Menem cedes Argentinian presidential race to rival

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The Independent US

Carlos Menem stood down from Argentina's presidential race last night, leaving his centre-left Peronist rival Nestor Kirchner, in effect, as president-elect of Argentina.

Mr Menem quit to avoid a humiliating defeat in a run-off against Mr Kirchner, allowing his rival to win by default.

According to electoral law, if one of the two candidates withdraws, the run-off is cancelled. Mr Kirchner can now be proclaimed President despite having won just 22 per cent of the vote in the first round, to Mr Menem's 24 per cent.

Polls had shown Sunday's vote was likely to go Mr Kirchner's way by 70 per cent to 30 per cent. Sunday would have been a first electoral loss for Mr Menem, a former president.

Mr Kirchner claimed in a triumphal speech that the former president had robbed Argentinians of their right to vote. "But we should not be surprised. He had robbed Argentinians of their right to work, to eat, to study, and now he has come for the last right Argentines have left, to vote," he said.

Mr Menem, 72, had kept the country in limbo since his aides said on Tuesday that he was considering pulling out.

Widely reviled for his fast-lane lifestyle and the corruption that riddled his 1989-99 government, Mr Menem now faces a barrage of accusations that he is undermining the country's 20-year-old democracy.

His exit is a blow to Mr Kirchner, the little known governor of Santa Cruz province in Patagonia, who will assume the presidency with one of the lowest vote shares in the country's history, rather than the 70 per cent predicted.

Mr Kirchner's supporters raced to dispel notions his government would be weak. Eduardo Duhalde, the caretaker president, said: "Obviously, it would be much better if the country could vote, but polls show overwhelming support for Kirchner. There isn't a question of legitimacy." Mr Menem said: "There were not the conditions for a fair second round, with so much persecution. I say to Kirchner, he can keep the 22 per cent of the votes, I'll keep the people."

Argentina has endured 18 months of a weak, unelected government of Mr Duhalde, named by Congress after riots over the parlous state of the economy ousted two previous presidents in 10 days in 2001. Argentina now faces another weak government, which will take power on 25 May.

Mr Menem's move is widely believed to be a manoeuvre to force Mr Kirchner to assume the presidency with a weak mandate, which will leave him susceptible to pressure from political factions including Mr Menem's supporters.

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