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Argentina Prepares for Presidential Election - 2003-03-19


Next month, on April 27, voters will go to the polls in Argentina to elect a new president. The campaign comes at a time when Argentines are worried about a war in the Persian Gulf and shaken by an economic crisis at home. The candidates who will contest the election are, for the most part, familiar faces.

Over the past year, as Argentina suffered through a sharp devaluation of its peso currency and many, especially in the middle class, saw their fortunes decrease dramatically, the call for change grew loud. But the candidates for president are all experienced politicians, including former President Carlos Menem and two provincial governors. The kind of groundswell of public outrage that led to big political changes in Peru, Venezuela and Brazil in recent years did not occur here in Argentina.

Political analyst Carlos Gervasoni says the very people who represent what is old in Argentine politics are now the ones calling for renewal and reform.

"There was a public demand for something new, but nothing really happened," he said. "So what is happening is that the old political class, for better or worse, is presenting itself as the renewal of the politics of Argentina."

One of the strongest candidates is Carlos Menem, who served as president for 10 years and is blamed by many people here for the country's economic problems. His campaign posters refer to him as a known entity, and Carlos Gervasoni says that is indeed one of Mr. Menem's key strengths.

"Menem has very clear strengths and weaknesses," he said. "His strength is being able to say that he knows how to deal with crisis. The message is that it does not matter if I am good or bad, but that I know how to deal with problems."

Mr. Gervasoni says the former president's biggest weakness is the perception that he and his associates were involved in corruption. Many Argentines question the money being spent on his campaign and wonder where it came from.

Among the candidates who lead in current public opinion polls are two provincial governors, Nestor Kirchner, of Santa Cruz, and Adolfo Rodriguez-Saa, of San Luis, who are from the same Peronist party as Mr. Menem.

The party takes its name from dictator Juan Peron, who ruled Argentina in the 1940s and early 1950s, in what some people now view with nostalgia as an era of prosperity.

This year the party did not select a candidate and so all three are running under smaller party flags. Both of the governors are little known outside their provinces, but both have reputations as effective leaders.

Mr. Kirchner, in particular, has gained national stature by attacking Mr. Menem. Carlos Gervasoni says this could help him win the anti-Menem vote and enhance his image as someone from outside the old political camp.

"I do think he can present himself as somebody new for many reasons," he said. "One is that he was in opposition to Menem, even when they were in the same party. He was all the time criticizing Menem. Secondly, many people do not know him and today in Argentina that is an asset, because you are not, as we say here 'quemado,' 'you are not burned.'"

Of the 14 presidential candidates, two making a good showing in the polls who are not associated with the Peronist party are former Radical Party members Elisa Carrio and Ricardo Lopez Murphy, both of whom represent smaller parties split off from the Radical Party.

Argentina's laws do not permit television campaign advertising until next week, when the contest is expected to heat up considerably. Mr. Gervasoni says the April 27 vote will almost certainly be followed by a run-off election a few weeks later.

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