According to exit polls, Mr Menem, 64, heading the Justicialista (Peronist) Party, looked like scoring about 47.5 per cent, enough to avoid a run- off with 49-year-old Jose Octavio Bordon of the Frepaso (Front for a Country of Solidarity) coalition, who scored around 34 per cent. New electoral rules meant the winner had to reach either 45 per cent outright, or 40 per cent with a 10-point margin over the runner-up.
Although convinced his country needed him for four more years, Mr Menem knew his limitations when he forced through the constitutional change last year that allowed him to run again. The 45-per-cent threshold or 40 per cent with a 10-point margin was tailored to the vote he believed he could get. Also conveniently tailored was the new rule that blank ballots would not be counted, making the threshold easier.
As a concession to opponents whose arms he twisted into agreeing to the changes, his possible second term was cut from six years to four. Although first first results were not due out until early today, Horacio Massaccesi, of the Peronists' traditional Radical Party rivals, won a disappointing 14 per cent, according to exit polls.
Had Mr Bordon been able to force a run-off, he might well have been able to defeat Mr Menem with the support of the Radicals and smaller parties in a second round.
Ideology and party lines went out of the window in elections which failed to arouse passions although, with voting obligatory for 18- to 70-year- olds and democracy still a relative novelty, turn-out appeared to be high.
Since taking power in 1989, Mr Menem has turned Peronism, once populist, on its head with privatisations, free-market policies and what one of his ministers described as "carnal relations" with the United States. Continuity was his campaign theme, focusing on his success in reducing hyperinflation to single digits and on the stability provided by his policy of dollar-peso parity.
Faced with the popularity of those policies, Mr Bordon was wise enough to campaign on the platform of a change of faces.