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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 May, 2003, 21:58 GMT 22:58 UK
Analysis: Menem gives rival hollow victory

Peter Greste
BBC correspondent in Buenos Aires

Fourteen years to the day since Carlos Menem won his first presidential election, Argentina's great political fighter bowed out of the race for his third.

It happened after weeks of speculation that mounted to become a frenzy of rumour, gossip and hearsay over whether the 72-year-old politician would quit the election rather than face the humiliation of an electoral beating.

Menem greeted by supporters in his home area of La Rioja on 14 May
The flamboyant Menem faced a relative political unknown

With polls predicting that he would barely scrape together any more than the 24% support he won in the first round, it became obvious that Carlos Menem could not win the election.

So the only open question was what strategy he would use to emerge from the campaign with some measure of power and influence still intact.

But analysts say whatever he may have been able to salvage for himself, the decision to quit has significantly damaged Argentina's democracy.

Ironically, apart from Carlos Menem himself, the biggest loser is the man who will win the election, Nestor Kirchner - the provincial governor and favoured choice of the outgoing caretaker President Eduardo Duhalde.

Heading for landslide

Until this election, Mr Kirchner was a relatively unknown governor from the remote and sparsely populated province of Santa Cruz.

Now, Kirchner will be inaugurated with the smallest vote ever
Political analyst Rosendo Fraga

In the first round of the election, he only managed to win 22% of the vote - behind even Carlos Menem himself.

In this Sunday's second round, he was on course to win by a landslide, but only due to the fact that most Argentines would rather vote for any candidate other than the former president.

So now, instead of winning an election in his own right, Nestor Kirchner becomes president by default, with the expressed support of barely one in five voters - hardly enough to claim that he has any kind of popular mandate.

"He could have become president with the largest vote in the history of Argentina," said political analyst Rosendo Fraga. "Now, Kirchner will be inaugurated with the smallest vote ever. It is hugely damaging, and it will be difficult for him to govern on his own."

The real winner

This makes a mockery of the election, which was brought forward six months precisely to find a government with popular support that can replace the outgoing caretaker administration.

Eduardo Duhalde
Duhalde has been running Argentina since January 2002

President Eduardo Duhalde has run the country since angry crowds tossed the last elected president from power in December 2001.

And even Menem's own campaign manager Alberto Kohan has acknowledged the fact.

"If he ran and lost (the election), then he would legitimise someone who we think would not rule the country in the right way," he told the BBC.

Analysts like Mr Fraga argue that the big winner is, in fact, Eduardo Duhalde.

As the long-serving former governor of Argentina's biggest and most populous province, Buenos Aires, he already wielded considerable power.

Now as Nestor Kirchner's chief sponsor, many consider him to be the power behind an otherwise very weak throne.

Splintering and compromise

"I don't think it will be a problem in the short term," said Mr Fraga.

"The problem will come in four or five years time when Mr Duhalde wants to run for president again, as he has already stated, and he tries to undermine Kirchner who will presumably go for his own second term."

But he's not a complete pessimist.

"Argentina's traditional form of government has been to have strong men as presidents," he said.

"There is a chance that with a weak president like Mr Kirchner, and the break up of the traditional parties that this process has caused, we may learn how to negotiate and compromise. And maybe that will be not such a bad thing for our country."

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