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Bitter Argentines to Choose New President

April 25, 2003

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ Mariano de la Villa is waiting until election day to decide who will win his vote in Argentina’s presidential election. The reason: He’s still searching for the ``least worst″ candidate.

The 52-year-old bank employee said none of the five leading candidates in Sunday’s election has won his confidence with pledges to lift the shattered country from its economic morass.

``I look at the ballots and see the same names of the people who led us into this crisis,″ he said. ``Now they say they can lead us out?″

A year after Argentina’s economy unraveled, the anger that led Argentines to mass in the streets chanting ``Throw them all out!″ has given way to a wave of voter cynicism.

The vote is shaping up to be one of the closest in the country’s history, highlighting deep divisions over what direction Argentina should take after a debt default and currency devaluation devastated Latin America’s third-largest economy.

Polls show no candidate poised to win more than 20 percent of the vote to succeed President Eduardo Duhalde, who took office last year after street protests unseated four presidents in two weeks.

Political divisions that erupted during the crisis remain.

The Peronists, Argentina’s largest party, are split among three candidates: former President Carlos Menem; longtime party leader Nestor Kirchner; and Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, a former governor of San Luis province.

Two other candidates, Ricardo Lopez Murphy, a former economy minister, and left-leaning congresswoman Elisa Carrio, are running as independents.

Polls show Menem, 72, who governed from 1989 to 1999, as the front-runner, followed closely by Kirchner and Lopez Murphy. A May 18 runoff between the top two finishers is widely expected.

But the race has failed to inspire Argentines.

Fabian Gonzalez, 31 and unemployed, said he planned to waste his vote.

``Casting a blank ballot is the same as voting for any of them,″ he said. ``No matter who wins, things aren’t going to change.″

More than ever, Argentines are frustrated with the country’s revolving decades of boom and bust. Over 20 years, the country has lurched from military dictatorship to democracy, from hyperinflation and a plunging currency to one pegged to the U.S. dollar, only to find itself immersed in turmoil again.

The 1990s saw many Argentines get their first telephones, credit cards and homes. But over the last year, many saw their life savings evaporate and their salaries slashed 40 percent.

``My head spins when I think about all we’ve been through,″ said Ruben Coria, 43. ``We have no sense of continuity. Whatever we build, we quickly destroy.″

The crisis has touched off soul-searching. Titles like ``Who are We?″ ``Required Reading for a Lost Country″ and ``Nobody Leave Without Giving Me My Money Back″ fill the best seller list.

For decades, Argentines have asked: Why can’t a country nearly the size of India, a country whose prosperity proved a beacon of opportunity for Spanish and Italian immigrants in the early 1900s, succeed?

They reel off paradoxes: people go hungry in one of the world’s biggest producers of beef, soy, and wheat; a government stands bankrupt 10 years after a sweeping privatization program generated billions of dollars.

``It’s like something out of Greek tragedy,″ said grocery store owner Ricardo Perez. ``If we were some small country ravaged by decades of war and disease, I’d say OK, I accept our destiny. But we have been blessed with resources some countries only dream of.″

He, like many, blamed politicians for the country’s descent.

Jose Marie Carriza, a 55-year-old homeowner, said only a strongman with political experience could save the country. He plans to vote for Menem despite allegations of corruption.

``People have short memories _ they paint him as corrupt but they forget what he did,″ said Carriza, noting that under Menem people could take vacations, buy homes and travel. ``He’s the only one who can take the chestnuts out of the fire.″

In recent months, the economy has shown flickers of hope. A hated banking freeze has finally been lifted. Industrial production registered a small uptick, as did exports.

But enormous challenges remain.

In Buenos Aires, dirty-faced kids rummage through trash for scraps. Job ads draw hundreds of applicants in lines that snake for blocks. Official unemployment is 17 percent, and most economists say its closer to 25 percent.

And social tensions still simmer.

In a scene reminiscent of the protests that swept the country in December 2001, riot police on Monday fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse hundreds of demonstrators outside a Buenos Aires clothing factory that was seized by employees seeking to keep it from closing.

A doctor treating some of the dozens injured made an emotional appeal to anyone standing nearby for Argentines to put away their divisions.

``This has to end! We as a country must come together,″ he said.

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