Don't Cry for the Peronists

Voters mostly want order, so the party may triumph again

The sound of his high-pitched voice is familiar to everyone in Argentina. But it's not nostalgia for Carlos Menem, who at 72 is making a third run at the presidency, that brought Carlos D'Alessandro to this rally in a soccer stadium in La Matanza, a poor suburb of Buenos Aires. "I get paid 10 pesos [about $3.25] for every person I bring in," says the 43-year-old unemployed construction worker. With half of the country scraping by on less than $1 a day, it's hard to think of a more effective campaign strategy.

Sixteen months ago, Argentines had no use for politicians -- even one as charismatic as Menem. "Toss them all out on the street" was the rallying cry of the mobs that filled Buenos Aires' Plaza de Mayo in the days after the government defaulted on its $141 billion pubic debt and allowed the peso to plunge 75% against the dollar. That rage eventually gave way to apathy and now gradually to acceptance -- a process that local pollster Felipe Noguera likens to the five stages of grieving. A presidential election scheduled for Apr. 27 may not usher in bold new leadership, but it is a sign that the country is moving on. "The illusion that we were on our way to becoming a First World nation is dead," Noguera says.

Another casualty of the crisis may be Argentina's two-party system. The century-old Radical Civic Union has been so thoroughly discredited that its candidate is barely registering in the polls. Meanwhile, the divisions inside the rival Peronist party are so deep that it could not unify behind one contender. With no single candidate polling above 25%, a runoff, now set for May 18, is certain.

The current front-runner in the race is Peronist Néstor Kirchner, the three-time governor of Santa Cruz, an oil-rich but sparsely populated province in Patagonia. Although he is running on a centrist economic platform, Kirchner's track record doesn't bode well for a country with a bloated public sector and a history of stubborn fiscal deficits. More than one-third of Santa Cruz's workforce is on the government's payroll. Closely trailing Kirchner are two other Peronist veterans. There's Adolfo Rodríguez Saá, who was President for just seven days during the chaotic month that followed the collapse of the government in December, 2001. Then there's Menem, who ruled Argentina from 1989 to 1999 and continues to be dogged by allegations of corruption. Bringing up the rear are the independents, the leftist Elisa Carrió and Ricardo López Murphy, who served briefly as economy minister under the previous Administration.

Despite surveys showing unprecedented distrust of the country's traditional parties, the majority of Argentines seem ready to make their peace with the Peronists. The party is unencumbered by ideology, sustaining itself through political patronage and coercion, especially in the outlying provinces. "After a year of chaos, voters most want order -- and they believe Peronists are the only ones that can guarantee it," says Santiago Lacase of pollster Ipsos-Mora y Araujo.

The party's prospects have also gotten a lift from an improving economy. Gross domestic product is expected to grow 3% this year, after contracting 10.7% in 2002. The improvement is credited to interim President Eduardo Duhalde, a Peronist -- although many argue it has more to do with the sharp reduction in business costs brought about by the devaluation. Kirchner says that, if elected, he may ask Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna to stay on, which would at least ensure policy continuity.

Regardless of who wins, Argentina's President will have a razor-thin mandate. Besides facing a suspicious public, he will have to contend with a Congress split among more than a dozen minority voting blocs. Elections for the legislature and governorships won't take place until November, which will complicate the task of coalition-building. Therefore, expect little progress this year on a long list of items, ranging from debt restructuring to rebuilding the country's insolvent banking system.

There's also real concern that the balkanized Peronists won't unite behind a new leader. "Whoever wins faces a high chance of not completing their term," says pollster and political analyst Ricardo Rouvier. Indeed, only two Argentine Presidents in the past 50 years have finished out their terms on schedule. "Sooner or later, Argentina will have to confront its demons," warns Carrió. For now, the country's shell-shocked voters may prefer to stick with the devil they know.

By Joshua Goodman in Buenos Aires

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