Fernando de la Rua, the candidate who has promised to crack down on rampant corruption and to help Argentina's poor and unemployed, appeared headed for a landslide victory over the ruling Peronist party in today's presidential election.
Electoral officials were still tallying votes after balloting stations closed at 6 p.m. (5 p.m. EDT). But exit polls, considered fairly reliable in Argentina, suggested de la Rua's Alliance for Work, Justice and Education was dealing the Peronists one of their worse defeats since the late Juan Peron came to power in 1946.
De la Rua, the 62-year-old mayor of Buenos Aires whose political ads were labeled "boring" in contrast with the flashy, corruption-plagued Peronist administration of outgoing President Carlos Menem, had 50.4 percent of the vote, 16 percentage points ahead of Peronist candidate Eduardo Duhalde. To avoid a runoff election next month, de la Rua must maintain a 10 percentage point lead or win with more than 50 percent of the vote.
Fueling today's vote, analysts say, is the perception of widespread political corruption and cronyism during Menem's decade in office which crosses all cultural and social lines. "De la Rua is viewed as an honest man," said Graciela Romer, a Buenos Aires-based political analyst. "And that's what Argentines are desperate for."
De la Rua's alliance is a union of his centrist Radical Civic Union, one of Argentina's oldest and most traditional parties, and the left-wing Front for a Country in Solidarity. Though the Alliance has had mixed success in regional elections, today was its shining moment. Exit polls also indicate that Alliance candidate Graciela Fernandez Meijide, an opposition leader whose son was killed during Argentina's military dictatorship which ended in 1983, may capture the governorship of the province of Buenos Aires, the second most important post in the nation. The Alliance also appeared poised to gain at least 16 congressional seats.
In a country known for electing fiery orators and populists such as Juan Peron, de la Rua won votes because of his social liberalism and his austere personality. Argentines were tired of the flashy Menem, and Duhalde, though he tried to distance himself from the outgoing president, paid the price, analysts said.
During his 10 years in office, Menem set in motion rapid-fire free-market reforms and privatizations which more than quadrupled the nation's per capita income and ended hyperinflation. But the new wealth was concentrated in the hands of the rich, and many Peronists felt betrayed. Poverty has risen in recession-plagued Argentina and unemployment now tops 14.5 percent, helping fuel a startling increase in crime in large urban centers in the last two years.
De la Rua promised to rebuild the national safety net for the unemployed and the poor and to overhaul the corrupt judicial system and police force. He proposed to fund those changes by cracking down on tax evasion by the rich.
"We desperately need help, and I'm praying that de la Rua will not be a liar like all the rest of the politicians here," said Alejandra Dominguez, 38, an unemployed seamstress, standing in front of the run-down school where she voted in a poor industrial neighborhood just west of Buenos Aires.
Though he has promised to spend more on social services, de la Rua easily won the vote of the upper classes by advocating an overall cut in government spending, and promising to usher in a new era of fiscal conservatism. He even said he will pawn Menem's luxury presidential jet, Tango 01.
"De la Rua may not be audacious or charismatic, but I believe he'll bring in an honest government that will stop the waste of taxpayers' money," said architect Leonardo Tonane, 43, after voting in the elegant Recoleta district of Buenos Aires. "The reason we can't help the poor more is simply because politicians here are too busy stealing our money!"
De la Rua has eased minds throughout Argentina--as well as on Wall Street--by saying he will keep the Argentine peso pegged to the U.S. dollar. He also said he would drag South America's second-largest economy out of its deep recession and create employment by overhauling labor laws and granting low-interest government loans to small businesses.
But de la Rua faces major hurdles despite Alliance's huge victory. Although the Peronist party appeared in disarray tonight, it still controls the Senate and several provinces, and Menem named most of the judges on the Supreme Court. Duhalde's political career appeared to be hurt beyond repair, but analysts predicted that Menem will emerge as a powerful opposition leader.
"The big question will be whether de la Rua will be able to govern effectively," said political analyst Romer. "Winning a strong show of support helps, yet he's going to face the task of not only facing the Peronist opposition but of keeping together his Alliance. He's going to have his hands full negotiating with everyone to get his agenda passed. So if anyone is expecting a rapid solution to Argentina's problems, I think they're going to have to wait."
CAPTION: Argentine presidential candidate Fernando de la Rua gestures to the press as he arrives to cast his vote in Buenos Aires. Exit polls indicate that he won.