Argentines Hope New Leader Brings Stability ; Nestor Kirchner, Governor of Santa Cruz, Becomes President on May 25

Article excerpt

Nothing comes easy in Argentina these days. Even holding a simple election.

This Sunday's vote was supposed to put to rest 18 months of turmoil that saw five different presidents, massive debt default, a bank freeze, soaring unemployment, and sharp increases in crime and hunger.

Now that election won't happen. Former President Carlos Menem, who was trying to recapture the office he held throughout the 1990s, bowed out of the race Wednesday after lagging far behind in the polls. This paves the way for Nestor Kirchner, governor of the wealthy province of Santa Cruz, to take office May 25.

The furor caused by the last-minute departure by Mr. Menem - who helped Argentina out of economic crisis only to create a brand-new set of problems - reflects a growing disenchantment with the country's leaders and their often self-serving ways. Most here see his withdrawal as a face-saving effort to avoid an election drubbing in Sunday's two-man runoff - at the expense of the electoral process.

Observers say that most Argentines are simply looking for stability now and believe the solid if uncharismatic Kirchner can provide that, at least in the near term.

"I think it is going to be a middle-of-the-road government," says Jose Nun, an Argentine political scientist and former professor at the University of Toronto. Kirchner is expected to continue many of the stabilizing policies of his predecessor, President Eduardo Duhalde.

Honest and responsible

Widely viewed as honest and fiscally responsible, the lanky Kirchner talks with a lisp and often appears awkward and aloof on television. He does not wow voters with slick political rhetoric, which may partly explain his appeal. Mr. Menem drove fast cars and is married to a former Miss Universe.

Mr. Nun says Kirchner's policies are likely to mirror those of Mr. Duhalde, who made small steps to reverse the economic stagnation that has plagued the country for five years. By keeping Economics Minister Roberto Lavagna in place, Kirchner will allow negotiations with foreign investors and the International Monetary Fund over the country's $141 billion debt default to continue uninterrupted.

Duhalde also helped establish better regional trade - notably with Brazil - a trend that Kirchner says he will continue. Kirchner is expected to work hard to strengthen ties within Mercosur, a regional trade pact made up of Argentina's neighboring countries. He has already traveled to Brazil and Chile to meet the presidents of those countries.

Kirchner campaigned on the fiscal strength of his oil-rich Patagonian province which he governed for the past 12 years. As president, Kirchner plans to spend money on public-works projects and build 3 million homes in four years, which he predicts will create 5 million jobs. …