April 29, 2003

University alumnus loses bid for Argentine presidency

University graduate Ricardo Lopez Murphy finished third in Argentina's presidential election on Sunday with 17 percent of the vote. Lopez Murphy, a native of Buenos Aires who received his masters in economics from the University in 1980, split from the Radical party last year and formed his own party, the Federal Recreate Movement, and ran on a platform based on conservative economics.

"He formed his own political party a bit over a year ago. He did extremely well. He's a very able person," said Larry Sjaastad, a professor in the Department of Economics who has known Lopez Murphy for over 20 years.

"For us, this has been an epic election," Lopez Murphy, 51, told Clarin, a Buenos Aires newspaper. "It was an exceptional result and is something that we take with much joy and great responsibility."

Lopez Murphy started out as an unknown; last June, early polls by La Nacion, a newspaper in Buenos Aires, showed him with only 2.6 percent of the vote.

But polls just three days before the election showed Lopez Murphy in a tight race for second place with Nestor Kirchner, one of three Peronist candidates and the governor of Santa Cruz, a province in southern Argentina.

Despite this late surge, Lopez Murphy finished five percentage points behind Kirchner, who finished second with 22 percent of the vote. Kirchner will face Carlos Menem, a Peronist former president who received 24 percent of the vote, in a May 18 runoff election.

Argentine law requires that all citizens aged 18 to 70 vote. In order to win an election, a candidate must either receive 45 percent of the vote, or win more than 40 percent plus a margin of at least 10 percentage points with the second-place candidate. Otherwise, the two leading candidates must meet again in a runoff election.

"[The runoff between Menem and Kirchner] gives voters somewhat more of a choice for the second round. If it had been Menem and Lopez Murphy, the range of choice regarding economic programs would have been less," said Susan Stokes, a professor in the Department of Political Science and the College and the director of the Chicago Center for Democracy.

Lopez Murphy was a favorite of Argentines living abroad, and he also captured 24.68 percent of the vote in the federal capital of Buenos Aires, more than any other candidate. In addition, investors all over the world were hoping for a runoff election between Lopez Murphy and Menem; when that failed to happen, the Buenos Aires stock exchange dropped over eight percentage points.

"The international press maybe saw him as a bit of a savior because they don't know Kirchner and they don't like Menem. I think there was a bit of wishful thinking on their part," Stokes said.

Lopez Murphy was appointed minister of the economy on March 5, 2001 by former president Fernando de la Rua.

He was welcomed by the business community, and the Buenos Aires stock exchange hit a two-year peak the day of his appointment. But 10 days later, after proposing that the government cut wages and spending, he was forced to leave the office.

"He made some very bold proposals and they kicked him out, only to turn around nine months later and take even more drastic measures," Sjaastad said. "If they had accepted some of his proposals at that time, they might have averted some of the mess they're in now."

Lopez Murphy served as Minister of Defense from 1999 to 2001, as well as a consultant for the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He spent several years working with the Foundation for Latin American Economic Investigations (FIEL), eventually becoming its chief economist.

He has also taught at several universities in Argentina, including his alma mater, the National University of La Plata, where he earned a degree in economics.

"He was a good student [at the University], and has been a positive force in Argentina," said Gary Becker, a Nobel Laureate and a professor in the Departments of Economics and Sociology. "It is regrettable that he did not get enough votes in Sunday's election."

The winner of the runoff election will take charge of a country where 60 percent of the population is living in poverty, and where distrust of the government runs rampant.

The rapid devaluation of the peso in December 2001 exacerbated Argentina's already poor economy, plunging the country into the worst depression of its history and eroding its once-strong middle class.

Menem or Kirchner will be the sixth president to serve in the past year and a half.

The inauguration of the new president is scheduled for May 25.

"We are going to fight bit by bit so that this force will have the strength to allow us to the alternative within four years," Lopez Murphy told Clarin.