BESIEGED by accusations of corruption, drug-money laundering, and scandals involving members of his own family, Argentine President Carlos Sa'ul Menem is at an all-time low in popularity and may suffer a severe blow in forthcoming elections. The country's highly influential Roman Catholic Church, which traditionally follows a ``hands off'' policy in all earthly matters, issued a scathing document a few days ago denouncing ``widespread corruption.''
The harshly worded document said corruption involving ``drug trafficking, bribery, gambling, and slandering'' is a sign that ``we are losing what we are.''
Although Argentina's 33 million population is only nominally 92 percent Catholic, the church's influence is still strong. Some observers are concerned the bishop's criticism also might influence the outcome of this year's elections.
Mr. Menem's woes led him to postpone the voting, originally scheduled for Sept. 8, until an unspecified date before the end of October.
The voting is only for renewal of national and local legislative bodies and election of provincial governors. But it couldn't come at a worse time for Menem.
His Peronist party, Argentina's dominant political force for the last 50 years, will probably lose in some of its traditional bastions, like the provinces of Buenos Aires, Santa Fe, and Tucuman, where right-wing or independent candidates appear to be strong favorites.
The Peronists control 17 of Argentina's 23 provinces and have a comfortable majority in the House of Deputies, but risk losing their slight majority in the Senate if they are defeated in some of the provinces. A strong Senate opposition would make governing much more difficult for Menem, who has embarked on a privatization drive to modernize Argentina's economy.
The Radical Civic Union Party, the country's second political force, has been severely affected by former President Ra'ul Alfons'in's hastily arranged departure from power in 1989 before the end of his term. The Radicals lag way behind in voter preference, still haunted by the failure of their economic policies.
Political analysts in Buenos Aires say Menem's chances could be badly damaged if charges of corruption continue. The decision to postpone the elections has been widely interpreted as a maneuver to help his party recover from the scandals while allowing the new economic plan to take hold.
In the last few months, Menem has seen a steady decline in his popularity from a peak of 63 percent in July 1990, to a current low of 16 percent.
In March, former officials of Menem's government were implicated in a drug-money laundering scheme uncovered in neighboring Uruguay. The scandal, involving Menem's sister-in-law and close aide Amira Yoma, surfaced at about the time the president's estranged wife, Zulema Yoma, filed for divorce on grounds of ``physical abuse.'' Menem had his wife forcibly removed from the presidential residence last year.
Also named in the Uruguayan money laundering case was Ibrahim al Ibrahim, a Syrian-born Argentine official and former military officer who was at one time Amira's husband.
Menem himself had been in the calm eye of the storm before it became known that an Italian businessman, who had dealings with Argentina, had given the president a $100,000 Ferrari sports car. The president kept the vehicle unregistered and drove it without papers. When a court tried to confiscate it to have the government pay damages in a lawsuit, the red Ferrari turned out to have been decreed a ``national property'' that cannot be seized.
Other scandals have involved the smuggling of special cars for handicapped persons, reportedly with the complicity of customs officials and the discovery of a network of highway robbers headed by an army colonel on active duty.
The conservative daily La Nacion warned early in April that Menem ``does not have a way out without a political cost,'' but indicated that ``it would be much worse not to deal at all with the subject.''
Menem's own irate reactions have neither improved his image nor helped his party.
As La Nacion pointed out, for now it all appears to be ``a struggle for power'' among Menem's closest friends, but no government can emerge unscathed after washing its dirty laundry in public. Menem is said to have imposed silence on the subject of scandals, but political forecasters are wondering if it may not be another case of too little, too late. Only the polls in October will tell.