Argentina's former president Carlos Menem and governor Nestor Kirchner will be disputing next May 18 the second round of presidential elections, the first time ever the ballotage system is applied in Argentina since established in the 1994 Constitution.
With over 85% of the vote counted Mr. Menem won 24,1% of the vote and Mr. Kirchner 22%, with an unexpected showing of Mr. Ricardo López Murphy 18,5% who came in third..
Since both Mr. Menem and Mr. Kirchner belong to the Peronist ruling party the run off is expected to become a personality dispute and if the candidates actually debate economic policies, development models could become the centre of the issue.
Since the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001 that forced over half the country into poverty and left one if five workers without a job, Mr. and his mentor caretaker president Eduardo Duhalde have blamed orthodox extreme liberal economic policies from Mr. Menem's government, and corruption, as the main causes.
Mr. Menem obviously defends his ten years in office and says the lack of political leadership and the scrapping of his stability program impoverished Argentines and turned the country into the laughing stock of the world.
Mr. Menem also aligned Argentine foreign policy behind the United States and strongly favoured overseas investments while Mr. Duhalde and Mr. Kirchner believe in a more independent position closer to Mercosur, Lula's Brazil and a prudent distance from the Bush administration, emphasizing in a national economy.
For the coming run off Mr. Kirchner will have the support of the current government including the prestige of Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna architect of the incipient Argentine recovery, and the benefit of the dual attitude of the Argentine electorate towards former president Menem.
Opinion polls indicate that a majority of Argentines reject Mr. Menem but also almost half of those interviewed respect the former president's ability as a storm pilot, his international contacts and his strong sense of leadership.
Mr. Menem in his victory speech recalled that 16 months ago he was under house arrest allegedly for corruption claims that later proved unfounded, and now "we have won a third mandate", in spite of all the "illegal actions and tricks from the caretaker president". He was confident that all Peronists will vote him May 18.
Rival Mr. Kirchner said that the coming run off was an option between the "old, corrupt, exploited Argentina", and a "new hope with full participation of all citizens and the chance of rebuilding a fairer Argentina".
As expected Mr. Menem managed very well in the north of the country, Mr. Kirchner in the Patagonian provinces, (he's governor of Santa Cruz) and with the help of Mr. Duhalde, the strong man of the province of Buenos Aires, a promising advantage in Argentina's largest and most decisive electoral circumscription.
Liberal economist Mr. Lopez Murphy won in the capital Buenos Aires and had a strong showing in the main cities that makes him the potential leader of the opposition.