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Menem quits Argentine presidential race

Voters blamed Menem's previous policies for Argentina's current problems.

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (CNN) -- Former President Carlos Menem has withdrawn from Argentina's runoff presidential election, clearing the way for his opponent to become president without another vote.

Menem, who was Argentina's president for 10 years until 1999, announced his withdrawal from Sunday's vote Wednesday in a national address from his hometown province of La Rioja.

Nestor Kirchner, who came a close second to Menem with 22 percent in the first round of voting, will now become Argentina's next president.

In the first-round poll in late April, Menem beat four opponents and garnered 24 percent of the vote -- far short of the 45 percent needed to secure first round outright victory.

Despite the closeness of the first round numbers, all opinion polls predicted a landslide victory for Kirchner because he was expected to get the votes that did not go to Menem in the first round.

Menem's campaign was stifled by his past record as president and widespread charges of corruption, overspending, abuse of power and having plunged Argentina into its current and worst-ever economic crisis.

As news of Menem's withdrawal became public, Kirchner addressed the nation and accused his would-be rival "not only of having deprived Argentines of the right to work and to eat, but now also the right to vote."

Kirchner, the governor of the oil-rich Santa Cruz province, will become the president automatically.

Menem's withdrawal deprived him of the possibility of winning the runoff by a resounding majority, which would have given him the strong mandate needed to lead Argentina out of economic and political turmoil.

Menem, 72, was blamed for sowing the seeds of Argentina's economic troubles by borrowing heavily and keeping the peso overvalued. Menem had insisted his experience could help the country's recovery.

"He is attacking democracy with the same impunity with which he governed," Kirchner said. "This has let Argentines see his newest face, cowardice, and his latest gesture, that of running away."

Kirchner has come to be known as an uncharismatic but efficient leader in his 12 years of running the Patagonian state of Santa Cruz, one of Argentina's most unpopulated provinces.

Despite Menem's success in the first round of voting, the polls consistently characterized Menem as the most unpopular politician in Argentina.

There remains no official explanation for why Menem decided to withdraw but there is widespread speculation that he could not bear to witness a humiliating defeat at the polls.

Kirchner and Menem belong to the same political party but have different views on how Argentina should be governed.

Menem, a liberal, favors close ties with the United States; Kirchner, who has the image of a moderate and prudent economic steward, wants a closer relationship with Argentina's South American neighbors.

Kirchner also had the backing of the outgoing caretaker government of President Eduardo Duhalde.

Once in office Kirchner will have to deal with the International Monetary Fund after Argentina defaulted on $95 billion in debt last year.

The IMF has demanded action after the elections on establishing a stable fiscal situation, banking reform, and having a monetary anchor.

CNN Correspondent Lucia Newman contributed to this report.

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