- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2003

QUILMES, Argentina Cynicism is rife among Argentines these days, and Jose Madrid is no exception.

Since losing his job selling vegetables two years ago, Mr. Madrid has supported his wife and two children on a monthly welfare check of $50, plus a sporadic and meager income as a handyman.

Like many Argentines, he cares little about Sunday's presidential election.

"They all end up stealing when they're elected anyway," said Mr. Madrid, 26, wearing jeans and a grease-stained sweatshirt as he stood by a chicken-wire fence outside his wood shack in Matera, a slum on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

Voting in Argentina is mandatory, but instead of spoiling his ballot, Mr. Madrid said he will vote for a Peronist. "At least I know them," he said with a shrug.

Nearly 30 years after the death of President Juan Peron, his greatest legacy is the ruling Justice Party, which has maintained a tight grip on power through populism, patronage and the social welfare system.

Last year, after widespread looting and middle-class protests that ousted two presidents in as many weeks, leading Peronists could not appear in public for fear of being assaulted by bands of irate Argentines. Protesters accused the Justice Party and the Radicals, the other major party, of driving Argentina to financial ruin while they lined their pockets from the nation's coffers.

The anger has since subsided into bitter indifference. Many Argentines say they plan to turn in blank ballots or not vote at all. But many more will be voting for a Peronist candidate, from habit or for lack of a better option.

Enfeebled opposition

Even more disgraced than the Peronists is the 112-year-old Radical Party, whose last two presidents resigned prematurely amid economic collapse and social upheaval.

"I prefer a thief to an incompetent," said Tomas Garcia, 42, a gray-goateed Peronist who is campaigning for Nestor Kirchner, one of three Peronist candidates. "The voters are going to choose our candidates. … [T]here's nobody else who can govern."

The Justice Party is fractured, and its three candidates are running as independents. Besides Mr. Kirchner, they are former Presidents Adolfo Rodriguez Saa and Carlos Menem. All three are front-runners in recent polls, as opposition candidates trail by several points.

The Peronist political machine, or at least a part of it, appears to be once again steamrolling toward victory.

Nowhere is the Peronist dominance more resounding than in the conurbano, a swath of urban sprawl sweeping around the center of Buenos Aires. The area became a bastion of the working class in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Gen. Peron helped develop it into an industrial hub.

Nine million people live in the municipalities of the conurbano, a checkerboard of middle-class neighborhoods, shantytowns and decaying industrial strips. Unemployment there runs close to 25 percent, and nearly 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, said Buenos Aires-based sociologist Artemio Lopez.

Gone are most of the factories and with them the once-powerful, Peronist-controlled unions. But the conurbano continues to be a Peronist stronghold, and with more than 18 percent of the nation's voters one municipality, La Matanza, has a larger population than 18 of Argentina's 23 provinces and analysts say the region could decide the election.

'Unidades basicas'

Thousands of low-level Peronist officials operate unidades basicas, local party offices, in poor neighborhoods, acting as intermediaries between residents and the Peronist-run municipal governments. Neighbors depend on the officials to arrange such things as fixing burned-out street lights and government-subsidized funerals. As the economy has deteriorated in recent years, local Peronist officials have become better known for doling out food and welfare plans.

No other political organization comes close to having such a massive party apparatus.

"The Peronist apparatus is part party, part state," said Marcos Novaro, a political analyst who co-wrote the book "Politics and Power in the Menem Government."

"In many neighborhoods," Mr. Novaro said, "the only place people can get their problems resolved is at the unidad basica. Often there is no competition, not even from the [Catholic] church."

With five days to go before the presidential election, most local party officials are working full time as foot soldiers in the campaign of one of the three Peronist candidates. They go door-to-door in their neighborhoods proselytizing and plastering propaganda on lampposts, concrete highway-lane dividers and walls of abandoned warehouses.

Publicity for Peronist candidates in the conurbano dwarfs that of opposition candidates.

Peronists officials also marshal dozens, sometimes hundreds, of poor people into buses for transport to political rallies.

