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Argentina's Redemption Not Likely
Posted: Friday, April 25, 2003

Presidential Election Promises not a New Start, but Business as Usual in a Corrupt and Cynical Society

The twentieth anniversary of the restoration of representative democracy in Argentina coincides with a nadir in the population's confidence in the country's political system and democratic institutions.

Corruption, misguided economics, and corporatism bordering on neo-fascism, remain chronic maladies that plague Argentina. These persist partly due to the populace's acceptance of the anti-Christ of a civic society and too much indifference, if not fanaticism, to break with the past.

The presidential candidates are for the most part uninspiring, epitomize the status quo and, in Carlos Menem's case, belong behind bars rather than on the presidential ballot.

Presidential campaigns resemble low theater as much as political dialogue; indeed, political posturing, pseudo-populist appeals and vacuous promises substitute for coherent and realistic platforms, and with the exception of Elisa Carrio, devoid of ethical content.

Disenchanted by electoral politics and left with few viable options, Argentines are likely to passively accept more of the same.

On this Sunday, April 27, 2003, Argentines will head to one of the thousands of polling stations across the country to elect its first president of the 21st century. Coincidentally, this year marks the twentieth anniversary of the ostensible restoration of democracy in South America's second-largest economy. The military, which instituted authoritarian rule intermittently since 1930, and most recently and brutally from 1976-1983, has now returned to the barracks. But a new form of dictatorship—the tyranny of the spiritless—has overtaken the nation.

For the most part, this year's field of presidential aspirants are the heirs of the country's chintzy past. Of the five leading candidates, one has served as head of state twice before, another is viewed as the surrogate of the outgoing interim president and a third is an archetype of the sinister traits embedded in Peronism. Bereft of but a few viable alternatives, only a pair of candidates running on independent tickets are largely unblemished by the country's malignant political lymphoma, dejected Argentine voters have yet to rally decisively behind any candidate. Rather than marking a clean break with the country's ugly and pitiful past, the very tendencies that precipitated Argentina's descent from the opulence and the international respectability it enjoyed at the beginning of the twentieth century to its present ruinous condition are poised to be carried over into the twenty-first. The upcoming ballot has little prospect of delivering any respite for the profound political, social and economic problems that bedevil the country.

Continuity Personified

None of the candidates vying for a four-year stint at the Casa Rosada better epitomize Argentina's shortcomings, and by implication the wretched continuity of its deeply distressed political culture, than Carlos Menem, a political parasite, who during his decade of rule, humiliated his nation and drained it of any dignity that it might have once possessed. Having already served two terms as president and with some polls predicting that despite all of his negative baggage he still might serve a third, Menem hopes to eclipse his professed political hero, Juan Peron's, time in office. The self-perceived similarities between Menem and the country's most revered iconic figure do not end there, for the former likens his 2003 candidacy to Peron's triumphant return to the country's presidency in 1973 after 18 years in exile. Now married to the 1987 Miss Universe, the 72 year-old Menem fancies his pregnant Chilean wife, Cecilia Bolocco, to be the next Evita Peron, a notion not lost upon the Argentine electorate.

In civilized countries that uphold the rule of law, as opposed to the rule of man, as sacrosanct, Menem's numerous indiscretions would have him languishing as a disgraced political figure in prison or in political limbo in any self-respecting nation instead of being on the verge of again leading his country. In 2001, the former president spent 5 months under house arrest on account of arms-trafficking for personal aggrandizement and is also alleged to have accepted a $10 million bribe from Arab terrorists in exchange for covering up details surrounding the bombings of several Buenos Aires-based Jewish facilities in the 1990's. His macroeconomic policies specifically linking the Argentine peso to a one-to-one ratio to the dollar, extensive privatizations of state industries in an invariably tainted process, and his lavish fiscal expenditures, are blamed by economists for accumulating an ultimately unsustainable external debt, stoking unemployment, impoverishing millions and decimating the country's middle class. Currently one of the frontrunners, if elected, Menem vows to forge closer ties to the U.S. and the multilateral lending institutions, honor external debt obligations and institute a floating currency regime that circumscribes central bank underwriting of government deficits.

Enter the Other Contenders

Joining Menem in the presidential fray is fellow Peronist Nestor Kirchner (another frontrunner). Drab and business-like, the slightly center-left governor of sparsely-populated but oil-rich Santa Cruz province is a relative newcomer to the national political scene. However, perceptions of independence are compromised by Kirchner's intimate links to the current interim president, Eduardo Duhalde. In reality, the upcoming election is viewed by many observers as a proxy war between Menem and Duhalde, once nominal allies, for control of the Peronist Party's soul. Although one should commend Duhalde for refusing to endorse the U.S. intervention in Iraq, one wonders if Kirchner, who already has agreed to retain Duhalde's minister of the economy, Roberto Lavagna, if elected, will emerge as his own man or remain beholden to his political patron and leader of the Peronist elite old guard.

Rounding out the clutch of Peronist contenders (this is the first time the party has ever failed to settle on a single candidate) is Adolfo Rodriguez Saa. The man who suspended interest payments on the country's external debt during his brief, 7-day presidency in December 2001, Saa is the quintessential Peronist. An avowed populist (he plans to channel the state's resources into creating 3 million new jobs in a mere 6 months) the governor of San Juan province reputedly has relied on a combination of inducements and intimidation to quell opposition to his provincial administration.

