One of the world's most sophisticated cities finally has a sophistication it has glaringly lacked: its own elected mayor.
Ever since 1880, when a small war was fought over the issue, the mayor of Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, has been appointed by the country's president. But on June 30, that tradition was finally broken, when 2 million Portenos, as city residents are called, voted in hotly contested municipal elections.
The election was considered a referendum on the seven-year rule of President Carlos Saul Menem and his Peronist Justicialist Party. Not only did the opposition capture city hall, but in a parallel election for a 60-member commission, which will write a new city charter, 49 seats went to the opposition.
The new mayor, with 40 percent of the vote, is Sen. Fernando de la Rua of the moderate-left Radical Civic Union (UCR). He was followed by Norberto La Porta, of the left-center alliance called FREPASO with 27 percent, and Peronist incumbent mayor Jorge Domnguez, who trailed with 18 percent.
"It's a blow for Menem and his chance to change the Constitution once again to run for an unprecedented third term in 1999," says pollster Roberto Bacman.
Nevertheless, many observers here believe Dr. Menem will try to change the rules again after having maneuvered constitutional reforms last year to allow presidential limits of two terms. The legal reform was made possible after Menem agreed to a pact with former President Raul Alfonsin (of the UCR) to allow Mene to seek a second term in 1995 in exchange for an agreement on this year's direct vote for mayor. Mr. Alfonsin was well aware that Buenos Aires residents are traditionally anti-Peronist and sympathetic to his party.
However, there are questions about when and how the UCR will govern Buenos Aires. Since the charter has yet to be written, no one knows when the new mayor will take power or what his powers will be, which means the city will continue to remain in a "eunuch state," according to prominent political author Horacio Verbitsky. So far, the new mayor has no control over such core matters as budget, police, or transportation.
"De la Rua has been elected for a job that hasn't even been designed yet," says political scientist Felipe Noguera.
Yet, Mr. de la Ra's victory is seen as an important first step for the UCR's political comeback. If the popular senator proves to be a sound administrator, he is expected to be a major challenger for the presidency against Menem, or his Peronist successor.
Menem remains politically vulnerable because of record unemployment, increasing poverty and a deep economic recession.
And in a sour surprise just two days before the election, Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo announced that unemployment had risen from 16.4 percent to 17.1 percent, one of Latin America's highest rates.
The timing of Mr. Cavallo's announcement was a blow for Mayor Domnguez, who had gained popularity through scores of public-works projects and had hoped for a last-minute miracle to save his job. "Many people liked him and his projects," says Hector D'Amico, managing editor of the leading newsmagazine, Noticias. "But he was from the wrong party."
Mr. D'Amico and others also believe that Buenos Aires voters sent a clear message to the Peronists about past corruption scandals involving Menem, his family and close friends, and other prominent politicians. On the campaign trail, De la Ra continually hammered home the point that the two Peronist mayors prior to Domnguez, Carlos Grosso and Saul Bouer, had left office under a cloud of financial irregularities.
"The enemy is the Menemist culture of frivolity, arrogance, pizza, and champagne," De la Ra said at his last campaign stop last week. "We will persecute the corrupt until the end."
In the meantime, Portenos are basking in their historic independence. Despite cold winter nights, thousands took to the streets to celebrate De la Rua's victory over the Peronists.
"Buenos Aires has always been different from the provinces," says historian Felix Luna. "Portenos are more independent and more willing to vote any government out of power."
Not surprisingly, Menem has suggested that most Argentines will look at the vote as a Porteno aberration and continue to support his policies. "Let's not forget that Buenos Aires is not equivalent to the entire country," he said.