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Presidential Candidates Ask Whether Argentina Can Reform Itself at the Polls

'Down With All of Them'

Alfred Seymour Hopkins, World Press Review correspondent, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sept. 17, 2002

A demonstrator stands before the National Congress in Buenos Aires with the hanging masks of President Eduardo Duhalde and predecessors Fernando de la Rúa, Carlos Menem, and Raul Alfonsin (photo: AFP).
Gustavo skillfully guides a yellow and black taxi around a series of potholes and grumbles, “Nobody cares about anything anymore.” Nearby a wall is covered with posters in blue and white, reading “Menem is the solution!” Asked what he thinks of the slogan, the taxi driver mutters: “Just electing a president isn’t going to change things.”

Argentina is limping toward ahead-of-schedule elections to replace the caretaker regime of President Eduardo Duhalde. The elections, which were originally scheduled for September 2003, were subsequently brought forward to March 2003. Now, pressure is mounting on Duhalde to move them forward again. As candidates from across the political spectrum jockey for air space, pundits are arguing whether the vote will be held as announced and whether it will solve this country’s dramatic economic, political, and cultural crisis.

The walls of the philosophy department at the University of Buenos Aires are plastered with a jumble of posters, signs, and graffitti proclaiming competing slogans. One slogan predominates: “Down with all of them.” Seen everywhere, the phrase has been ringing out in countless protests and rallies since riots brought a handful of governments down in rapid succession.

Duhalde, who took office in December 2001 following the mass lootings and protests that unseated President Fernando de la Rúa, inherited a bankrupt country whose citizens, angered by the country’s continuing economic crisis, have become profoundly disillusioned with politicians. A recent opinion poll showed that 71 percent of respondents felt that elections would bring little change to the country, yet 57 percent desired drastic change.

In the hallways of the university, academics mix with the darker faces of piqueteros, unemployed young men from the slums who have gained notoriety by blocking highways to demand jobs. Both have come at the invitation of the left-leaning Self-Determination and Liberty Party to discuss whether, or in what way, they should participate in the upcoming elections. The group’s guru, Congressman Luis Zamora, a former Trotskyite, has not yet decided whether to run.

During the debate that ensues, some of the speakers suggest that the opposition would lose credibility by participating in an election that leaves Congress unchanged, all other political and judicial institutions untouched, and those accused of corruption either in power or with access to power through influence. (A poll published in Buenos Aires's center-left Página 12 on Aug. 8 indicated that 80 percent of voters would support a total renewal of all political positions.)

Others advocate launching a campaign to get people to cast blank ballots or boycott the election. Most seem to feel that the coming election could be a good opportunity to give the “Down with all of them” slogan a chance. Almost all the speakers advocate the creation of a constitutional assembly to reconstruct the country’s institutions, which they feel are tainted by corruption and public discord. “The best thing about this is that we are talking in a way we haven’t for years,” volunteers one man, who had been intently listening to the debate from the edge of the crowd.

His voice, it seems, has been heard by some of the politicians in the presidential race. In late August, a left-wing grouping consisting of Zamora, union leaders led by Víctor de Genaro, and Elisa Carrió—another leading Argentine presidential candidate—began to organize protests calling for the creation of an elected constitutional assembly and a renewal of all electoral posts. Without such a step, the three argued, there could be no real political change in Argentina. But given the unlikely prospect of the creation of a constitutional assembly (which would require a two-thirds majority vote in Congress), the left-of-center candidates are faced with a difficult dilemma: whether to participate in flawed elections, or abstain in protest, thereby leaving the field open for their opponents.

Those brave or foolish enough to want to be Argentina’s president must officially declare their candidacy by Oct. 26. For the first time in years there will be a wide variety of candidates. An additional novelty will be the strong presence of a number of front-running women presidential candidates. But unless a constitutional assembly is approved, the next president, whoever he or she may be, will be extremely limited by a Congress that in the eyes of many Argentines has been tinged with corruption.

To make matters worse, the elections will be held against the backdrop of a prolonged economic and social crisis. With unemployment running at close to 23 percent, half the country plunged into poverty, a record number of bankrupcies, a growing army of scavengers, a sharp increase in violence and delinquency, and an unending series of unresolved political scandals, the electoral possibilities of candidates favoring a neoliberal economic policy do not appear promising. Added to the country’s continuing political turmoil, the social unrest is considered to be one of the main reasons that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is dragging its feet in providing assistance to Argentina. Whether or not the IMF finally decides to bail out the country, it most certainly will be the target of growing criticism by politicians from the center to the left, due to the view that its stress on belt-tightening has increased the gap between rich and poor instead of providing jobs for the masses.

