Enrique Victor Murillo was a proud member of Juan and Eva Peron's not so silent army. As a teenager from a humble family, Murillo stood for hours outside the Casa Rosada presidential house to hear the pro-labor speeches of Argentina's president in the 1940s. The cheers grew deafening when Peron's wife--Evita--stepped onto the balcony.
But Juan and Eva Peron must be rolling in their graves today. Murillo, along with many current and former members of the ruling Peronist party in Argentina, voted Sunday in ways that made it one of the darkest days in the legendary party's history. In the shadow of the obelisk in Buenos Aires, Murillo, a 69-year-old retired store clerk waved the flag of opposition candidate Fernando de la Rua, the austere mayor of the capital who trounced the Peronist candidate, Eduardo Duhalde, to become Argentina's new president.
Although the margin of victory was not as wide as some analysts had predicted--with 97 percent of votes counted, de la Rua had 48.5 percent versus 38 percent for Duhalde--the ideologically diverse opposition nevertheless came out ahead in many provinces long considered Peronist strongholds.
Peronists took a key victory by holding on to the governorship of the province of Buenos Aires. But they lost in two other large provinces to de la Rua's Alliance for Work, Justice and Education. The Peronists also lost their majority in the lower house of Congress to the Alliance, which picked up 16 seats.
"The Peronists are not the party I remembered," said Murillo, as tears stained his face. "My beautiful Evita, the strong [Juan] Peron, are only memories. . . . All that is left is corruption and selfishness."
The vote underscored deep-seated problems in the party that Juan and Eva built into a machine but which today is struggling to find a new role in modern Argentina. De la Rua, 62, will replace President Carlos Menem on Dec. 10, breaking 10 consecutive years of Peronist rule during which Menem and his Peronists were both lionized and demonized, facing corruption scandals along with successes and failures in their ambitious free-market reforms.
For the political movement that became one of the most important in Latin American history--not to mention the stuff of a Broadway musical--the worst problems are internal. A power struggle between Duhalde and Menem, who had wanted to run for a third term but was forbidden to do so by the constitution, fragmented the party machinery into warring factions. Since Duhalde's maneuvering stopped Menem from changing the constitution, the two have engaged in open verbal warfare.
"All I can say," said Duhalde, the outgoing governor of Buenos Aires province, "is that I was not the father of this defeat."
Over time, Duhalde's loss will likely leave Menem as the party's standard bearer--something analysts say Menem was shooting for in Duhalde's defeat.
"It's going to take us several months to recover and rebuild this party after the elections--and what we're going to have to do is reinvent ourselves, get new leaders and find a way to make Argentines trust the party again," said Jorge Telerman, Peronist ally of Duhalde and former Argentine ambassador to Cuba.
Some analysts suggest the Peronists may have become victims of their own style. They say that like Peron, Menem was a caudillo, a strong, paternalistic populist who tended to put personal ambitions before his party. Indeed, even before Duhalde ended his campaign last week, Menem's supporters launched the president's bid for the 2003 race, when he is legally permitted to run again.
"Menem is a man who craves power above all else," Telerman said. "And if we are to modernize as a party, we are going to have to start by putting egos in check."
Menem has also alienated many hard-core Peronist voters. Since Peron came to power in 1946 and continuing after his death in 1974, the party had been grounded in a complicated mix of nationalism and socialism. Above all, it survived off the support of labor.
Menem won concessions from the unions, ended hyperinflation by pegging the Argentine peso to the dollar and slimmed down the public work force by selling off virtually every state-run industry. But the wealth has been largely concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, while unemployment and poverty rates have soared. This has been a particularly difficult adjustment for Argentina, where even unskilled workers had long enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in Latin America.
The Alliance includes de la Rua's centrist Radical Civic Union, one of Argentina's oldest and most traditional parties, and the Front for a Country in Solidarity, former Peronists who opposed Menem's reforms. De la Rua scored points with the disenfranchised. Although he remains an advocate of the free market, he has promised to spread the benefits to a wider group of people, cracking down on tax evasion by the rich to fund new social service programs.
The Peronists are also back to battling an old reputation for corruption--an issue that became pivotal in the campaign. At least 10 of Menem's top advisers have been fired or are under indictment for corruption charges, mostly stemming from privatization kickbacks. De la Rua's honest image and pledges to fight corruption and be fiscally conservative hit the mark.
CAPTION: On a Buenos Aires street, a poster proclaiming "We All Won" celebrates opposition candidate Fernando de la Rua's landslide victory over Peronist Eduardo Duhalde in presidential race.