Tough times ahead for Alfons'in. Argentine opposition bucks economic and political plans

When President Ra'ul Alfons'in's Radical Party lost September's mid-term elections, ``he seemed to take it as a personal defeat,'' a foreign diplomat said. But in the past month, the Argentine leader has bounced back, giving strong performances in two nationally televised press conferences, maintaining a high profile at a Latin American presidents' meeting, and pressing for reforms to open up Argentina's state-dominated economy.

Still, both foreign and Argentine analysts said, President Alfons'in faces so many pressing problems that they expect even the reinvigorated President to achieve few political and economic victories in the final two years of his six-year term.

``Alfons'in has now come out of his post-election blues,'' a Western diplomat said. ``But his ability to govern has been hampered by the election results. Plus, with the country's foreign debt and fiscal deficit, there's not a lot of money to throw around. It will be tough the next couple of years for Alfons'in and Argentina.''

The economy presents the most serious problem. With inflation running at a 13.8 percent annual rate in August and 11.7 percent in September, Alfons'in imposed a package of austerity measures in mid-October. The anti-inflation program included a wage-price freeze, a devaluation of the nation's currency, the austral, and a price increase for gasoline and public services. It appears to have worked: inflation dropped to 10 percent in November and was predicted to drop to 5 percent in December.

The austerity measures have caused a slowdown in economic activity and put the government on a collision course with the powerful 4-million member General Confederation of Labor (known by its Spanish acronym CGT), which has vowed to step up its opposition to the government. The CGT staged a 34-hour strike on Dec. 8 and 9 to protest a decline in real wages. Workers in many other sectors have held their own strikes this month.

The opposition Peronist Party sharply criticized the austerity program, demanding that Alfons'in replace his top economic advisers and adopt a program of growth. The Peronists also called on the government to halt interest payments on Argentina's $54 billion foreign debt. Alfons'in has refused to heed their demands, saying the government's priority is taming inflation and reducing the fiscal budget deficit, which is estimated to be 8 percent to 10 percent of gross domestic product.

While the Peronists and Radicals appear deadlocked over economic policy, they have reached agreement on a bill that would raise taxes by $3.5 billion next year. The two parties are also negotiating the passage of legislation in Congress to redefine the armed forces' role in Argentine life and to reform labor law.

Signs that Alfons'in is still grappling with a restive military have resurfaced. Alfons'in, according to press reports, was under strong pressure from the military to allow the promotion of a Navy lieutenant accused of human rights abuses. The reports also said the Navy's top admirals would resign if Alfons'in refused.

Despite demands from human rights groups to deny the promotion of Navy Lt. Alfredo Astiz to the rank of captain, Alfons'in approved it Dec. 22. Lieutenant Astiz has been accused of a wide variety of human rights abuses during the military government's 1976-83 ``dirty war'' in which an estimated 9,000 people disappeared. Astiz has most notably been accused of kidnapping two French nuns and a Swedish-Argentine teenager.

Alfons'in has said recently his biggest goal is becoming Argentina's first civilian president in 60 years to turn over power to an elected successor. At the moment, no one is predicting a military coup that would prevent him from achieving his goal.

With the long-time human rights lawyer ushering in a return to democracy in December 1983, Argentines initially hailed Alfons'in as a miracle worker, capable not only of restoring domestic peace after seven years of brutal military rule but also ending decades of inflation and economic stagnation.

Alfons'in succeeded in having nine former military leaders, including two ex-presidents, sentenced to as long as life in prison for human rights violations during the military's 1976-83 ``dirty war.''

In 1985, Alfons'in's ``austral plan'' halted hyperinflation. And in 1986 the economy grew by 5.3 percent. But the economy has deteriorated, with inflation rising again and growth slowing. Investment has plunged, exports have fallen, and foreign reserves have nearly been depleted.

Political commentators have blamed the increasing economic problems for the Radical's September defeat, when the Peronists won 17 of the 22 provincial governorships and 41.5 percent of the vote for the Chamber of Deputies.

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