Apathy gives boost to Peronists

SUN JOURNAL

Election: Many Argentines will be voting for one of three presidential candidates from the much-discredited party -- out of habit or for lack of a better option.

April 24, 2003|By Reed Lindsay | Reed Lindsay,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - For many Argentines, former President Carlos Menem is synonymous with corruption and gangster-style politics.

He has been arrested for suspected arms dealing and is widely resented for selling off every state-owned industry, from the oil company to the postal service. In power from 1989 to 1999, he is perhaps the most hated political figure in this nation of 37 million people - some pollsters say between 60 percent and 70 percent of the population would never vote for him under any circumstance.

But as Sunday's presidential election draws near, with the country mired in the worst economic crisis of its history, few here are counting Menem out.

In recent polls, he is running neck and neck with two other candidates from the long-dominant and much-discredited Peronist Party - provincial governor Nestor Kirchner and Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, president for a week in December 2001 before stepping down amid protests and political pressure. Opposition candidates are trailing by several percentage points.

After two decades of representative democracy in Argentina, apathy is running high, new leaders are scarce and elections are still won by old-fashioned party politics.

"Menem was the president, Rodriguez Saa was the president, Kirchner is a governor. They are all accomplices in bringing about the disaster that Argentina is today, yet more than half the country is going to vote for them," says Atilio Boron, who heads the Buenos Aires-based Latin American Council for Social Studies. "Peronism is the party that brought the masses into Argentine political life. If you're poor, working class and live in a slum, you're Peronist. It's not even thought about."

Last year, in the wake of widespread looting and spontaneous middle-class protests that ousted two presidents in as many weeks, leading Peronists could not appear in public for fear of being assaulted by bands of irate Argentines. The protesters blamed them and the Radicals, the other major party, for driving Argentina into financial ruin while they lined their pockets from the nation's coffers.

That anger has since subsided into bitter indifference. Many Argentines say they are planning on turning in blank ballots or not voting at all. But many more will be voting for a Peronist - out of habit or for lack of a better option.

Even more disgraced than the Peronists is the 112-year-old Radical Party, whose last two presidents resigned prematurely after driving the nation into economic collapse.

"I prefer a thief to an incompetent," says Tomas Garcia, 42, a gray-goateed Peronist who is campaigning for Kirchner. "The voters are going to choose our candidates. They're a bunch of sons of bitches, but there's nobody else who can govern."

Nearly 30 years after former President Juan Peron's death, his greatest legacy may be a hulking party that has maintained an assiduous hold on power through populism, an entrenched system of political patronage and a monopoly on the social welfare system.

This year, the Peronist Party has fractured, and for the first time, it will not be unifying behind a single candidate.

Still, the majority of elected officials, especially at the local level, continue to be Peronists. Meanwhile, thousands of low-level militants are working full time as foot soldiers in the campaign of one of the three Peronist candidates. They are plastering political posters on buildings and lamp posts, and marshaling poor people into buses for transport to political rallies.

No other political organization comes close to such a huge apparatus of party members. And despite the party's tarnished image, Peronism remains the primary political beacon for Argentina's working poor.

"I've always considered myself a Peronist worker," says Esteban Luis Aguirre, 58, who makes a living scavenging scrap metal in the urban sprawl south of Buenos Aires.

"Voting Peronism is the same as being a fan of Boca or River," he says, referring to Argentina's two most popular soccer teams. "I'm a Boca fan, and so are my three sons. My parents and grandparents were Peronists so I am too."

The two leading non-Peronist candidates - conservative economist Ricardo Lopez Murphy and Elisa Carrio, a left of center corruption crusader - have recently launched upstart political parties. The former Radicals have managed to win support among the middle and upper classes, and Lopez Murphy has surged into second place in some recent polls. But analysts say their chances of winning are slim.

They must overcome two powerful, albeit fading, icons among Argentina's working class - the ghosts of Peron and his wife, Eva. All three Peronist candidates frequently invoke Juan and Eva Peron while running populist campaigns in the style of the revered former president.

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