The candidate currently at the top of the opinion polls is San Luis Province Governor Rodríguez Saá, a Peronist who, during a brief presidency last January, declared the country in default of its $145 billion foreign debt. Saá, who is closely followed in polls by anti-corruption muckracker Elisa Carrió, is playing cat and mouse with Menem, threatening to leave the party one day and declaring his determination to win the Peronist primaries the next. Although he presents himself as a populist and strong critic of the IMF, Saá has critics who wonder whether he might not be a carbon copy of Menem. While insinuating that he will pay only that part of the country’s foreign debt that a judicial investigation considers “legitimate,” he has also been courting political bedfellows on the right and left. The latest to cozy up to Saá is Aldo Rico, a former military man known for his right-wing nationalism, who participated in a coup attempt against the presidency of Raúl Alfonsín shortly after the return to democracy.

Menem himself is the most outspoken supporter of free-market economics, but his public image has taken a thrashing in the wake of numerous scandals that swirled around his administration. On July 22, the New York Times published an article alleging that Menem held million-dollar bank accounts in Switzerland, in which he had concealed bribes accepted for covering up the identity of perpetrators of terrorist attacks against Jewish organizations in Buenos Aires in the 1990s. The allegations have not only put a further dent in Menem’s reputation, but appear to have provoked a more cautious attitude toward him in Washington.

Nevertheless, due to his continued strong influence in the Supreme Court, Menem may wiggle out of these accusations in time to pave the way to exercising his influence in the Peronist party apparatus. The man who Duhalde hoped would break Menem's influence was Santa Fé governor Carlos Reuterman. But Reuterman stepped down, saying that he did not like what he saw in the political race. That led Duhalde's followers to court Córdoba governor José Manuel de la Sota, a Peronist moderate and former Menemist whose inability to attract voters has led some of Duhalde's supporters to rub shoulders with Sáa. A third Peronist candidate is left-of-center Santa Cruz governor Néstor Kirschner, who is critical of IMF policies. Kirschner has not yet decided whether to run as a Peronist, go it alone, or join forces with independent voters.

Whoever gets the party’s nod will be in a favored position in view of the party's traditional high level of support among Argentine voters. The chief opponent of the Peronist candidate will most likely come from the center-left. At present, the most likely candidate is Elisa Carrió, a former beauty queen and ex-member of the Radical Civic Union who has gained fame for her hard-hitting Congressional investigations of corruption. However, Carrió is still debating with Zamora on whether or not to participate in the election.

Carrió’s Argentines for a Republic of Equality (ARI) is a point of convergence for disenchanted members of the UCR, Peronists, Socialists, and other center to left groups. Before calling a halt to her campaign to push for a total renewal of electoral positions, Carrió maintained an anti-establishment profile by refusing to receive contributions from business or to hire a publicity team. Convinced that Saá will be her chief opponent, she has stopped short of making explicit political alliances—although she maintains strong lines of contact with opposition labor leaders.

The decision by Carrió, Zamora, and de Genaro to direct their energies toward pressuring the administration to renew all political positions places additional stress on the government and could lead to a large-scale abstention at the polls—a factor that could be of significance in view of the fact that the joint voting bloc of Carrió-Zamora supporters is greater than that of any other leading candidates.

The conservative forces do not as yet have a strong candidate, although there have been talks between former Economic Minister Ricardo López Murphy and former Labor Minister Patricia Bullrich, both of whom also declare themselves in favor of far-reaching reforms. Bullrich, who began her political career as a militant of the leftist Peronist Youth movement, has been moving toward an increasingly pragmatic position, the latest manifestation of which is her willingness to consider the possibility of joining forces with López Murphy. Polls estimate that a López Murphy-Bullrich coalition would take around 10 percent of the vote.

But March still seems a long way off for Argentines, who fear a deepening of the economic crisis, and see few signs of hope in the future. With half of the country plunged into poverty, listening to stump speeches seems like a luxury. “The trouble is that we have lost the ability to think critically,” complained María Luz, a high school teacher, “Thousands were whisked away under the dictatorship, the current crisis forced many others to leave, and those who remain feel bombarded by the ongoing chaos; that's why so many people now flee from analytical thinking.”

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