Alfons'in's new challenge

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DEMOCRACY is alive and well in Argentina. Last weekend's elections, a victory for moderates within the Peronist party, assure the nation of a two-party system. But they mark a setback for President Ra'ul Alfons'in and his centrist Radical Civic Union Party. Mr. Alfons'in will now find it far tougher to press for constitutional change to pave the way for his reelection in 1989; election of Peronist Antonio Cafiero as governor of populous Buenos Aires Province now makes him the leading candidate to succeed Alfons'in.

The Argentine vote is also a reminder that initial euphoria over freedoms in a new democracy can, if economic pressures continue, soon give way to impatience with the system's ability to produce economic results.

Civilian Alfons'in came in on the heels of a discredited military dictatorship. His pledge to crack down on past military human rights abuses and to begin wage and price controls was widely applauded. But recent compromises on the trials and the worsening of Argentina's economy took the early bloom off his popularity. The Peronists, who control the nation's labor movement, promised restored wages and a tougher national position on the nation's $54 billion debt.

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Washington has been taking a certain pride in observing that 90 percent of all Latins are now represented by democratic governments. Yet most of these governments are fragile. If the governments fail to produce favorable economic change quickly, voters, used to decisive military leadership, may turn to populists like the Peronists. Such populists make enticing economic promises and blame rising foreign debt on foreign manipulation. If populist answers prove no better, advocates of more extreme solutions may well find supporters.

Global leaders must continue to encourage stepped-up investment in Latin nations. More of the capital now paid out in debt interest must remain in each country as a spur to economic growth.

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