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Peronist Clears a Path for Menem


BUENOS AIRES — In a move that appears to boost former Argentine President Carlos Menem's aspirations to return to power, a top governor from his Peronist party backed away from the race Wednesday following days of tense negotiations with party leaders.

The decision of Gov. Carlos Reutemann laid bare the turmoil inside the ruling party. In essence, one of the leading lights of Argentine politics decided not to run for president because he didn't trust fellow Peronists to support him if he was elected.

"I never said I would be a candidate," Reutemann said Wednesday, following days in which current President Eduardo Duhalde tried to convince him to run. "Nothing will change my mind.... Nor will I be a candidate for vice president."

Argentina has been stuck in an economic, political and social crisis since December, when rioting and protests drove Fernando de la Rua of the center-left Alliance coalition from power following four years of recession. Duhalde became president in January, appointed by Congress after three other men rotated quickly through the office.

Since then, Duhalde has struggled to rule the country, with key governors of his Peronist party, including Reutemann, balking at his proposed budget cuts. Some of them have called for the president to step down.

Bowing to intense pressure, Duhalde last week said he would leave office nine months before his term was to end. He has scheduled presidential elections for March.

Reutemann, governor of Santa Fe province, was the leader considered most likely to successfully challenge Menem for the Peronist presidential nomination.

Menem, a colorful and controversial figure, privatized most of the utilities, the national oil company, the post office and much of Argentina's transportation network during two terms as president from 1989 to 1999. He left office amid widespread allegations of corruption and spent months under house arrest last year in connection with an arms trafficking scandal. The charges eventually were dropped.

Reutemann said he had not spoken recently to Menem, who was once his political mentor.

"Reutemann is my friend and you shouldn't forget that he entered politics because I encouraged him to do so," Menem said Wednesday.

According to published reports here, Reutemann presented Peronist leaders with a series of demands in recent days, saying he would run for president only if they promised to support him once he took office, and only if Duhalde resolved a crisis in the banking sector before stepping down. Millions of depositors have seen their savings frozen since last year.

"I am not a savior and I am not a magician," Reutemann told the daily newspaper La Nacion on Tuesday. "If society and the politicians are looking for that, they shouldn't knock at my door."

Reutemann's decision to bow out of the race leaves Menem as the most powerful Peronist seeking the presidency.

It remains unclear whether Argentine law prevents Menem from running for a third term.

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