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A Populace has Lost its Head, Heart & Direction

1730 M St. NW, Suite 1010

Washington, D.C. 20036

(202) 216-9261

03.17 Monday, 28 April 2003

Memorandum to the press

Argentina's Presidential Election: A Populace that has Lost its Head, Heart and Compass Direction

Argentines went to the polls to elect their first president of the 21st century. The final tally in that tragicomedy known as Argentina indicated that the narrow plurality of the populace who voted for Carlos Menem were largely unwilling to embrace the future, but instead remain a prisoner of a shameful past and a wretched legacy left by the former president. Menem's dark and forbidding bestowals on the nation consists of indescribable scandals, the further corruption of the judiciary and the other dire consequences of an economic policy that directly led to the worst economic crisis that Argentines have seen in more than a century.

Carlos Menem, who served as head of state from 1989-1999, emerged in first place with a shade over 24 percent of the vote. Even before the ballots were completely counted, the triumphant ex-president predicted that, under his tutelage, "Before long this country will be back on the international stage and among the 10 or 15 great powers in the world."

While it is a certainty that Argentina, under Menem, will be back on the international stage, it will not be because it has once again become one of the "great powers". Instead, by being misguided enough to cast their ballot for him, Argentines will have demonstrated their infinite capacity for consuming snake oil, and that they feel comfortable with having a world-class corruptor in the presidential palace.

In most seasoned and self-respecting nations that uphold the rule of law, rather than genuflect upon hearing LSD-laced speeches from the presidential balcony, the public would have clamorously demanded that Menem's numerous indiscretions land him in prison instead of being on the verge of again experiencing his third inauguration. In 2001, the former president spent 5 months under house arrest on account of arms-trafficking for personal aggrandizement and is also alleged to have accepted a $10 million bribe from Arab terrorists in exchange for covering up details surrounding the bombings of Buenos Aires-based Jewish facilities in the 1990's. Indicative of his self-serving and opportunistic temperament and the daily scandals which afflicted his administration, Menem is exploiting Argentine disenchantment with the country's diseased-wracked economy as a springboard to the Casa Rosada, despite the fact the country's dire predicament is largely his handiwork.

Fortunately, Menem's victory could be ephemeral. His total vote was over 20 percent below the threshold requisite to obviate a May 18 runoff and second-place finisher Nestor Kirchner trailed Menem by less than 2 points. By gravitating leftwards in the closing days of the campaign, Kirchner consolidated support from the country's more liberal and refined elements, and, combined with the middle class's loathing for Menem, it appears likely that the Santa Cruz governor will very well be the next resident at the Casa Rosada, because he has a much greater potential than Menem to draw alienated voters from the defeated Peronist candidate as well as those from the other political parties that contested the just-concluded balloting. Whether Kirchner can wield the political skills and fortitude requisite to resuscitate Argentina from its terminal condition remains unclear, but it is certain that his victory would at least restore what little respectability the country had retained, but lost, by enabling Menem to win a plurality on April 27.

Observations of the Argentine Presidential Election from Buenos Aires

April 28, 2003 2:00 a.m. Buenos Aires, Argentina

80% of the eligible population voted.

97% of the votes were counted as valid.

2.65% of the votes were invalid (blank vote, nullified vote, or voting violation).

Kirchner won the most votes in the provinces of Chubut, Rio Negro, Formosa, Jujuy, Tierra del Fuego, La Plata, Santa Cruz, and Province of Buenos Aires. In Tierra del Fuego, he won 50% of the total vote.

From a field of candidates of every style and background, Argentines today chose ex-president Carlos Menem and fellow Peronist Néstor Kirchner as the two candidates to advance to a run-off for the presidential chair. By early Monday morning, almost 90% of the votes had been counted, and Menem topped the list with approximately 23% of the vote. Kirchner followed with 21%, and Ricardo Lopez Murphy, founder and candidate from the Recreate party, kept a close third. Approximately 80% of the eligible population voted in the first presidential election since the resignation of Fernando de la Rua in December of 2001.

