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Whither Argentina

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As Argentina heads towards elections, some stability has been achieved, but crime is on the rise and the political panorama is far from certain.

BY DAN KRISHOCK

Realizing the job was too much for him, Argentine President Eduardo Duhalde recently advanced presidential elections by six months to March 2003. The new president will take office at the end of May. The question is: What will happen to Argentina until then?

The violence that led to the country's going through five presidents in two weeks has subsided. And the economic tailspin has leveled off, though not before leaving half the population below the poverty line, savings destroyed, the government in default and the country at the bottom of the barrel among places seen as attractive for investment.

Nonetheless, the resumption of violence or economic deterioration cannot be discounted. The challenges Argentina faces are enormous - and judging by their performance thus far, the country's leaders have not given many signs that they are capable of rising to those challenges.

If it is to have any chance of a recovery in 2003 (forget about this year), Argentina will need to deliver on basic reforms; doing so will also enable it to obtain badly-needed assistance and not just loan rollovers, as it has until now, from the IMF.

Those reforms include developing credible monetary and fiscal policies and restructuring the decimated financial system. Without further delay, the government will have to decide what to do about a hated freeze on bank deposits that affects hundreds of thousands of savers.

People are afraid for their personal safety. Murders, assaults and extortive kidnappings have become an everyday occurrence. The police are overwhelmed. At the same time, they are distrusted by much of the public for their sometimes heavy-handed tactics and corrupt ways.

Almost every country in the region is beset by economic and political difficulties. Banks have been closed in Uruguay, Brazil could be headed for a massive debt default, Venezuela is badly divided between supporters and opponents of the controversial Hugo Chavez, and Colombia is torn by what amounts to civil war. Both democracy and the economic reforms many of these countries introduced in the 1990s are threatened.

It is against this backdrop that Argentina heads towards elections.

T

he call for elections has raised hopes that new faces can take the place of at least some of the deeply entrenched, thoroughly despised politicians who now dominate public affairs. But achieving a real makeover in the governing class will not be easy. It is still not clear what posts, beyond the presidency and vice-presidency, will be up for grabs. Some politicians and voters believe all of the over 16,000 elective posts in the country, right down to the municipal level, should be contested, but others disagree.

Ground rules for November's primaries and March's elections alike have yet to be defined. Meanwhile, attempts to implement some badly needed reforms in the rules governing political parties and campaign financing have gone nowhere.

Despite that, the campaign is in full swing. The mudslinging is, too. Three potential presidential candidates have already declared they could be the targets of assasination attempts by their political enemies. The charges smack of political grandstanding, but there was nothing bogus about a recent incident in which hundreds of demonstrators pillaged the home of a potential candidate for the governorship of one of the country's poorest provinces.

It is not clear if the incident was a warning by the family that has run that province as its personal fief for decades, or if it had something to do with the potential candidate's support for former President Carlos Menem's bid to recapture the job he held for 10 years until 1999, a period in which he enacted significant but incomplete economic reforms.

U

ntil recently, a second Menem presidency seemed impossible. A year ago, he was under house arrest for his alleged masterminding of a arms-smuggling ring. The case has been put on ice. Nonetheless, accusations of corruption and involvement in the coverup of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center that left 85 people dead continue to dog him. In spite of that, he is one of the frontrunners.

That worries a lot of people, and nobody more so than Eduardo Duhalde. Though Duhalde and Menem are both from the Peronist party, they are enemies. To thwart Menem's ambitions, Duhalde has openly recruited his own candidate to challenge him in the primary. The campaign for the nomination is going to be bruising.

The opposition is just as badly split. The leading candidate is a fiery congressional deputy, Elisa Carrio, whose high-profile corruption investigations, which have been long on accusations and short on evidence, have catapulted her to the top of the opinion polls. Wearing a large cross around her neck, she has promised a "final battle" against the "mafias" running Argentina. She also talks of a massive income restribution to "shock" the country into a recovery, a proposal that makes investors and business people nervous.

The news is so riddled with rumors, innuendo and conspiracy theories that the public no longer knows what to believe.  The worst elements in the press have become the tools of determined political and economic interests. Meanwhile, other important sectors of society, like the business community and the unions, pursue their own self-interests without regard for anyone else.

In December, as violence erupted and the political situation spun out of control, Argentina was a leading international news story. But like any place in the world where the situation is one of uneventful agony instead of spectacular turmoil, it has faded from view. In the months ahead, it could make an unexciting return to normality. It could also make a spectacular return to the top of the news.

Stay tuned.

Dan Krishock is the Managing Editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, Argentina's English-language newspaper.

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