- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

BUENOS AIRES — Nestor Kirchner will assume the presidency of Argentina on Sunday with big plans and leftist leanings but the weakest mandate of any elected president in the nation’s history.

He got only 22 percent of the vote in a first-round election April 27, and won the runoff by default when fellow Peronist and former President Carlos Saul Menem backed out last week in the face of falling support in polls before the balloting.

But tepid popular support has not stopped Mr. Kirchner from making bold promises of sweeping change.

A little-known governor from a remote province that has 12 times more sheep than people, Mr. Kirchner has vowed to pull Argentina out of crisis by ending an era of unrestrained economic liberalization begun under Mr. Menem in 1989.

Mr. Kirchner has had especially harsh words for the policies of market orthodoxy and fiscal austerity promoted by the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. government, which have come under question throughout Latin America.

In a televised speech viewed by millions of Argentines on the day of Mr. Menem’s withdrawal, Mr. Kirchner railed against “groups and sectors of economic power” and said he would not fall “prey to the corporations.”

Before a meeting earlier this month with left-leaning Brazilian President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, Mr. Kirchner told reporters his foreign policy would prioritize ties with Brazil and the rest of Latin America, at the expense of the “carnal relations” Mr. Menem had cultivated with the United States.

He also has voiced opposition to the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, which was hugely unpopular in Argentina. And he has commended outgoing President Eduardo Duhalde’s decision to abstain from voting on a U.S.-backed resolution in the United Nations to condemn Cuba for human rights violations.

“Kirchner represents a new model, which means a stronger position towards the IMF, going against the thinking that the market will solve everything, and consolidating Mercosur,” the South American trade bloc, said Torcuato Di Tella, a venerable left-leaning Buenos Aires intellectual who backed Mr. Kirchner’s candidacy.

Governor for 11 years of the vast, sparsely populated Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, Mr. Kirchner has won praise for running an efficient administration that has stayed debt-free and boasted relatively low poverty rates despite nearly five years of national economic recession.

But critics say nothing less should have been expected from an oil-rich province where the government is the primary employer.

Opposition forces, meanwhile, accuse Mr. Kirchner of holding power through authoritarian methods and an ingrained system of political patronage.

They also warn that the need to preserve alliances with Mr. Duhalde, also a Peronist, and the other party bosses that backed his candidacy may compromise Mr. Kirchner’s campaign pledges to implement political reform and clean up corruption.

What is certain is that the president-elect, a gangly man with a lisp who has been faulted for a lack of charisma and who has never held office at the federal level, will face daunting challenges.

Topping the list are a monstrous debt estimated at about $170 billion, an entrenched political elite riven by factional disputes, unprecedented levels of unemployment and poverty, growing social movements that have become increasingly combative, and a crisis-weary public that views its nation’s leaders and even its institutions with scorn.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Americo Escobar, 53, as he leaned on an oversized shopping cart he uses to scavenge cardboard on the streets of Buenos Aires.

“The politicians promise and promise and promise, but they never do anything. What they do know how to do is rob like crazy.”

Mr. Kirchner’s plans to spur growth through increased government spending and subsidies will be conditioned by the tight fiscal straits he will inherit as president.

While the economy has shown signs of rebounding in recent months, Mr. Duhalde’s administration has left several potentially explosive financial issues unresolved.

Among the most problematic is the question of how Argentina will manage to keep paying off its ever-rising external debt, which will involve striking a new deal with the IMF after an eight-month stopgap agreement ends in August.

Mr. Kirchner’s electoral platform included a large-scale public works program, subsidies for small- and medium-sized companies, increased social welfare and a stronger commitment to regional trade.

But like Mr. Lula da Silva in Brazil, the Argentine president-elect has tempered nationalist and leftist rhetoric with assurances to international investors and creditors. He has said he will negotiate with the IMF and he has promised not to renationalize formerly state-owned companies privatized during the 1990s.

“Kirchner’s not a leftist,” said Buenos Aires-based analyst Analia Del Franco. “He isn’t bringing a revolution. This is going to be a government of transition, which will be more nationalist than anything.”

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