Facing the prospect of a humiliating defeat in a runoff vote scheduled for Sunday to choose Argentina's next president, Carlos Menem, who governed the country from 1989 to 1999 and was seeking a third term, withdrew from the race on Wednesday.
The decision, announced in a televised address Wednesday night after two days of mounting confusion, clears the way for Nestor Kirchner, the 53-year-old governor of a sparsely populated province in Patagonia, to be sworn in as the country's president on May 25.
But Kirchner was anything but magnanimous in victory, accusing Menem of "running away" from an electoral debacle in order to weaken the mandate of a new government.
Menem told reporters before the speech that he was pulling out because of "fraud and the way the process is being carried out" by President Eduardo Duhalde, who supports Kirchner.
He portrayed himself as the victim of "a systematic campaign of defamation and slander" but then accused Kirchner of having been a member of the Montonero guerrilla group in his youth -- a claim that Kirchner has repeatedly denied.
In the first round of the election, held April 27, Menem finished first in a field of 19 candidates, winning 24 percent of the vote.
Kirchner, who was making his first run for national office and like Menem is a member of the Peronist party, finished a close second, with 22 percent of the vote.
But Menem is extremely unpopular with a majority of voters, who blame him for the economic crisis that has sapped the country for the past four years, and could not build on that support.
Polls indicated that he was falling further and further behind his opponent, with one survey, published Wednesday morning, showing Kirchner with the support of 78 percent of voters.
"If the truth be told, we shouldn't be surprised by this attitude," Kirchner said of his opponent in a brief speech here on Wednesday afternoon. "After robbing Argentines of their rights to work, then to eat, study and hope, he has come for the last remaining right of citizens, that of the vote."
Because Menem pulled out after the legal deadline for a candidate to withdraw from the race, it is not clear whether voting will still take place on Sunday.
The language of the Argentine Constitution seems to indicate that Kirchner automatically becomes president, with or without a ratifying vote. But some constitutional lawyers suggested on Wednesday that the candidate who finished third in the April 27 balloting, Ricardo Lopez Murphy, a conservative, could have grounds to ask to replace Menem on the ballot.
At a news conference here on Wednesday afternoon, however, Lopez Murphy said he had "total and absolute respect for constitutional norms, law and justice" and would recognize Kirchner's victory.
He also lambasted Menem and Duhalde for the chaos that has been created, saying he felt "wounded and ashamed" by their conduct and "the damage that has been done."
The decision by Menem, who has never lost a race, to drop out was immediately criticized as an act of cowardice and selfishness.
Because the runoff election was created as part of constitutional reforms Menem himself sought as president during the mid-1990s, some commentators here compared him to a petulant soccer player who abandons the game when his team falls too far behind.