Argentines swayed by soap opera and stability

Phil Davison in Buenos Aires says voters are ready for another Carlos Menem episode
"My analyst's beautician is also Menem's beautician." It could be a line from a Woody Allen script but in fact was a deadpan remark by an Argentinian intellectual over dinner this week.

"He doesn't sleep much and calls the beautician to the palace at four am to work on his wrinkles. He has a hair salon in his presidential Boeing 757, uses hair inserts and receives collagen injections to 'lift' his face. That's why he once showed up at a function, with his face all swollen, saying he had been bitten by a wasp."

The vanity and soap-opera lifestyle of Carlos Saul Menem, likely to win re-election tomorrow for a new four-year term as President, are legendary. Many Argentinians express embarrassment at what they call his coarseness but give him the benefit of the doubt for several years of economic stability after decades of chaos.

"With Menem, politics has become a show. Look at the people he's invited recently to the presidential palace - Claudia Schiffer, The Rolling Stones," says Walter Goobar, an editor at the daily Pagina 12 newspaper. "He likes to surround himself with stars. His official residence has become a Disneyland - swimming pools, a golf course, cinemas, an amusement arcade."

Harmless enough, perhaps, like his "Saturday Night Fever" white suits, black shirts and silk ties, or the red Ferrari he received as a goodwill gift from Italian businessmen.

Far more serious criticisms have been levelled against the diminutive 64-year-old President, from wife abuse and chronic marital infidelity to links with arms and drug-dealers, to giving lucrative jobs to his family members. But he has survived all of them. Of 100 per cent Syrian origin, he "has an Arab sense of destiny and always believed he would one day be a caudillo", a leader, according to friends.

Although in election campaign comments this week he said he would not run again in 1999, few believe he means it. He has previously been quoted as saying he would like to remain in power until 2013. "He changed the constitution to get a second term. Don't be surprised if he eventually proposes a constitutional monarchy and runs for king!" said an East European diplomat here.

Mr Menem's support ensured provincial governorships for the former Formula One driver Carlos Reutemann and a Sixties pop singer, Palito Ortega. His close friend, the footballer Diego Maradona, this week wore an embroidered "Vote Menem" band on the "wrist of God".

Mr Menem's Arab connections served him well during his rise through the Peronist political apparatus.

He visited President Hafez al-Assad of Syria and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and both were widely rumoured to have poured millions into his successful 1989 election campaign. His 1966 marriage to Zulema Yoma, a young woman from the same Syrian village as his father, was seen as arranged, with politics and business in mind.

And so began the soap opera and series of scandals involving his Syrian in-laws, sometimes described as Yomagate. Mr Menem appointed Zulema's younger sister, Amira Yoma, as his private secretary and gave administrative jobs to her brothers.

Thus did one of the world's best-known arms dealers, Monzer al-Kassar (a Syrian known as the Prince of Marbella, where he lives), receive a handy Argentinian diplomatic passport.

Thus, too, did Amira's then husband, Ibraham al-Ibrahim, a Syrian intelligence agent close to President Assad, end up in the equally handy post of customs chief at Buenos Aires's Ezeiza international airport despite speaking barely a word of Spanish.

After reports that Amira and her husband regulary carried suitcases full of cash between Argentina and various countries, both were accused of laundering drug money. Charges against Amira were later dropped while her ex-husband is said to be in exile.

Mr Menem has since dumped the in-laws and his wife after nearly 30 years of turbulent marriage. In a popular biography of Mr Menem entitled El Jefe (The Chief) by Gabriela Cerruti, an Argentinian journalist, Zulema describes how her husband beat her and threatened to kill her. She, in turn, publicly threatened to kill him on several occasions.