Néstor Kirchner was born on the 25th of February 1950 in the capital of the Santa Cruz province of Argentina. He married Cristina Fernández in 1975. In 1976, he received his juris doctorate from the National University of La Plata. His political career began with his successful bid for mayor in the provincial capital of Rio Gallegos. In 1991, he was elected governor of the province of Santa Cruz, and has since remained governor of that Patagonian province, having been most recently re-elected in 1999. Kirchner and his vice-presidential candidate Daniel Scioli, the formation known as "Alianza Frente para La Victoria," were early favorites in the presidential race. They occupied the first or second spot in most of the polls until the late and unpredicted rise of Lopez Murphy in the final week of the campaign. Ex-president Carlos Menem, despite the controversy that marred his last two presidencies, has steadily headed the polls since late March. Very early on, Kirchner adopted a clearly defined anti-Menem agenda, attempting to distance himself from the dubious ex- president. Eduardo Duhalde, current president and long-time Menem foe, lent his support to Kirchner. The two Peronist candidates maintain cool relations, and accusations flew from both sides during the intense moments of the final weeks.

But Argentines seem only nominally interested in the personal battle between the candidates. Indeed, the most important debate centers on how to salvage the wreckage of Argentina's economy. In the midst of a full scale depression, with almost sixty percent of the population living in poverty, Argentines want nothing more than a president who will restore the stability, if not the luxury, that they knew in the last decade. For his part, Néstor Kirchner proposes to employ an economic plan that he calls "neokeynesian:"

· Government spending to create jobs and stimulate the economy, what Kirchner has publicly compared to Roosevelt's New Deal,1980's Italy, and post-Franco Spain.

This includes "development of a strong plan of public investment for the construction of housing, roads, and essential services that will generate both direct and indirect employment." He proposes to revamp the aging railroad system and expand it (under the auspices of the government) to unify the provinces and encourage tourism. In what has been called a nod to the Duhalde administration, Kirchner formally stated that, if elected, he will re-appoint the current Minister of Economics, Roberto Lavagna. Emergency Aid

· He will maintain the Head of Household Plan (Plan Jefes y Jefas) until the "end of the emergency." The plan, initiated by Duhalde, gives $150 dollars a month to the heads of poor families. At last count, it is saving from total indigency 25% of the poor families who receive the benefit. Kirchner likes to quote the equality of the rich and poor in his home province of Santa Cruz as an example of the success of his economic plan ("the national difference between rich and poor is 1 to 40; in Santa Cruz, it's 1 to 11.")

· He proposes to create a federal department of social help to organize and arrange all the social help plans, composed of representatives from the Casa Rosada, provinces, and from the government of the city of Buenos Aires. Education

· He will create a new federal system of education to replace the current one. He will increase the minimum number of school days to 220 and the number of scholarships in order to reduce the drop-out rate. He proposes to reinvent the national system of teacher training.

Election Day passed rather quietly. A political protest organized by the piqueteros at the Obelisk in Buenos Aires, illegal on Election Day, sputtered and died without incident. The Menem campaign has taken over the Hotel Presidente at Cerrito and 9 de Julio in Buenos Aires. The police barricaded the street in front of the hotel and looked on amusedly as the ultra-menemistas convened to salute their leader. Menem's official press conference was broadcast to the gathering crowd via two giant screens hung on the outside of the hotel. At around 11 p.m. Sunday night, Menem, his wife Cecilia Bolocco, and vice-presidential candidate Juan Carlos Romero and his wife appeared on the third floor balcony to salute the cheering crowd. Kirchner passed the Election Day in the governor's mansion in Santa Cruz, content to watch the results on television with his senator-wife Cristina. He appeared on television at around 11:30 p.m. Sunday night and spoke to his supporters gathered at his campaign headquarters in Buenos Aires.

In COHA's opinion, Kirchner has a strong chance against Menem in the election scheduled for Sunday, May 18. He will gain many votes from the vocal anti-Menemists, but it remains to be seen if he can successfully form a coalition that will overcome the ever-present ex-president. Menem's campaign is sparing no expense: his close-of-campaign event featured a massive set and stage in one of the largest soccer stadiums in Buenos Aires, complete with 30 foot tall portraits of Perón and Evita and a fireworks display. Kirchner will have his hands full for the next 21 days.

Prepared by: Conor Riffle (Buenos Aires) with the help of Grant M. Nulle (Washington DC), Research Associates, Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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