Despite recent gains, Argentina's Peronists find it difficult to shed historical image. Argentina's main opposition party made surprising gains in elections this month. But the party of former dictator Juan Per'on, which once embraced authoritarian rightists and left-wing rebels, is trying to dispel two negative images: that it lacks unity and its turbulent reign led to the 1976 military takeover. Some see the win more as a protest against economic woes than new affection for Peronism.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Despite its surprise midterm election victory here this month, the Peronist party is still campaigning - to change its image. The mystique of charismatic nationalist dictator Juan Per'on, his wife Eva, and their legacy of odd party alliances with right-wing death squads, leftist guerrillas, and authoritarian labor-union bosses is history, party leaders say.

But the historical image - a part of Argentine culture for 40 years - is a stubborn one to shed. The Justicialist (Peronist) Party election victory Sept. 6 was greeted with international criticism, and plunged the local financial market and political scene into uncertainty.

The Peronists plan to send emissaries to the United States, West Germany, and Japan to try to reverse the party's negative image abroad. And though the newly elected Peronists have moderated their controversial campaign rhetoric favoring repudiating Argentina's $53 billion foreign debt, none has specified the party's plans for a debt moratorium.

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``We're seen as a party who belongs to a dictator who died 13 years ago,'' complains Eduardo Amadeo, an economic strategist for the Renovadores, the main faction of the Peronist Party. The Renovadores - the Renewalists - now control party leadership.

President Ra'ul Alfons'in, says Mr. Amadeo, has been the darling of the foreign press and creditors while other key issues such as the evolution of Peronism go unnoticed abroad.

Since the return to democracy in 1983, the Peronist Party, Amadeo notes, has: held its first-ever direct internal elections for party officials (previously hand-picked by Per'on or union leaders), fielded a new generation of young professionals as reform-wing candidates for congress, and successfully replaced powerful Peronist labor union officials in the party leadership.

``For the first time you can talk about the Peronists as a political party,'' says Marcelo Cavarozzi, a political adviser to the Alfons'in administration. But, he adds, ``Peronists have had a populist attitude of saying yes to everyone. And how they'll say no is what remains to be seen.''

Peronism, a grab bag of populist ideology, was based on Juan Per'on's study of Musolini's fascist Italy.

Beginning in the 1940s, General Per'on nationalized most industry and overloaded and underfunded social programs that were the precedent for today's crisis: a bloated public sector and depleted public coffers.

Peronists today play the Argentine equivalent of the US Democratic Party in representing the poor and minorities, says Guido Di Tella, a Peronist, newly elected deputy to Congress.

Just as the Democrats had eras of racism, corruption, and cronyism, he says, so have the Peronists. Similarly, the Democrats have had to cut ties to special-interest sacred cows to create a broader public appeal, and so have the Peronists, Mr. Di Tella says.

Peronists are vague about their campaign promises. Double digit inflation and the constant drain of public revenues to pay the foreign debt make the economic situation too uncertain. Amadeo says the Peronists favor a mixture of privatization and state-run industry, and do not believe ``wide-open'' capitalism promises the economic growth necessary to pay the foreign debt.

The debt can never be completely paid, Amadeo concludes. And he criticizes those in President Alfons'in's centrist Radical Civic Union Party who agree to negotiate with foreign creditors with full repayment as a premise. But no party officials are specific about the solution they propose.

The Peronists hardly expected a decisive election victory this month. The party has been fractious since a 1976 military coup crushed the chaotic rule of Per'on's widow Isabel. The Peronists had embraced both right-wing authoritarians and leftist guerrillas under the same political umbrella in order to broaden its political bid to bring Juan Per'on back from exile in 1973. Peronists have since been blamed for the coup that led to seven dark years during which the military government made war on leftist subverison.

President Alfons'in's party has been dominant through the the country's first two elections since the return of democracy here in 1983. This month's elections gave the Peronists only a modest 41 percent of the vote to the Radical's 37 percent on a national level. Analysts viewed the vote more as protest over the economy than new affection for Peronism.

But in this unsteady young democracy, weakened by last spring's military uprising and the return of double digit monthly inflation, Argentines have reacted to the Peronist victory as though it were a major political upheaval. Mr. Alfons'in, for example, responded by replacing more than half of his cabinet this week and began to talk about a tougher stance with foreign creditors.

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