Menem headed for runoff in Argentina

Rival Peronist Kirchner is second in early returns

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

BUENOS AIRES -- Argentina's former President Carlos Saul Menem was headed for a runoff vote with rival Peronist Nestor Kirchner late yesterday in a neck-and-neck presidential race, partial results indicated.

With more than half of the official vote tallied, Menem was leading with 24 percent of the vote. Kirchner followed with 22 percent.

Ricardo Lopez Murphy, a free- market economist and former economy minister, was in third place with 17 percent of the vote.

The tight race among the two Peronists sets the stage for a runoff vote May 18.

No candidate received enough votes to win the election outright.

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 Argentinas 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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