Argentine congress campaign: dark horse stresses human rights

Is it possible to get elected to parliament at the head of a country's tiniest party, with little political experience, and on one issue? That is the question Augusto Comte is facing.

In Argentina, where politics has been traditionally dominated by two groups, the Radicals and the Peronists, and by charismatic caudillosm, the answer would seem to be a foregone conclusion. But a just week away from the elections, Augusto Comte - the best-known congressional candidate of the small Christian Democratic Party - promises to turn local history on its head.

In recent weeks, Comte has managed to get himself interviewed by the local press almost as many times as the big-party presidential candidates. His posters are as widely distributed in some parts of Buenos Aires as those pasted up by the Radicals and the Peronists.

On Sunday thousands of his supporters gathered in the city's picturesque Lezama Park for the kind of benefit rock concert usually mounted for flood disasters. The mixture of groups, the outpouring of record chart-topping sounds, and the presence of a good sampling of the nation's youth beneath a brilliant spring sun made the occasion one of the most entertaining of the campaign so far.

Comte has also been supported by many of the country's better-known independents, such as Nobel Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel. Like the Greens in West Germany, Mr. Comte has been proving that small can be influential.

Though nominally a member of the Christian Democratic Party for over 20 years , Comte admits that he has developed a serious taste for politics only recently.

In July 1977, his young son was kidnapped by the security forces and joined the thousands of other Argentines who disappeared without trace following a military coup in 1976. Until then Comte had kept himself out of political activity, concentrating on writing erudite reports on constitutional theory and carrying on his law practice in one of the more exclusive areas of Buenos Aires.

The assumed death of his son for no other reason than membership in the youth wing of the Peronist party converted Comte to the cause of human rights in Argentina.

During the last five years, Comte has emerged as a public figure because of his defense of political prisoners and continuing investigation into the thousands of cases of torture and summary executions in the '70s that have yet to be explained to the public's satisfaction.

''I have no doubt that what has occurred here since the coup of 1976 represents the biggest genocide in the Western Hemisphere since the Second World War,'' he says.

Comte's election slogan is a simple one: ''Human rights to parliament.'' For Comte, this is not just another issue in a mass of campaign rhetoric. It is the issue on which the future of the country stands or falls.

''If the future parliament does not clarify what has happened here, if no one is prepared to tackle the military question head-on, then within six months we are going to have another coup. We need to find and judge the guilty ones to ensure that was has occurred here will never happen again.''

Both the Radicals and the Peronists have pledged to repeal legislation passed recently by the military government that would grant amnesty to military officers suspected of human-rights violations. Of these parties, the Radicals, led by the left-of-center Raul Alfonsin, have been more outspoken - promising that civilian courts will be given full government support to rule on responsibility for rights violations.

But Comte thinks even Alfonsin is heading for a compromise that will avoid getting to the core of the problem.

In order to chip away at Peronists' political hegemony, Alfonsin has had to make several tactical alliances with rightists and has moderated his stand on some key issues so as not to alienate the more conservative sectors of the middle class.

The Peronist leadership, as far as Comte is concerned, won't even bother about human rights. Some Peronist officials are thought to have led right-wing hit squads during the repression and have publicly condoned the military's annihilation of alleged left-wing subversion.

Peronist presidential candidate Italo Luder was provisional president of Argentina when the armed forces were given emergency powers allowing them to use whatever methods they saw fit to deal with political terrorism. Within a few months, a coup put the military in power.

If Comte is elected, he would almost certainly become the only Christian Democratic member of parliament. He is convinced, however, that he would play a significant role as a figure around which a group of Peronist and Radical dissidents, disenchanted with their parties' lines on human rights, would gather.

He says that one of his first initiatives in parliament would be to demand the formation of a commission to investigate human rights violations and to issue a condemnation of the outgoing military regime. The next step, he says, would be to ensure the trial of all officers guilty of torture and other ''excesses.''

Alfonsin has distinguished between types of responsibility in the ''dirty war'' that led to the disappearance of an estimated 15,000 Argentines. He is against a blanket condemnation of security forces, saying such a step would run the risk of destabilizing the country.

Comte, however, makes no distinctions. ''It is a moral and legalistic irresponsibility to say that those who acted under orders are not responsible. There must be justice for everyone.''

This year, several demonstrations in Buenos Aires have shown that the human rights issue still holds for many Argentines. Rights organizations built around the symbolic figures of the Mothers of May - the relatives of many of those who disappeared in the '70s and who stage a vigil outside the presidential palace every Thursday - have turned into a grass-roots movement that could cuts across party lines. The election of Comte, in the eyes of many local observers, would seem a logical step for many Argentines who refuse to be silent.

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