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In Vote for Menem, Argentines Choose to Stay a Rough Course

Voters prefer economic stability over righting past abuses

WHEN President Carlos Saul Menem offered voters a choice of ''me or chaos'' during his election campaign, he reminded Argentines of life before he took office in 1989, when annual inflation hit 5,000 percent.

''Argentines were afraid of a return to economic instability,'' says pollster Roberto Bacman, referring to President Menem's May 14 election victory. ''That clearly overrode all political considerations.''

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Despite widespread discontent over record unemployment, lack of government social programs, and corruption scandals, Menem captured more than 8 million votes, or nearly 50 percent. His Peronist party won a majority in both houses of Congress and 10 out of 14 provincial gubernatorial elections.

Voters agreed with Menem that he needed a second term to consolidate Argentina's ''economic miracle'' of mushrooming growth and single-digit inflation, which has turned the country into one of the world's leading emerging markets.

His closest rival, Sen. Jose Octavio Bordon, who heads up the new center-left Front for a Country in Solidarity, followed with nearly 5 million votes.

The century-old centrist Radical Civic Union suffered its worst political defeat. Horacio Massaccesi, a lackluster provincial governor, finished a distant third with only 17 percent.

One issue that failed to influence voters: renewed controversy over human rights abuses by the military during their 1976-83 ''dirty war'' against suspected leftist subversives. In March, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Adolfo Scilingo revealed that hundreds of political prisoners were drugged and tossed into the sea from planes. Army Gen. Martin Balza recently confessed that the armed forces engaged in ''illegitimate methods, including the suppression of life to obtain information.''

''If human rights had played a role in the election, Menem wouldn't have received so many votes,'' says Carmen Lapaco, a founder of the human rights group Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. ''Voters would have remembered who pardoned the assassins.''

In 1990, Menem pardoned military officials convicted and jailed for human rights abuses after the reestablishment of democracy in 1983.

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Human rights groups say between 20,000 and 30,000 people were ''disappeared'' from secret torture camps, even though only 9,000 have been registered by an official commission. The military denies it has records of such abuses, but in a victory speech, Menem said he would continue an investigation.

MENEM also says he will ''pulverize unemployment'' -- now at a record 12.2 percent -- with an $87 billion plan that will create 1 million jobs by the year 2000. Some economists, however, doubt the government has resources to create such jobs or retrain the millions of unemployed.

''There will have to be a lot of investment pouring in to create so many jobs,'' says economist Carlos Rivas.

Economists also say Menem will be forced to enact more unpopular economic austerity measures, which have been kept on hold until after the election. In March, Menem responded to Argentine financial turmoil, which followed Mexico's economic crisis, by cutting $1 billion out of the federal budget.

The government will have to close, merge, or sell off insolvent state banks, cut provincial budgets, and trim thousands of public jobs, the economists say. Such measures could cause more violence in some provinces where low salaries and a lack of economic opportunities have resulted in protest.

Yet even the most economically depressed provinces overwhelmingly supported Menem. ''They see him as their only way out of a bad situation,'' says a diplomat here.

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