- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2003

BUENOS AIRES Former President Carlos Menem led Peronist rival Nestor Kirchner in yesterday's presidential vote, but official results indicated the race was too close to call and Argentina would hold its first runoff in history.
With 26 percent of the ballot tallied, Mr. Menem led with 24 percent of the vote a whisker ahead of the 22 percent for Mr. Kirchner, the governor of the oil-rich Patagonian province of Santa Cruz.
Ricardo Lopez Murphy, a free-market economist and former economy minister, trailed in third with 17 percent.
All three candidates sought to shape the bitter contest around their prescriptions for leading South America's second-largest economy out of a debt default and bruising currency devaluation.
Neither of the top two candidates appeared close to capturing the 45 percent of the vote needed to win outright, setting up a May 18 runoff, according to the early tally by Argentina's National Electoral Council.
Exit polls released by the television stations Cronica, AmericaTV, and TodoNoticias, also forecast a second round.
The independent Cronica television network gave Mr. Menem 29 percent to 21 percent for Mr. Kirchner and 18 percent for Mr. Murphy. Other exit polls did not release their final figures.
Mr. Menem, 72, the front-runner who dominated Argentine politics as a flamboyant and unabashed free-market advocate from 1989 to 1999, smiled as the first presidential candidate to vote yesterday, surrounded by well-wishers in his home state of La Rioja in western Argentina.
Mr. Murphy, who with his walrus mustache and weighty jowls is known as "the Bulldog," cast his ballot in Buenos Aires, telling reporters that voters had a serious choice to make, with their very economic future at stake.
About 25.7 million voters are registered in the election and soldiers stood guard at many of the 66,735 polling stations. It was Argentina's fifth election since democracy was restored after the end of a military dictatorship in 1983. Voting is compulsory.
The winner will succeed President Eduardo Duhalde for a four-year term beginning May 25, and will be Argentina's sixth president in less than two years. Mr. Duhalde was appointed by Congress early last year after deadly street riots in December 2001 triggered economic chaos and a revolving door of five presidents in two weeks.
But many Argentines struggling to survive the nation's worst economic downturn and rising poverty more than half the population now live below the poverty line are distrustful that the election will bring significant change.
"I walked into the booth and had no idea who I was going to pick," said Arturo Fernando, a former real estate broker who lost his job six months ago. "I have never seen our country this divided."
The next president faces a country ravaged by five years of recession. Official unemployment now is at a near-record 17 percent, although most economists say it is closer to 25 percent.
Throughout the campaign, Mr. Menem appealed to the legions of newly poor to vote for him. He reminded them of better times in the 1990s when he was in power and Argentina's economy grew at an average rate of 5 percent a year, successfully embarking on a free-market economic road lauded by Wall Street.

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