The country's 25 million registered voters, battered by a currency devaluation and a freeze on savings
  accounts, reported being disgusted with the political landscape and resisted throwing their support behind any single candidate.

  ''I voted because it's mandatory, not because I wanted to,'' said Miguel Ruiz, 54, a shoe shiner in Buenos Aires. ``These politicians are all the same.''

  Claudia Aparicio brought her 9-year-old son Nicolas to the polls so he could witness democracy in action.

  ''I want a better future for my son,'' she said. ``I want a president that will take care of those who are suffering and move this country forward.''

  This report was supplemented with material from Herald wire services.