Argentines face first presidential runoff

Former president Menem leads Peronist rival

April 28, 2003|By Patrice M. Jones | Patrice M. Jones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BUENOS AIRES - Argentina's former President Carlos Saul Menem beat Peronist rival Nestor Kirchner in yesterday's election, but the narrow margin of the victory meant the two men will face off in the first presidential runoff vote in Argentina's history.

With 72 percent of the ballot tallied, Menem had 23.9 percent of the vote compared to 21.9 percent for Kirchner, governor of the oil-rich Santa Cruz province. Former economy minister Ricardo Lopez Murphy was third with 16.7 percent and a bevy of other candidates got the rest. A candidate must get 45 percent to win in the first round.

"We are going to pull this country out of this real disaster that everyone who came after me left behind," said the 72-year-old Menem.

Analysts say the split vote - scattered among the top five contenders - reflects the disappointment of Argentine voters struggling to find a new leader on the heels of a government debt default and the virtual collapse of the nation's economy.

About 60 percent of the nation's population lives in poverty.

"It is an election that is producing candidates that are garnering some of the lowest expectations in Argentine history," said Graciela Romer, a leading pollster and political analyst in Buenos Aires.

Menem, who had predicted his victory, smiled from a hotel window last night, basking in his unlikely political comeback after being a virtual pariah following his decade-long tenure as president, which ended in 1999.

As president, Menem, 72, a free-market advocate who had strong ties with the United States, symbolized modern economic success when he fixed Argentina's currency one-to-one with the U.S. dollar and the economy grew.

But economists now say that economic moves that tempered inflation made Argentine manufacturers less competitive and eventually led to spiraling debt, bankrupt companies and high unemployment.

Patrice M. Jones writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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