Buenos Aires — Raul Alfonsin does not believe in waiting for the military to hand over power. His view is that democracy will never come to Argentina unless Argentines are prepared to fight for it with a peaceful but effective ''popular mobilization.''
In the few months since the Falklands war, Alfonsin has emerged not just as the leading light of the Radical Party, Argentina's second-largest political grouping, but also as the current front-runner for the presidential nomination. This assumes Gen. Reynaldo Bignone and the ruling military junta stick to their pledge to hold elections in the last quarter of 1983.
When General Bignone announced he was lifting a seven-year ban on political activity on July 1, Mr. Alfonsin wasted no time in jumping into the arena by staging a public rally in a Buenos Aires sports stadium. The response was massive.
Since then Alfonsin has lost none of his initiative, staging rallies all the way from the Andes to Patagonia. His nationwide tour culminated in the kind of effervescent occasion one identifies with US party conventions. In the capital's Luna Park, balloons and paper floated from the sky, dropping down on more than 30,000 supporters in the biggest gathering organized by a single political leader since the 1976 military coup.
''We must fight to make sure that the armed forces not only leave government but that they never return,'' Alfonsin said.
Alfonsin thinks he has found the root of the problem in the country's armed forces. In his personal manifesto, ''The Argentina Question,'' published last year, Alfonsin argues that a long and subtle process has transformed the Argentine military from its original professional status into a body that regards itself as the sole guarantor of the country's political life.
He strongly criticizes terrorism for paving the way for more recent military interventions. But Alfonsin also attacks the military for invoking the ''defense of national security'' as the raison d'etre for the repression of fundamental civil liberties and as a convenient whitewash for political and financial corruption.
Alfonsin's strident antimilitarism has captured the public mood in the post-Falklands period. So have his outspoken attacks on human-rights violations. He remains one of the few Argentine politicians prepared to risk open confrontation with the armed forces by demanding a full investigation into the fate of thousands of Argentines who disappeared following the 1976 coup. As a lawyer, he recently defended a number of political detainees.
To say that Alfonsin's public attitudes smack of political opportunism - as some of his enemies allege - is to ignore the consistency of his principles. A one-time student leader, Alfonsin formed a left-wing branch within the middle-of-the-road Radical Party some 15 years ago. Renovacion y Cambio (renewal and change) was born from the belief that the party's leadership had grown too conservative and out of touch with the ordinary Argentine.
Alfonsin has shaped Renovacion into what he describes as a populist and democratic national movement - as opposed to Peronism, which Alfonsin says is essentially populist but antidemocratic. Drawing on his Catholic views on political morality and social consensus, the Radicals have struck out in new directions under Alfonsin.
His ideas on the economy are virtually indistinguishable from those shared by the Peronists. A strong critic of the free-market policies pursued by the military since 1976, Alfonsin believes in stricter state control through a centralization of deposits and high trade tariffs. Past Radical governments have followed the Peronist practice of nationalizing key areas of foreign investment, such as the oil industry. Alfonsin has warned that he would do the same with the multinationals if their operations were found not to be contributing to the ''national good.''
His views are underlined with moderation, however. Local rumor has it that a number of United States interests are contributing generously to his current campaign. On the foreign debt problem, Alfonsin insists that Argentina should pay off obligations to foreign banks and not repudiate them.
He continues to go to the core of military sensitivity, and many military officers view his movement as a much bigger threat than that posed by the Peronists, who are still deeply divided. In addition, the Peronists cannot seem to forget that their leader was first and foremost a general and only second a politician.
During the Falklands war, Alfonsin was almost alone among the country's politicians in dismissing junta leader Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri's decision to invade as ''military madness.''
Alfonsin says Argentina should scrap the national service, pare back drastically on the military, and redistribute resources more toward social services, particuarly housing and education, and programs to benefit youth.