Raul Alfonsin's surprising massive triumph in Argentine presidential balloting this week was less a personal victory than a vote against the past. Argentines were simply fed up with the political, economic, and social bankruptcy that 40 years of tumultuous civilian and military governments have brought.
They wanted something new. And Sunday's voting marked an opportunity to signal the end of an era.
The once-dominant Peronista movement, formed in the 1940s by Juan Domingo Peron, failed to grasp and make use of this sentiment.
But then few seemed to grasp the depth of the national feeling on this point.
Even Dr. Alfonsin and his key advisers in the Union Civica Radical Party failed to recognize the full extent of the national mood, some knowledgeable observers surmise.
The ballot boxes produced some surprises all across this nation of 29 million people.
The biggest surprise, of course, was the size of Dr. Alfonsin's win. He captured 52 percent of the ballots, while the Peronista candidate, Italo Argentino Luder, polled 40 percent. Alfonsin outpolled Luder by 1.75 million votes.
It was the first time in more than 35 years that Peronism had lost a free election - and the first time since 1928 that the old Radical Party garnered more than 50 percent of the vote.
These early conclusions on the election are possible:
* Alfonsin's campaign managed to transform the image of the Radical Party from one representing the middle class into one that had a broader appeal. It picked up working-class votes - winning big in such traditional Peronista strongholds as Avellaneda in Buenos Aires.
* Alfonsin's Radical Party also came up with plenty of new political faces - including a few women. Many of them were young candidates whose appeal to the 5. 5 million new voters this time around must have had some effect on the Radical victory. The Radicals looked like a party with fresh appeal to a broader spectrum of Argentines.
* The Peronists could not seem to break out of their mold as the party of the lower classes. Their attempt to woo the middle class, which constitutes a sizable segment of this nation, was not successful. It appears Juan Peron's link with labor is not enough to win elections.
* Mr. Luder, whose campaign performance was sometimes a bit uninspired but nevertheless sincere, was handicapped by the coterie of Peronista loyalists who are of the Tammany Hall tradition. Many Argentines viewed Herminio Iglesias, the Peronista candidate for governor of Buenos Aires Province, as simply a thug.
* All is not lost for the Peronistas. It now appears they have won control of the Senate. The election also gave them control of a number of governorships.
But the key lesson appears to be that Argentines responded to Alfonsin's cry: ''Basta con el pasado'' (away with the past). That was what Dr. Afonsin said at midweek, four days before the election, as he closed his campaign in Buenos Aires. The high election turnout - 80 percent of those eligible to vote cast ballots - is also testament to the desire to have a hand in the change.
The past includes the military - and in the early hours of his victory, Alfonsin urged Argentina's lame-duck military regime to step aside quickly, maybe within weeks, so those elected Sunday can begin ''getting Argentina out of its malaise,'' as Alfonsin put it.
Alfonsin knows the task before him is not easy - and that he will be constantly second-guessed. Argentines are suspicious and cynical about those who govern them. The history of the past 40 years in particular is replete with evidences of woeful misgovernment. The President-elect has a bit of a political honeymoon ahead as he takes office. But he has got to delivery quickly.
Alfonsin knows the vote was not so much a vote for Radicalism and his ideas as it was a vote for the hope that he and the Radicals awakened, a hope that there may be something better in store for this potentially rich nation that is now in serious economic decline.