The officials, referred to as punteros, or point men and women, are evaluated by higher-ranking party members according to the number of people they can bring to rallies. Often the punteros have to bribe or browbeat people to attend.

"The puntero brought me here," said Maximiliano Celestre, an unemployed 19-year-old at a recent Menem rally in the conurbano municipality of Lanus. "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for the plan."

Mr. Celestre said he and about 30 other people from his neighborhood went to the rally because they were afraid the local puntero would remove them from the list of welfare-check recipients if they didn't. He said he was going to vote for Elisa Carrio, candidate of Affirmation for an Egalitarian Republic.

Nearby, Carlos Alberto Gutierrez, 58, an unemployed factory worker, said he went to the rally because a puntero told him there would be free sausage sandwiches. "There's no way I would vote for Menem," he said.

Mr. Kirchner recently helped fill the largest soccer stadium in Argentina for his biggest rally to date in much the same way.

Although rewards and coercion make for packed stadiums and proud punteros, they do not necessarily translate into votes among a public increasingly intolerant of Tammany Hall-style politics.

And though some of the 2 million poor and jobless families living off $50-a-month welfare plans are grateful, unemployed Argentines just as commonly blame Peronist corruption and malfeasance for putting them on the plans in the first place.

Venting discontent

In recent years, discontent with Peronist rule has driven tens of thousands of unemployed workers to join combative grass-roots organizations that have weakened the party's territorial control of the conurbano. The organizations have bypassed the puntero system by pressuring the government through highway blockades into giving them direct subsidies.

Other Argentines have simply stopped believing Peronist promises and in even their 20-year-old representative democracy, which has resulted in unprecedented unemployment and poverty.

According to a recent poll, half the population believes that the election will change "little or nothing." Amid widespread public apathy, analysts say the Peronists' greatest asset is a feeble opposition.

The two leading non-Peronist candidates, conservative economist Ricardo Lopez Murphy and Miss Carrio, a member of Congress known for her Catholic faith and anticorruption campaigns, have recently started political parties.

Both former Radicals, they have considerable support among the middle and upper classes, but analysts say their chances of winning are slim.

The most important electoral battle in the conurbano, and throughout the country, is, instead, likely to be fought among the three leading Peronists. The battle lines are determined more by personal and political allegiances than differing ideologies or platforms.

Analysts say Mr. Kirchner, governor of the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, has an edge because he is being backed by caretaker President Eduardo Duhalde, who is Mr. Menem's archenemy and is considered the leader of the Peronist apparatus in the conurbano.

But Mr. Menem, president from 1989 to 1999, and Mr. Rodriguez Saa, a longtime provincial governor who became president for a week in December 2001 before resigning amid protests and political pressure, are running neck and neck with Mr. Kirchner in recent polls. None of them has consistently topped 20 percent.

Runoff likely

Pollsters say two of the three will make it to a second-round election May 18, based on the likelihood that no candidate wins more than 45 percent of the vote or more than 40 percent of the vote with a 10-point edge on the nearest competitor.

Despite the party's tarnished image, especially among the middle and upper classes, Peronism is still the primary political beacon for Argentina's working poor. It is embraced with an unquestioning loyalty, sustained by two powerful, albeit fading, icons of the working class: the ghosts of Gen. Peron and his wife, Evita.

All three Peronist candidates have frequently invoked Gen. Peron and Evita while running populist campaigns in the style of the revered former president.

Even Mr. Menem, despite his free-market leanings, has flashed unabashedly populist rhetoric with nationalist undertones, promising to raise salaries by 30 percent, emulate Franklin D. Roosevelt by undertaking a big public-works programs and to lobby for the "restitution" of the Falkland Islands to Argentina.

"I've always considered myself a Peronist worker," said Esteban Luis Aguirre, 58, who makes a living scavenging scrap metal with a horse-drawn cart in the conurbano municipality of Quilmes.

"I'm thinking of voting for Rodriguez Saa, but I don't think he'll do anything," Mr. Aguirre said, standing beside his horse and cart on a rutted dirt road. "He's the same as the rest. All these politicians are liars. There's no way of knowing who to vote for."

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