Argentina's Peronists shop for new leaders after losing election

''We seem to be a party that has lost its way,'' says Peronista leader Jorge Taiana. That perhaps put the best face possible on the disarray in the civilian party that has dominated Argentine politics for four decades but lost massively at the polls last month.

Two weeks before the presidential election, most thought Peronista candidate Italo Argentino Luder would win. Conventional wisdom held that, even though Mr. Luder was a somewhat lackluster candidate, the Peronista cause was supported by the majority of Argentines. Luder simply could not lose.

Even on election day, with a few signs pointing to an incipient trend for Radical candidate Raul Alfonsin, most Peronistas thought they would win.

But Radical Alfonsin won - and thunderously.

What went wrong for the Peronistas?

It will take time for that question to be fully answered, but Peronistas are beginning to debate the possible answers.

Despite the heavy loss, there is little reason to suspect the party is on its last legs. After all it polled 42 percent of the vote for president, won more governorships than the Radicals, and seems to have the edge in the Argentine Senate.

But a lot of soul-searching is going on. Many want a thorough housecleaning of the party leadership. And there are signs of deepening divisions in the Peronista movement.

Party political leaders talk of eliminating the party's ''gangster'' image. That would seem to mean removing labor leader Lorenzo Miguel and his enemy, Herminio Iglesias, whom some Peronistas blame for at least some of the party's defeat. Argentines do seem to think of these two as Mafia-type figures and their coarse public pronouncements seemed to reinforce that image.

But Peronista labor leaders are just as angry with the political bosses like Luder, who has gone off to Uruguay's Punta del Este beach resort to mourn his defeat in private. They are also angry with Carlos Saul Menem, the successful Peronista candidate for governor in the remote La Rioja Province, who openly criticized Mr. Iglesias in the campaign.

Actually much of the current debate swirls around Iglesias. His thug-like approach to politics is believed to have encouraged many Argentines to jump the Peronista ship and vote for the Radicals.

The night of Luder's final campaign rally, Iglesias symbolically set fire to a white coffin bearing the Radical party initials, UCR (Union Civica Radical). For many Argentines, it was a reminder of the worst aspects of Peronism. Luder adviser Jose Miguens says flatly, ''This act alone cost us 800,000 votes.''

In the squares of Buenos Aires where political oratory is commonplace, public criticism of Iglesias has reached a fiery pitch.

''Run him out of our party,'' a Peronista speaker shouted recently. The crowd cheered in affirmation.

The rank-and-file attitude finds its way into debate in top party circles. Some of this debate is leaked to the press, and it appears that a bitter struggle for power in the party is under way.

The rhetoric, ideas, and jockeying for power are reminiscent of the divisions within the movement founded by Juan Domingo Peron nearly 40 years ago.

From the time Peron began his ascent, elevating labor to a prominent position in politics, there have been sharp differences between the labor and political party wings.

Peron himself was sometimes unable to curb the disputes. But he was so charismatic that he was generally able to create a semblance of order. Even after his passing, that mystique often held things together.

But Peronists have never before lost a national election - nor been so roundly defeated in some of the provinces.

Standing in the wings is Peron's widow, Maria Estela Martinez de Peron. She is in exile in Spain and refused entreaties to be the party's candidate in the recent vote. She gave her nominal blessing to the Luder ticket.

Some people, like Governor-elect Menem, think she should come back and take over leadership. But Menem admits there is little support for this. At the moment, there appear to be few solutions to the party's crisis.

Deolindo Bittel, Luder's running mate, suggests the party should not be so hasty in looking for scapegoats.

Only a few Peronistas seem to be looking to the future. One of them is Mr. Taiana, who says flatly the party has no future unless it starts appealing to youth and to women. ''The Radicals did that and won,'' he says.

''Let's a take a leaf from their book.''

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