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Menem Drops the Curtain on His Candidacy

Without a runoff, Nestor Kirchner will become president of Argentina.

May 15, 2003|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — Nestor Kirchner, a little-known governor from Argentina's sparsely populated south, became this country's president-elect Wednesday after his rival in the presidential runoff withdrew.

Carlos Menem, the two-time president who finished first in a crowded first round of voting last month but trailed badly in the polls for the runoff, officially ended his campaign with a letter signed in his home province, La Rioja.

Menem's withdrawal came after two days of uncertainty fueled by infighting among the cadre of governors, mayors and political operatives backing his campaign. Beginning Tuesday morning, some had said privately that Menem would abandon the race, others said he was in the race to stay, while the candidate himself remained silent for hours, throwing the election into doubt.

Under Argentine law, if one of the two candidates in a runoff drops out, the other candidate becomes president. Kirchner will take the oath of office May 25, despite having finished second in April 27 election with just 22% of the vote.

Kirchner proclaimed victory in a fiery speech Wednesday attacking the former president.

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

Kirchner has promised to continue the economic policies of his predecessor and chief backer, outgoing President Eduardo Duhalde, who cut government services and devalued the national currency in response to Argentina's economic collapse in late 2001.

"I will assume all the responsibilities which the Constitution requires of me," he said before a group of supporters in the capital. "We will build a new country, with hope and optimism."

Like his rival, Kirchner is a member of the Peronist movement, known officially as the Justicialist Party.

On Wednesday, Menem said Duhalde and Kirchner had sabotaged his campaign by refusing to hold a Peronist party primary -- in which Menem would have been a favorite -- and instead staging the presidential election as a free-for-all.

"I won the first round and now I'm leaving," Menem said. "Let him [Kirchner] keep his 22%. I have the people."

Kirchner is the three-time governor of Santa Cruz province. A successful lawyer, he began his political career in 1987, winning election as mayor of Rio Gallegos, the provincial capital. In 1991 he was elected governor.

After Santa Cruz province won a lawsuit that granted it a greater share of the oil revenue produced there, Kirchner invested heavily in infrastructure and employment programs. In Santa Cruz, as elsewhere in Argentina, the provincial government is the largest employer.

In December, Duhalde agreed to back Kirchner's candidacy after several other potential candidates declined to run against Menem, whose two terms were mired in scandal.

On Wednesday, the daily newspaper Clarin reported that Menem's operatives had attempted, unsuccessfully, to negotiate with Duhalde and Kirchner the terms of his withdrawal from the race. Menem would stay in the race and allow Kirchner to win in a landslide, the report said, if Kirchner agreed to keep Menem's allies in key government positions.

Menem's campaign was not available to confirm or deny the report.

Kirchner may have alluded to the Clarin report in his speech Wednesday.

"I have not come this far to make deals with the past," he said, without elaborating.

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