International Papers

Argentina’s Lazarus

Only a year after financial upheavals shuttered banks, devalued citizens’ savings, and drove thousands of protesters into the streets, there’s a chance the man who caused the crash will be elected president of Argentina. Sunday’s poll is considered too close to call, and if—as seems likely—none of the candidates captures more than 45 percent of the votes, the top two vote-getters will fight a run-off May 18. Still, going into the weekend, several polls showed former President Carlos Menem as the front-runner. Several papers reported that citizens’ trust in politicians is at its lowest point since democracy was restored 20 years ago, but voting is compulsory in Argentina, so they are forced, however reluctantly, to the polls.

The Observer explained that although Menem had been out of office for two years when Argentina “imploded” in December 2001, his “years in office from 1989 to 1999 were marked by such rampant corruption, irresponsible borrowing and massive lay-offs that he is perceived as having sown the seeds for that collapse.” Nevertheless, voters are so sick of the post-meltdown protests, pickets, and marches, which have done little to solve the nation’s problems, they’re swayed by Menem’s pledge “to bring the armed forces out on the street to help protect the life, liberty and property of Argentines.” As the only president since 1983 to serve out his term, Menem’s decade in office represents the stability the country craves after the chaos in December 2001, when Argentina had five presidents in the course of two weeks.

Menem is known as “Tutankamenem,” according to the Observer, “because of his return from an almost certified political death after being arrested in 2001 for alleged involvement in an illegal … arms sale to Croatia [and Ecuador]. The charges were later dropped.” The Financial Times—whose coverage of the Argentine elections is the best among the English-language press—said the former leader’s re-emergence “says a lot about the profound crisis afflicting Argentine politics. For half a century, a two-party system guaranteed that a candidate from one of the two main groups—Peronists and Radicals—took office with a clear majority. Today, that system has all but seized up and a second-round looks inevitable.” The Peronists are so divided, they couldn’t agree on a single ticket. Three of the five leading contenders—Menem, Adolfo Rodríguez Saá, and Néstor Kirchner—are Peronists. The official Radical candidate is out of the running, but two former leaders—Elisa Carrió and Ricardo López Murphy—are in with a chance.

Menem’s campaign wrap-up was staged by the same company that designs Colombian singer Shakira’s Argentine appearances, right down to the sound system and the giant video screens showing footage captured by a helicopter flying over the stadium. Still, Clarín declared, “There was lots of pomp and lights, but little enthusiasm.” Ten days ago, 72-year-old Menem announced that his 37-year-old wife, a former Miss World, is expecting their first child—another sign of potency from a man whose marriage to a much younger woman “helped reaffirm [his] image in a country where macho exploits still command admiration,” according to the Observer.

Although it’s hard to believe, given Medem’s high profile, the Financial Times claimed Adolfo Rodríguez Saá is “the most colourful of all the candidates” His exploits rival Medem’s: “In 1993, he was kidnapped together with his favourite lover—he is said to have many—and his kidnappers forced him to participate in the filming of a video involving pornography, drugs and violence.” In his seven days as president in December 2001, Saá announced that Argentina would stop paying the interest on its debt, which led to the biggest sovereign default in history.

El Mundo of Madrid described Néstor Kirchner as the “puppet” of Eduardo Duhalde, Argentina’s current president: “He is for some people an austere person, efficient, and pragmatic; for others, he is gray, decaffeinated, and incapable of raising [voters’] passions.” As governor of Santa Cruz, he behaved “in the strong man style, with strong control over the press, the economy, and the courts.” The paper said many voters, “with a total lack of faith in the political class, see him as the ‘less bad’ option.”

The Financial Times reported that Ricardo López Murphy, “a former economy minister and fiscal hawk,” has made a late surge in the polls and could go forward to a second-round battle with Menem. He is known for his honesty—no small achievement where the political class is widely scorned—and “advocates an orthodox solution to Argentina’s economic problems—the country must cut back its state sector if growth is to be restored.”

Elisa Carrió, known, according to the Financial Times, as “la gordita” or “the fat one,” led the polls in January, but her popularity has declined, “in large part, perhaps, because she has refused donations from companies and has rejected the pressure to launch an advertising campaign.” A campaigning lawyer and academic, she is known for her directness and her unprepossessing appearance. The FT noted, “In Buenos Aires, where looks count for so much and where there are more plastic surgeons per capita than almost anywhere else, her casual appearance—some have described it as messy—and disregard for make-up despite being a former beauty queen have reinforced her image as a rebellious upstart.” Clarín reported that in her final campaign stop, Carrió encouraged Argentines not to “dirty” the franchise by voting tactically, but rather to vote their conscience. After a shout-out to Evita Perón, “with her arms raised, [Carrió] said goodbye to the crowd with the words of Che Guevara: ‘Until victory!’ “