Message from Argentina

THE reelection of Carlos Saul Menem as president of Argentina carries a message that extends beyond the borders of South America's second-largest nation. Mr. Menem won despite economic austerity measures that have cost Latin American politicians in the past. His victory indicates that sound economics doesn't have to be bad politics.

What Argentines, and voters in neighboring countries, may be recognizing is that run-away inflation -- which has plagued most of the continent -- is harder to bear than the shrinking of government social programs and the shedding of state-owned industry. Menem has consistently pushed toward privatization and has encouraged foreign investment.

Inflation was 5,000 percent per year when he took office in 1989; it's now under 4 percent. Economic growth has been robust, though it's shakier in the wake of Mexico's financial crisis.

The conquest of hyperinflation has made life easier for most Argentines. That accomplishment was enough to give the president a comfortable margin of victory, despite doubts that people may harbor about other aspects of his administration.

Menem is far from an ideal democrat. Given to manipulating the legislative and judicial branches of government, he clearly has autocratic tendencies -- a determination to get his way. He has tried to silence press critics. And his term in office has been marked by scandals and corruption. Focusing attention on Menem's manner of governing rather than on his policies, the chief challenger in the recent presidential race, Jose Octavio Bordon of the center-left Frepaso coalition, made a credible showing.

The May 14 election widened the distance between Argentina's present and its recent past of brutal military dictatorship. The legacy of those years remains to be dealt with, however. One of Menem's early acts as president was to pardon the high-ranking officers convicted of human rights abuses during the ''dirty war'' of the late '70s and early '80s. But additional confessions have heightened the public's awareness of those crimes. Menem has said he will continue the probes of ''disappearances'' and torture. He should be held to that.

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