Wednesday, April 30th 2003 - 21:00 UTC

Argentine polls depict “Anybody but Menem” sentiment.

Though he took a plurality in the first round of presidential elections, former leader Carlos Menem is rejected by a large majority of Argentines as undeserving of another term and stands little chance in the upcoming runoff, polls indicated Wednesday

According to the results of two new surveys, Santa Cruz Gov. Nestor Kirchner will beat Menem, who governed from 1989-1999, by a large margin in the runoff election set for May 18. Both men are members of the ruling Peronist party.

But outgoing-President Eduardo Duhalde, a bitter Menem foe, made no pretence of neutrality in the race, openly promoting Kirchner's candidacy.

Many Argentines blame Menem for setting the stage for the deep recession-depression they have been struggling through for nearly five years, an economic calamity only recently beginning to ease.

In one of the polls released today, a nationwide survey conducted by OPSM found 65.4 percent of respondents saying they intended to vote for Kirchner and only 12.8 percent opting for Menem.

The other poll, carried out by the Equis consultancy in Greater Buenos Aires, which is home to nearly a third of Argentina's 36 million people, Kirchner was favored by 59.2 percent while 24.1 percent said they planned to vote for Menem.

Menem placed first in last Sunday's election with 24.36 percent of the vote, while Kirchner, governor of a sparsely populated province in Patagonia, finished second with 22 percent.

Under Argentine electoral laws, a runoff is mandated when no candidate obtains at least 40 percent of the vote with a margin of 10 percentage points over his closest contender.

"Obviously, the overwhelming majority in favor of Kirchner is the people's initial response, their impression, but it's not a consolidated vote," OPSM director Enrique Zuleta Puceiro told Pagina/12 daily.

"In a few days," the pollster predicted, "things are going to settle down, but the difference will still be very wide." Regarding Menem, the popular judgment is that he is in "the twilight of his leadership," Puceiro said.

The former president, meanwhile, sought to differentiate himself from Kirchner by stressing his own center-right economic credentials.

Though Kirchner is far from a communist, Menem contended in an interview published today Wednesday in Clarin, the country's largest circulation daily, that his opponent represents prospects for a government "similar to Cuba's." "Cuba or Spain, you choose," was the way Menem framed the choice between governmental models.

While Menem is more aligned with market-driven economic policies, Kirchner has preferred to identify himself with a more progressive model.

"There are two options: peace, security, development and growth for Argentina, or an Argentina similar to Cuba," said the former 72-year-old president, asserting that "with Kirchner, we're going to move toward an Argentina similar to Cuba." Seeking to drive home the point, Menem cited the recent decision by Duhalde - Kirchner's most important supporter - that Argentina should abstain from voting on a resolution in the U.N. Commission on Human Rights condemning Cuba for its recent crackdown on dissidents, despite having voted in favor of a similar sanction last year.

"This would never happen in a government with coherent views," Menem said.

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