Two independent candidates, both of whom broke ranks from a Union Civic Radical Party (UCR) that is still tarnished by the abrupt and premature 1989 and 2001 exodus of two of its party leaders (Raul Alfonsin and Fernando de la Rua) from the Casa Rosada, merit attention as well. One of them, Elisa Carrio, a center-left legislator campaigning under the Republic of Equals banner, plans to purge the Argentine political system of its penchant for corruption. Objectively, she is the most unsullied and most highly regarded of any of the candidates who are running. Her former UCR counterpart, Ricardo Lopez Murphy, is a U.S.-trained economist running on a campaign advocating orthodox macroeconomic reforms. As the election has drawn nearer, he has increasingly posed a serious threat to Menem and Kirchner. In fact, Lopez Murphy's vote total on Sunday might surpass one of them, enabling him to slip into the second round. While Carrio's emphasis on honesty and integrity makes her attractive to middle class voters and while Lopez Murphy's fixation with fiscal prudence prompts approval from the commercial sector, neither one has been able to make significant inroads in the now rapidly disappearing factory belt around Buenos Aires, a portion of the electorate which remains mesmerized by Peronism's intoxicating hybrid of populism, statism and nationalism.

Political Drama

Many pollsters reckon that working class districts, like the patchwork communities comprising the 9 million-strong Buenos Aires conurbano, will determine the outcome of the April 27 presidential election. Keenly aware of this, the candidates, mainly the Peronists, are adopting electioneering tactics suitable to their target audiences. In what better resembles entertainment than political discourse, the candidates routinely address throngs of Argentines in venues like soccer stadiums and other open spaces in an attempt to outdo opponents in terms of promising employment and in exuding personal warmth. In a country where one of the most popular game shows dangles the prize of a job before its contestants, such campaign pledges are no small beer. Ex-president Menem, who harbors no qualms about sacrificing principle on the altar of expediency, has been at the forefront of this political farce. In a bid to cozy up to voters, he employed soccer icon Diego Maradona's number 10 jersey to tout his orthodox economic reforms, despite the fact Maradona resides in socialist Cuba and is chummy with Castro, a man whom Menem loathes because he has a thought. Equally blatant in terms of the breadth of its cynicism and lack of fair play, was the Duhalde government's April 14 announcement that it plans to impose a one-time transfer of 50 pesos ($17) from private sector enterprises to each of its employees. However, it is important to note that not all of the five leading presidential candidates have stooped to such self-serving depths: Elisa Carrio has shied away from radio and television advertisements, saying "I am not a soap or detergent, I am not part of the political marketing and I don't respond to questions with a view to seducing society."

A Disenchanted but Complacent Electorate

When asked by how much the country will change after the election, many Argentines respond "little or nothing." Indeed, negligible differences in support for the five leading presidential candidates testifies to this apathy. Many polls indicate that all of the candidates are struggling to pass over the 20 percent plateau, let alone gaining the 45 percent total and the 10 percent lead over the second-highest finisher that would be requisite to avoid holding a May 18 run-off election. Some analysts suggest that the proportion of spoiled ballots may even exceed the total attracted by the leading vote-getter.

Disenchantment with democracy in Argentina has been gathering apace since the heady days immediately following the military handover of political power to civilians in 1983. According to a 2002 survey taken by Latinobarometro, a Chilean polling firm, over 90 percent of Argentine respondents were dissatisfied with democracy (up from 60 percent in 1996) and almost 20 percent preferred authoritarian government to a democratic variant.

Pervasive corruption fuels a considerable portion of this disgust. In the thousands of complaints filed at the four-year-old, Buenos Aires-based anti-corruption division, not one has been successfully prosecuted. Law enforcement units, particularly the Buenos Aires contingent of the Bonarense have been notorious for abetting organized crime since the 1976-1983 military dictatorship. The judiciary is known to be commensurately tainted, especially the Supreme Court, where the majority of justices owe their appointments to a Menem-orchestrated court-packing scheme.

Furthermore, the Argentine society has yet to come to terms with its brutal, corporatist past. Since 1930, the military has routinely intervened in the country's political system, uprooting the institutions requisite to foster a free and democratic society. Sympathetic to neo-fascism, the ruling military elite over the years provided refuge to fleeing Nazis and in 1976 executed its largely successful, if hate-driven, "dirty war" to systematically eradicate leftist "subversives." The military's round-the-clock extermination of its political enemies claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Argentines. Almost all of the perpetrators of these heinous acts have gone unpunished for a variety of reasons and, as an institution, the military remains largely unrepentant. Ex-president Menem even had the audacity to commend the military officers responsible for conducting the grisly campaign, saying in 1994, "We triumphed in the dirty war, which had placed our society on the verge of dissolution."

However, this appalling and bloody venture could not have been undertaken without the complicity of Argentina's sizeable middle class. Before the country can recover from its 70-year decline and be a respectable member of the Latin American community of nations, its citizens have to confront their nation's shameful misdeeds, their mystifying indifference over the mass murders that occurred around them and address the petty, self-serving mentality that is pervasive throughout Argentine society. Sadly, a single presidential election will not ameliorate Argentina's pitiful state of affairs—only deep introspection will.

This analysis was prepared by Grant M. Nulle, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Issued April 24, 2003.

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