Argentines tangoed through the 1990s with President Carlos Menem, a populist with a penchant for Ferraris who ushered in free-market reforms that transformed life in this country of 36 million. But weary of corruption scandals and facing their second recession in four years, voters appear ready to waltz into the new millennium with an opposition candidate whose own campaign ads promote him as "boring."
Fernando de la Rua, the 62-year old stone-faced mayor of Buenos Aires, is leading in opinion polls over Eduardo Duhalde, the candidate from Menem's ruling Peronist Party. Although de la Rua's lead has narrowed in recent weeks, pollsters still put him ahead by 10 to 12 points--just enough to take the presidency in the first round of voting Oct. 24.
To win in the first round, de la Rua must take 45 percent of the vote or defeat Duhalde by at least 10 percentage points. Otherwise, elections go to a second round in November, when pundits still give de la Rua the edge.
The standings highlight a dramatic shift in a nation famed for charismatic leaders such as Juan Peron, whose fiery speeches from the balcony of the Casa Rosada with his wife, Eva, became the stuff of Latin American lore. But political analysts say de la Rua's austere image has projected a sense of honesty that Argentines are desperately looking for after 10 years of Menem--a swaggering spotlight-seeker who had a face lift in office and whose administration has been a roller-coaster ride of scandals.
"Argentines don't want flash anymore," said Paula Montoya, associate director of the Mora y Araujo polling firm. "They just want straight, honest government."
For the United States, most analysts say de la Rua's election would not mark a radical shift. He has said he would no longer engage in what the local press calls Menem's "carnal relations" with Washington--Argentina even tried to join NATO this year. But de la Rua has a history of courting Wall Street and the White House.
Viewed as part of Latin America's New Left, a movement that embraces a moderate, European brand of socialism, the aristocratic de la Rua, who fancies ascots and polo boots, nevertheless comes off more like Steve Forbes than Tony Blair.
In a country where a decade of reforms made the rich richer and the poor poorer, de la Rua is promising the right things to the right people. To Argentine yuppies who strut through Buenos Aires' new high-rise financial district, he has promised to rein in government spending and slash the national debt. To legions of unemployed workers who lost their jobs during privatizations, he has promised a greater role for the state in regulating the free market and more spending on social services.
At the same time, he has scored points with everyone by promising investigations into government corruption and excess--even pledging to sell the presidential jet, Tango 01, as a symbol of fiscal prudence.
"We need to end impunity and stop corruption," de la Rua insisted in a recent interview. "By dealing with corruption, we'll find the money to pay for programs to fight poverty and create social justice."
De la Rua, a career politician with a record for promoting disabled people's and women's rights, is the candidate of Argentina's two-year-old Alliance for Work, Justice and Education coalition, formed by a combination of his centrist Radical Civic Union (UCR) and the left-wing Front for a Country in Solidarity (FREPASO). While the UCR is one of Argentina's oldest parties, FREPASO was formed only in the early 1990s, when its leaders splintered from Menem's Peronists because they felt his economic reforms had betrayed Peron's pro-worker ideals.
"I never would have imaged not voting Peronist, but that day has come," said Claudio Marin, deputy director of the Buenos Aires Telephone Workers Union, whose office is decorated with paperweights and posters depicting the likeness of the late Ernesto "Che" Guevara, who led insurgencies in Cuba and Bolivia. He said that thousands of former telephone workers are still jobless nine years after the industry was privatized. "I feel betrayed by the Peronist Party, and there are a lot of other workers in Argentina who feel equally betrayed."
Menem's reforms brought a new level of efficiency to Argentina's formerly closed economy, paring down state payrolls and dramatically improving productivity. Most importantly, a convertibility plan that pegged the Argentine peso to the U.S. dollar stabilized the currency and ended hyperinflation.
But critics have said the new wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. And privatizations, corporate downsizing and two recessions, one from the 1995 Mexican peso crisis and another this year from Brazil's currency devaluation, have kept unemployment high. It stands at 14.5 percent nationwide, and much higher in poorer rural areas.
De la Rua says that spreading the benefits of economic reforms to a wider group of people is the answer. But he has been vague on how to do it, beyond saying he would raise social spending, funding it with a crackdown on tax evasion.
"De la Rua has avoided giving concrete specifics of his economic plan because he is going after voters of every ideology," said Rosendo Fraga, a Buenos Aires-based political consultant. "He's got everyone from militant members of the Communist Party to conservatives and neo-liberals supporting him."
It hasn't hurt de la Rua that the campaign of his main opponent, Duhalde, the outgoing governor of the province of Buenos Aires, has been chaotic. Duhalde has not recovered from a fight early in the campaign with Menem, who wanted to change the constitution to allow a third term in office. Duhalde thwarted Menem's attempt, largely because of the president's rock-bottom approval ratings, but it caused a schism in the party that still has not healed.