Argentina: Nestor Kirchner Is President-Elect after Former President Carlos Menem Drops out of Runoff

NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs, May 23, 2003 | Go to article overview

Argentina: Nestor Kirchner Is President-Elect after Former President Carlos Menem Drops out of Runoff


Just four days before Argentina's May 18 presidential runoff, former President Carlos Saul Menem (1989-1999) withdrew from the race, making Santa Cruz Gov. Nestor Kirchner president-elect by default. Both Menem and Kirchner belong to the Partido Justicialista-peronista (PJ). Kirchner will begin his four-year term May 25.

Argentina's electoral law provides that, if a presidential candidate pulls out of a runoff election, the Congress automatically declares the other candidate the winner.

The 72-year-old Menem quit rather than face the humiliation of a defeat that polls indicated would be by as much as 40 percentage points. But his withdrawal also ensured that Kirchner would take office without the strength he would have gained from an overwhelming electoral victory.

"He could have become president with the largest vote in the history of Argentina," said political analyst Rosendo Fraga. "Now, Kirchner will be inaugurated with the smallest vote ever. It is hugely damaging, and it will be difficult for him to govern on his own."

It also thwarted the purpose of the election, which was to install an elected president to replace the caretaker government of President Eduardo Duhalde. Duhalde had moved the election forward by six months (see NotiSur, 2002-07-12).

Thanks to Menem, "for 24 hours the country has lived in suspense, with its democratic institutions rendered powerless," Kirchner said when Menem withdrew. "He has shown his true face at last--that of cowardice--and made his last gesture, which is to flee."

On May 14, the daily newspaper Clarin reported that those close to Menem had attempted, unsuccessfully, to negotiate with Duhalde and Kirchner terms for Menem staying in the race. He would stay and allow Kirchner to win in a landslide, the report said, if Kirchner agreed to keep Menem's allies in key government positions.

In remarks later that day, Kirchner said, "I have not come this far to make deals with the past." He described Menem's two days of keeping the entire country speculating on whether he would pull out as "humiliating and disgraceful."

When he finally made his move, Menem blamed Duhalde. "It is the electoral sabotage directed by Duhalde, which went against the law of democracy. This had become a total sham election, and we could not submit the people to it," said Menem. Before a group of supporters, Menem said Kirchner "can keep his 22%, I have the people."

Menem unable to overcome huge antipathy factor

In the official results of the April 27 first round, published by the Camara Nacional Electoral (CNE) on May 11, Menem finished first with 24.45% of the votes, while Kirchner received 22.24% (see NotiSur, 2003-05-02).

It had become apparent, however, that Menem's level of support in the first-round was about the maximum he could expect in the runoff. A poll by the Equis polling firm released May 7 showed Kirchner with 58.5% support compared with 21.7% for Menem. The survey of 3,110 people in 12 cities had a margin of error of 1.7%. The poll showed that more than 50% of the potential voters were motivated to cast anti-Menem votes. They held him responsible for the economic disaster and were unwilling to overlook the rampant corruption and scandals involving close associates that marked his two terms.

A Los Angeles Times editorial quoted an Argentine historian as saying that Menem "is the man who invited everyone to the party, lived it up, and then left without picking the tab."

The former president had little success with his campaign strategy of trying to convince voters that Kirchner would bring a government similar to Cuba's. "Cuba or Spain, you choose," was how Menem described the choice between governmental models. "There are two options: peace, security, development and growth for Argentina, or an Argentina similar to Cuba."

After Menem's withdrawal, Fraga said the former president might continue to play a role as an important reference point on the national political scene, "but not as a leader, and much less as an option" for political power.

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