Argentine voters ready to punish 'inept' President

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The Independent US

Argentina's voters looked likely to punish the ruling coalition of President Fernando de la Rua for failing to reverse the country's economic freefall, with one-third of voters expected to abstain or to spoil their ballots yesterday.

Amid disenchantment after four years of austerity measures that have produced no visible results, the President's approval ratings have plunged into single digits. Many see him as dithering and inept, while his coalition, comprising the centre-left Radical party and the smaller left-wing Frepaso party, has almost collapsed.

The government has sought to keep the economy afloat through a tough "zero deficit" policy under which it can spend no more than it raises through taxes. This has resulted in highly unpopular cuts to salaries and pensions.

Polls in the final week of campaigning predicted that the opposition Peronists would become the main force in the 257-seat Congress, but would fail to win an outright majority.

The former president Carlos Menem, who is under house arrest and awaiting trial for illegal arms trafficking, was unable to campaign for the opposition. His former economic guru, Domingo Cavallo, who was kept on by the present government, is certain to remain as Minister of Economy even though Argentina is struggling on the brink of bankruptcy. Market woes since the terrorists attacks on New York and Washington last month have hit the country hard, raising fears that it will default on loans or at least devalue its currency.

In spite of strains in the coalition, Dario Alessandro, Frepaso's leader in Congress, insisted that his party was not about to break ranks with the government after the election. "There is no need for us to," Mr Alessandro said. "We must propose ways to get out of this crisis, and then see what the government says to us."

Voters had responded to the election campaign with disheartening apathy. In Buenos Aires, 40 per cent were expected to spoil their ballots to show their contempt for the political process. Since Argentina returned to democracy in 1983, the electorate has rarely appeared so angry and disillusioned. The political malaise is underlined by the steady exodus of young professionals to other countries. Rosendo Fraga, a Buenos Aires political analyst, said: "This is a wake-up call for politicians that there is a severe crisis."

Over the past 20 years, military juntas have been replaced by politicians in the public mind as scapegoats for Argentina's seven decades of economic decline. Part of the problem is the small and stagnant pool of possible candidates among the exclusive "political class" that runs the country. The same personalities get recycled for decades at a time, almost regardless of their performance in previous terms in office.

The race for the upper house, the senate, in Buenos Aires province showed why so many voters seemed bored with the selection of candidates. Raul Alfonsin, an elderly former president whose term was cut short by economic collapse in 1989, was running against a Peronist candidate, Eduardo Duhalde, who lost the presidential race two years ago.

Third parties have yet to emerge in Argentina in any big way. Most have failed to capture the popular imagination or have collapsed due to infighting.

As President de la Rua cast his ballot yesterday, he promised Argentina that his government would "listen with humility to the message of the polls". The problem is that Argentine voters have heard this promise many times before.