Argentines May Act on Fatigue Over Reform, Disgust Over Graft

Election Sunday could be precursor to presidential race. Those tired of economic reforms may vote opposition.

In many ways, San Miguel is a typical Argentine town. The suburb, about an hour outside Buenos Aires, clings precariously to its middle-class status as unemployment flirts with the 20 percent mark. On Saturday nights, the men watch soccer on electronic-store TVs, while women window shop. There is not a lot of buying.

But corruption reverberates as an even bigger story. Everybody has on his lips the tale of the simple meat-cutter who, within a few years of entering politics, became a millionaire. "They have ruined the country," says park-bench commentator Dominic, who asked that his last name not be used. "All these people who go into politics with nothing and end up with a couple of houses, several cars, and their fingers in every pocket."

That is why this town that has always voted Peronista - the party of President Carlos Menem - turned out in big numbers for final local rally of the opposition alliance, Alianza, before Sunday's midterm elections.

"Everywhere I've gone in this campaign, I hear the same message: They're robbing us," says the Buenos Aires region's lead Alianza candidate, Graciela Fernndez Meijide, a charismatic, maternal senator running on an anticorruption platform. She adds, "Menem [and the Peronistas] say they need more time to finish their project. You must tell them you can't afford that."

Sunday's elections, in which Mr. Menem is likely to hang on to his majority, won't mean any tectonic shifts for Argentina. More important is the message the voters will send and what it says about the public's mood. Like a swing perceptible in Europe with opposition triumphs this year in Britain and France, Argentina is exhibiting signs of reform fatigue after a decade of economic adjustments. That has been exacerbated, analysts say, by the public's belief that corrupt officials have profited from the reforms, while the public has paid the price of higher unemployment and reduced public services.

"What we're seeing here is very similar to the situation in Europe that led to changes in Britain and France," says Manuel Mora y Araujo, a Buenos Aires political analyst. "The economic numbers look good" - the economy is expected to grow 8 percent this year while the country's legendary inflation is under control - "but the people aren't feeling that performance.... Mix in with that the theme of corruption, which adds to the uneasiness a high level of disgust."

But the improving economy is having a political effect. "People in the higher income groups don't care that much about the economy because it is going well for them," says Martn Krause, vice dean of ESEADE, a Buenos Aires graduate business school. "That has freed them to focus more attention on issues like corruption and the lack of justice."

Opinion polls show Mrs. Fernndez Meijide, a long-time defender of human rights who lost her son during the "dirty war" of the 1970s, pulling in almost two-thirds of middle-income voters. But Argentina's working class is sticking to its Peronista base. A whopping three-fourths of the working class supports the Buenos Aires region's lead Peronista candidate, Hilda "Chiche" Duhalde, despite the fact they've been hit hardest by Menem's reforms.

But the working class was also the principal victim of the hyperinflation that reigned in Argentina during the 1980s presidency of Ral Alfonsn - whose Union Civica Radical Party is one of two making up the Alianza. "For these people, that inflation was the worst thing in the world. They remember it and remember it was controlled under Menem," says Mr. Mora y Araujo.

Not that the Peronistas are letting it be forgotten. Campaign posters ask simply: "Remember hyperinflation?" followed by, "Argentina: a Country that Changed."

With no congressional majority at stake, Argentines are looking for other impact from these elections. "The key to these elections will be the momentum they give or deny either to candidates for the 1999 [presidential] elections or to the government and what it still plans to do," says Mr. Krause.

An impressive Alianza win could catapult Fernndez Meijide into a presidential candidacy, while Mrs. Duhalde is a surrogate for the presidential aspirations of her husband, Buenos Aires Gov. Eduardo Duhalde. A Duhalde triumph could make Menem a kind of lame duck within his own party.

Many Argentines agree with Menem that the job of changing Argentina is not done. What some of them fear now is that a combination of "reform fatigue" and pre-presidential election politicking is going to give everything momentum except change itself.

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