Menem Drops Out of Argentine Runoff

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- A little-known governor faces the daunting challenge of lifting Argentina from its worst economic debacle on record after flamboyant former leader Carlos Menem withdrew from the two-man presidential race.

Nestor Kirchner, 53, a Peronist Party politician from the southern, oil-rich province of Santa Cruz, is expected to be proclaimed president and take office on May 25. Menem decided to abandon his bid for a third term on Wednesday after polls showed him trailing badly.

But when Kirchner takes office he will lack the majority electoral support he sorely needs to confront the South American nation's deep economic and social crisis. He also lacks any experience on the national or international stage.

Menem was expected to lose Sunday's runoff by a 2-to-1 margin or more, and his withdrawal denies Kirchner the chance of winning in a landslide. Kirchner assumes the presidency on the strength of his first election round showing, when he got 22 percent of the vote and came in second after Menem.

Kirchner must cobble together the support of feuding political leaders from his own fractious Peronist party, bring along an independent-minded Congress and the support of some 19 candidates from the bitterly contested first round.

"He's going to have to compromise," said Alberto Bernal, an Argentina expert at IDEAGlobal, a New-York based think tank, who predicted that the president's ability to govern an unruly country that exploded into economic riots in the streets in 2001 will be a real test.

Kirchner is the governor of Patagonia, a province with more sheep than people. His main challenge is to lead Argentina out of a five-year recession.

One in five workers is without a job and half the 34 million people in this large nation, once among the world's 10 wealthiest, live in poverty. Argentina defaulted on $141 billion in public debt in 2001 and its economy contracted by 11 percent last year.

Kirchner blamed former President Menem on Wednesday for the recession that began in mid-1998. It exploded into a full-blown crisis in 2001, with a run on banks and street riots that killed dozens.

"First he robbed the Argentines of the right to work, then the right to eat, the right to study and the right to hope," Kirchner said in a speech to supporters.

As hundreds mobbed him with shouts of "Long live the president!" Kirchner promised to build "a different country, with great humility but with firm convictions, hope and optimism."

Kirchner takes credit for being a good administrator of Santa Cruz, which has never suffered the same sort of fiscal implosions that hit Argentina's other provinces. But critics say Santa Cruz is easy to manage because it gets so much money from oil revenue and has less than 200,000 people.

During his campaign, Kirchner suggested he would exert greater government control over the oil industry and train systems, both privatized by Menem during his 1989-99 presidency.

While Menem pitched free-market economics and closer ties to the United States, Kirchner campaigned for stronger government support for the economy.