Apathy is the front-runner in Argentine election

Candidates fail to impress as voters head to the polls amid economic turmoil


BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Argentines, battered by the worst economic crisis in their country's history, complaining of a lack of capable leadership and badly divided along class and regional lines, will trudge to the polls today to elect a new president, their sixth in little more than a year.

Polls indicate that the race is much too close to call. But political analysts say that reflects the uncertain economic situation and a disgruntled electorate's lack of enthusiasm more than it does the strengths or appeal of individual candidates.

"Anything can happen" with the main contenders bunched so tightly, Roberto Bacman, a pollster and political consultant here, said Thursday. "Everything is changing up to the last moment," he said, and "the only certainty in my mind is that there will have to be a second round."

In Argentina, to win without a runoff, a candidate must get at least 45 percent of the vote or finish at least 10 percentage points ahead of the runner-up.

Argentine law prohibits the publication of opinion surveys during the 48 hours before an election. A final poll published Friday in the conservative, historically anti-Peronist daily La Nacion showed Carlos Menem, a Peronist who served two terms as president in the 1990s, narrowly leading the field, with the support of 20.1 percent of those who said they intended to vote.

The poll indicated that two other candidates were within striking distance, in a dead heat for the right to participate in a runoff. Ricardo Lopez Murphy of the conservative Federal Recreate Movement is the favorite of 18.1 percent of voters polled, and Nestor Kirchner, an anti-Menem "reformist" Peronist, was favored by 17.9 percent.

Nearly 20 candidates will be on the ballot, from three veterans of military uprisings on the extreme right, to Communists and Trotskyites on the far left. But only five are thought to have a real chance to advance to the second round, which would be held May 18 with the victor to be sworn in a week later.

The other candidates considered to have a chance to qualify for the runoff are Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, a populist former Peronist president-for-a-week, and Elisa Carrio of the left-leaning Alternative for a Republic of Equals. But the entire field has been hurt by the negative attitude toward politicians that prevails.

Today's election is the fifth since a military dictatorship was toppled 20 years ago. But it takes place with Argentina still struggling to recover from the crisis that followed the collapse of the financial system in December 2001, which led the economy to contract by 12 percent last year and pushed 60 percent of the population into poverty.

Violence caused by a government decision to freeze bank accounts led to food riots, the deaths of 28 people in demonstrations and the resignation of President Fernando de la Rua. In the turmoil of the two weeks that followed, as Peronist factions tried to consolidate power, this nation of 37 million had five presidents, including Rodriguez Saa. The election was scheduled to be held near the end of the year, but it was moved up when the interim president, Eduardo Duhalde, said he intended to leave office early.

The vote is also the first with Argentina's two-party system in complete disarray.

The dominant Peronist Party is so badly split that it is fielding three candidates, while its traditional rival, the Radical Civic Union, has spawned two dissident offshoot campaigns, in Carrio and Lopez Murphy, in addition to an official nominee who has virtually no support.

"Both parties are imploding," which makes it even more difficult to predict the outcome of the vote, said Graciela Romer, a pollster and political consultant here.

"The electorate is extremely heterogeneous and fragmented and no longer polarized along an ideological axis. People are voting their pocketbooks, and for what they see as the lesser of evils."

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