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Argentina Election Results Show Citizens Weary of Recession - 2001-10-15

If Argentina's midterm elections Sunday were a referendum on President Fernando De la Rua's two-year-old administration, the final results showed that citizens are not happy with his handling of a 40-month-long recession.

The main opposition Peronist party carried 17 out of 24 districts nationwide.

Argentines, weary of more than three years of a brutal recession that has sent unemployment rates soaring, headed to the polls Sunday. Despite mandatory voting laws, only 70 percent of voters nationwide showed up to cast ballots.

The elections saw all senators, about half the members of the House of Deputies, and provincial and municipal offices up for vote in the most significant political test of President Fernando de la Rua's administration.

Preliminary government results had the leading opposition Peronist Party holding onto their majority in the upper house. It now holds 41 of the Senate's 72 seats.

The coalition of the center-left Radical Civic Union and the leftist Frepaso controls 25 seats. While the upstart Alternative for a Republic of Equals, that campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, appeared on its way to win one seat.

The senate race in Buenos Aires province brought back some familiar faces. Eduardo Duhalde, the former provincial governor, won more than 37 percent of the vote while former president Raul Alfonsin was the runner-up with 13 percent.

But the real runner up in the Buenos Aires province race was the "vota en bronca" - the protest vote. Argentines who cast either blank or voided ballots in protest accounted for 23 percent of the vote.

In the lower house, the Peronists won enough seats to make them the largest bloc, unseating the Alliance Party. Peronists will control at least 113 of the 257 seats. The Alliance party has 91 seats. Alternative for a Republic of Equals took third place with 17 seats.

The newly elected senators and deputies will take office December 10.

Just more than a year after a bribery scandal rocked the Senate and led to the resignation of Vice President Carlos Alvarez in protest, Sunday's election was the first chance Argentines had to vote out those they perceive as corrupt politicians.

And the protest vote reached levels not seen since democracy was restored in 1983. In the city of Buenos Aires the percentage of protest votes was near 28 percent, while protest votes in Santa Fe province reached 40 percent.

This was also the first election Argentine voters could choose all 72 members of the nation's Senate, previously they were appointed by provincial legislatures. It is hoped that directly elected senators will be more responsive to their home districts than to the elaborate political maneuverings that brought them to power in the past.

What the election will mean for the president remains to be seen. Mr. De la Rua, whose 18 percent approval rating is an all time low, now faces a Peronist controlled Congress. Even his own Alliance Party candidates have vowed to fight to change the governemnt's economic policy.

The president's plan is centered on the so-called zero-deficit plan implemented by Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo in July.

Mr. Cavallo turned around Argentina's inflation-ridden economy in the early 1990s, but has seen his popularity plunge after implementing a 13 percent across the board spending cut.

The president has repeatedly said he will keep Mr. Cavallo in his cabinet.