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'Chiche' Woos Votes With Evita-Like Appeal to Poor Women

Move over Madonna. A real-life Argentine is looking to take over Evita's populist crown.

Hilda "Chiche" Duhalde's drive to become queen of the poor - funded by her husband, a likely candidate for president in 1999 - has opponents concerned about a rise of an old-style Pernism.

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Eduardo Duhalde, governor of Buenos Aires Province, has given her $80 million, which she has been using to create community projects, wooing working-class mothers with milk and eggs and shortcuts to health care. The money is part of Governor Duhalde's provincial budget. Mrs. Duhalde's use of it is legal because her charity work is supposedly independent of her campaign to win a seat in Congress.

The business community and middle class look on nervously. They have grim memories of President Juan Domingo Pern being handed unconditional power because the woman by his side showered workers with motherly affection and gifts. "Evita crystallized a moment when the poor were happy," says sociologist Juan Carlos Partantiero at the University of Buenos Aires. "Duhalde wants to reincarnate that Pernist period to take over from [President] Carlos Menem."

The opposition accuses Mrs. Duhalde of "Evitismo" - buying the poor's votes for her husband using the same mobilizing tricks as Evita did for Pern. But Mrs. Duhalde seems to welcome the comparison. She fills sports stadiums with cheering women. Polls show that her charity-oriented strategy is working. She leads her rival, Sen. Graciela Fernandez Meijide, for a seat in the Congress by 4 percentage points in the polls.

A victory in the country's electoral stronghold may not only secure her husband's presidency in 1999, critics say, but return the country to the peculiar populist-totalitarian government created by Pern and Evita 50 years ago.

Like Evita, Duhalde's strategy is to gain popularity by attacking the political establishment, then become a candidate herself, saying the public clamors for it. "Politicians lie," she said recently. "In Congress, nobody listens to each other and they sleep on the benches."

Many of the women who receive help see Mrs. Duhalde as a savior. Others know that it is a political ploy, but they say they will go along with it. Voting is obligatory, they say, and if they have to vote for someone, it might as well be someone who has helped, if only with a few liters of milk.

While most of Mrs. Duhalde's critics come from the city, some provincial residents are skeptical of the Duhaldes' tactics. "We are paying more taxes now than ever and look at the mess we live in," says Pancho Perez, pointing to the mud roads, garbage, and wooden shacks of La Matanza. "Now elections are coming, they are starting to pave the roads. People are grateful because they are ignorant and they don't know that in a democracy, if you have paid high taxes, you should have paved roads."

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But the emotional pull of Pernism in the poor provincial zones is still strong. "There is just no way we can compete with Duhalde," says an opposition spokesman. "He has $600 million a year to spend. They save it for Evita-style, vote-grabbing measures at the last minute, and sadly it works."

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