Alliance trounces Peronists in Argentina Midterm election results are harsh blow for Menem


BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Traumatized by historic levels of unemployment and outraged by a series of spectacular scandals, voters in congressional elections handed President Carlos Menem his first national defeat yesterday.

The results, based on TV exit polls last evening, surprised winners, losers and pollsters. Menem's Peronists had been expected to take a fall, but not quite such a steep one.

"It's a tremendous message for the president," said Enrique Zuleta, vice president of Ibope, which conducted one of the major polls.

The Alliance, a 3-month-old coalition of the opposition Frepaso and Radical parties, won 41 percent of the vote, compared with 35 percent for the Peronists, according to early evening polls. They trounced the Peronists all over Argentina and even in their key former stronghold of Buenos Aires province.

In the capital, where the Alliance beat the Peronists by a 50-point margin, Argentines poured into the streets waving banners, shouting, singing, dancing and honking their car horns.

Only half of the 257-seat lower house was at stake in the election.

The Peronists lost their absolute majority, a mostly symbolic change, since Menem's government has had to negotiate with Peronists and smaller parties alike to pass key laws.

More important, the vote gave a powerful boost to the Alliance as it prepares for the 1999 presidential race. Sen. Graciela Fernandez Meijide, 66, the leading Alliance candidate in Buenos Aires province and a mother who lost her teen-age son in the military's 1970s "dirty war" against suspected subversives, is widely considered a strong contender.

The results dealt a serious personal blow for Menem, whose popularity has fallen sharply since he handily won a second presidential term in 1995. He had to change Argentina's constitution to allow his re-election, and early in his second term, rumors flourished that he would try to do so again, attempting a third run in 1999.

But then Argentina's economy was shaken by Mexico's peso crisis. Joblessness soared to nearly 18 percent. Menem's respected economy minister, Domingo Cavallo, resigned, making scorching denunciations of "mafias" close to power. And a prominent photojournalist was killed nine months ago in a still-unsolved case with mafia overtones.

In the wake of these traumas, voters have turned so decisively against the man who last campaigned on a warning of "It's me or chaos!" that Menem in recent days has flatly denied he'll seek a third term, promising instead to be a candidate in 2003.

Analysts do not expect major changes in policy as a result of the elections. The Alliance has pledged that it has no intention of trying to tamper with the fundamentals.

Ironically, Menem's defeat came just as Argentina's economic horizon is brightening. Inflation is close to zero, unemployment is starting to fall, and the economy may grow this year by as much as 8 percent.

Pub Date: 10/27/97

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