- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

When Argentines vote for their next president next Sunday, they will shift the region's political center of gravity. The next Argentine leader will either be a right-of-center counterweight to Brazil's left-leaning president or will swing the region further left. Should a right-of-center candidate win in Argentina, the United States will have a solidly pro-trade ally in the region. And this would be critical to establishing an Americas-wide free-trade zone somewhere near the target date of 2005.

Currently, former Argentinian President Carlos Menem is in the lead according to the polls, but just barely. Neck-and-neck with Mr. Menem are two other members of the Peronist Party that are left-leaning former provincial governors: Nestor Kirchner and Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, who are expected to be less enthusiastic about a free-trade area.

After Mr. Menem was elected president in 1989, he privatized industry, supported liberalized trade and instituted other free-market reforms. These were welcome changes, and Mr. Menem won a second election in 1999. But many economists blame Mr. Menem for Argentina's economic crisis that began in 1999 and peaked dramatically in 2001 due to the debts incurred, corruption scandals, lack of accountability and foreign-exchange controls that were implemented.

Another viable presidential contender is Ricardo Lopez Murphy, a U.S.-educated economist and former Economy Minister. He has pledged to maintain fiscal austerity and aggressively promote export industries. He is the favorite of many in the business community, but it remains unclear whether his nascent party has the political muscle to carry Mr. Murphy through. It is highly probable that none of the presidential hopefuls will win the 45 percent of the vote necessary to avoid a May 18 runoff. The future of Argentina hangs in the balance.

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