Thu, May 15, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Argentina's former leader stays in presidential race

AP , BUENOS AIRES

Argentine presidential candidate and former president Carlos Menem waves to a crowd gathered in front of his hotel in Buenos Aires.

PHOTO: AFP

Former president Carlos Menem plunged Argentina's presidential runoff into turmoil after the 72-year-old resisted growing pressure by some of his own advisers to abandon his underdog race for a third term in office.

Flashing a "V" for victory sign, Menem appeared on a hotel balcony late Tuesday after reports that some of his top aides wanted him to withdraw to avoid a potentially embarrassing defeat to rival Nestor Kirchner.

Kirchner has enjoyed an overwhelming lead in major opinion polls ahead of Sunday's runoff vote.

Campaign spokesman Jorge Azcarate said Menem would make a final decision yesterday.

Throughout the day, Menem holed up in his Buenos Aires headquarters for hours as questions about the future of his third presidential run dominated newspapers and live television broadcasts. Although Menem himself had no public comment on whether he might quit, another campaign aide Jorge Raventos insisted he would not.

"Menem is continuing the campaign," Raventos told reporters shortly after a smiling Menem appeared briefly at his hotel headquarters before hundreds of cheering well-wishers.

"Menem won't go! Menem won't go!" many of the supporters chanted.

For days, Menem's quest for a third presidential term has been dogged by reports of infighting among top advisers. One lawmaker close to the Menem camp, who spoke with reporters on condition of not being named, said the former president had listened Tuesday to his officials debate the merits of both remaining and abandoning the race.

Under Argentine election laws, if Menem were to still abandon the race along with his running mate it would leave Kirchner the winner. But it could also seriously undermine the start of a Kirchner presidency, depriving him of a popular mandate to lead the country out its economic crisis.

In a sharply divided first round April 27, Menem won 24 percent compared to 22 percent for Kirchner, governor of the oil-rich province of Santa Cruz in southern Argentina. But neither came close to the 40 percent needed to win outright.

Since then, Menem's campaign has failed to generate widespread support, hampered in large part by widespread rejection of the former president by many Argentines weary of the corruption scandals that clouded his decade in power.

A three-term governor, Kirchner has surged in the polls by harnessing heavy support from outgoing President Eduardo Duhalde, who took office last January after deadly street protests unseated five president in two weeks.

Duhalde, who is to leave office May 25, sounded a warning to Menem about pulling out, saying it was his "historic duty" to see the election process through to the end.

"To interrupt this process would be a gross irresponsibility," Duhalde said on radio.

Kirchner's vice presidential running mate, Daniel Scioli, said the front-runner was making plans for governing should Menem ultimately withdraw.

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