Argentina: Kirchner Takes Presidency, as Menem Abandons the Race

On his latest political trick, the two times President decided to quit, as opinion polls put him well behind his opponent Nestor Kirchner

The Gov. of Santa Cruz is the new President-elect and will take office on May 25

Overwhelmed by the anti-Menem mood ahead of Sunday's run-off vote, "the man who never lost an election" finally decided on Wednesday to withdraw rather than fighting on. His announcement, considered as an "absolute irresponsibility" by analysts and the national Government, could hurt Kirchner's legitimacy, as he will be proclaimed President with only 22% of the votes. Such scenario could endanger the institutional stability of Argentina and the 20-year democracy of this South American country.

Menem, who gained the largest number of votes in the first round (24.3%), flew early in the morning to his home Province, La Rioja, to record a TV statement, in which explained the reasons for his withdrawal to the population. The ex-President of Argentina based his decision on an allegedly political campaign against him. Additionally, Menem said there were not clear conditions to participate in the runoff.

"Kirchner can stick with his 22 percent and I'll stick with the Argentine people", said Menem to the press in La Rioja. Then, the former President and self-excluded candidate, attacked his political rivals: "Kirchner is a Montonero", he said, trying to falsely discredit the new President by linking him to the former peronist guerrilla of the seventies.

Kirchner, in turn, addressed a statement to the population minutes earlier Menem's decision became known. In a packed hall of a centric hotel of Buenos Aires, the President-elect angrily criticized what he considered to be a "coup bid". He said Menem was a "coward" and ran away in an attempt to destabilize the country.

"This is an unprecedented attempt by an ex-president, who cannot succeed in getting elected for a third term, to ruin everything without consideration of the damage he inflicts," Kirchner said hours before Menem bowed out.

"We are seeing the end of an era in Argentina, based on messianic leaderships and fundamentalist administrations", said Kirchner referring to Menem's stay in power. Besides, the new President said Menem's withdrawal was functional to the interests of those "powerful financial groups" that benefited from the neo-liberal policies implemented by Menem during the nineties. "I will fight those groups; I am not going to be handled by those groups".

According to the electoral law, the official candidate Nestor Kirchner has to be automatically proclaimed President. However, early in the morning rumors about legal presentations to block Kirchner's jump to presidency flooded Buenos Aires. The bid was fueled by particulars linked to the powerful world of finances that supported the former right wing presidential candidate, Ricardo Lopez Murphy, who finished third in the first round. Disregarding the national law, these groups fueled a new run-off vote between Kirchner and Lopez Murphy. Then, Lopez Murphy had to deny himself such rumors late in the afternoon, leaving open a decision that added more confusion to the story.

Menem's decision to withdraw left Kirchner without the badly needed strong legitimacy. According to analysts, it could make waves to the fragile institutional stability gained in Argentina after December 2001 turmoil. Anyway, Kirchner takes presidency enjoying around 70% of the voices, but in the surveys.

Now, who benefits from a weakened Government of Nestor Kirchner? First of all, the financial sector, which will be in a better position to put pressure over the incoming national authorities to obtain concessions from the State. For instance, there is a dispute over the future of the privatized pension funding system, by far Argentina's greatest business. The national Minister of Economy, Roberto Lavagna, who will keep his post at Kirchner's cabinet, fueled recently a bid to restructure it toward a larger public participation. This is very much resisted by the private funds administrators (foreign banks, mainly), which have already complained to the IMF ton this question.

At this respect, Minister of Production Anibal Fernandez told PRAVDA.Ru that the new Government would call on a broader alliance with other political parties to go ahead with the presidential agenda. "We will promote political alliances with other parties to back our public policies", told Fernandez after Kirchner's statement.

Giving a television interview in his first public appearance since Menem's withdrawal, Kirchner vowed late on Wednesday to tackle deep poverty racking Argentina, make politics more transparent and provide strong leadership and governance. "I am going to fight for Argentina ... We will combat poverty hard," Kirchner said, adding he hoped to emulate the likes of former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez and ex-U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Nestor Kirchner will fly on Thursday to his home province, Santa Cruz, in Argentina's far South to resign to his post as Governor and prepare the new cabinet. In turn, the self-excluded candidate, Carlos Menem, will stay in La Rioja for two days and then, he will fly to Chile's Capital, Santiago. There he will meet his wife, a Chilean actress called Cecilia Bolocco to see the end of his political life.

Photo: Nestor Kirchner will be the first President of Argentina born in Patagonia.

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Author`s name Michael Simpson