Argentina's Alfons'in: Can he make democracy work?

DEMOCRACY has never really thrived in Argentina, least of all recently. Twice in the past 20 years, in 1966 and 1976, the military overthrew an elected government before it was four years old. As President Ra'ul Alfons'in begins his third year, the Peronist opposition has just completed the most successful one-day work stoppage in 10 years, protesting government policy. One wonders if his fate will be any different from that of other civilian presidents. At first glance, Mr. Alfons'in's chances of bucking the trend seem slim. Terrorist bombings started again last October, forcing him to declare a brief state of siege to deal with the right-wing culprits. And when an ex-President, Gen. Jorge Videla, was convicted and given life imprisonment by civilian judges last year for his directing the killing of 9,000 citizens in the late 1970s, military officers were furious. Only five of the nine generals and admirals put on trial were found guilty, but the armed forces took no consolation from the acquittal of the others. Nor are they happy with civilian demands for the prosecution of the 1,200 soldiers and police known to have run the crusade.

Still, it is far too early to write off Argentina's democratic experiment. Hostilities are neither as deep nor as violent as they were when the armed forces went to war against terrorists in 1976. And there is no evidence that the military wants to run another government just yet. It will be a while before the wounds that officers suffered from interservice recriminations after the Falklands war are fully healed. Perhaps most important, Argentines do not want the officers back. Quite the opposite: They now expound an uncharacteristic affection for democracy.

Alfons'in deserves some of the credit, too, although he was slow in earning it. His first year was an embarrassing failure, filled with good intentions but little progress toward the restoration of public confidence in either the government or the economy. Then he started over last June, taking drastic steps to halt hyperinflation and to deal with a record $48 billion foreign debt. Instead of raging against the nation's creditors, as is Argentine habit, he bit the bullet and imposed unprecedented austerity on the nation, starting with wage and price controls, a new currency, and budget cuts. It was a harsh solution, but it was welcomed by a nation that desperately wanted someone to take charge.

A new year has begun and additional problems have arisen. With inflation cut substantially during the past six months, Alfons'in hopes to let up on wage and price controls, but that will not be easy. Labor leaders demand relief from a 20 percent loss in real wages last year, and the rank and file stand firmly behind them. Meanwhile, businessmen refuse to invest until they are certain that the government can hold wages down.

Alfons'in insists that higher wages be paid from increased productivity, but the unions are not buying it. That is why the General Confederation of Labor shut down the nation for 24 hours with a general strike in mid-January. It was the first time in four tries that its call for a protest of such magnitude succeeded during Alfons'in's tenure. It professes no desire to bring the government down, but its renewed aggressiveness will do little to build public confidence in it.

All is not despair, however. quote here to Argentines are making democracy work, and never more effectively than when the electorate went to the polls last November in the first midterm congressional election in 20 years. to here Alfons'in's Radicals hoped for a landslide victory that would consolidate their tenuous control over the government, while the Peronists, still troubled by nonstop infighting, were desperate to improve on the 43 percent they received in the 1983 presidential election. But neither party swept it; the Radicals had to settle for 44 percent and the Peronists only 35 percent, their lowest ever. The message was clear: Argentines want a responsible government and a strong but loyal opposition. By making it impossible for any party to govern without support from the others, they sent the nation's most powerful politicians back to the democratic classroom for more instruction in the art of compromise, a skill few practiced previously.

To his credit, Alfons'in got the message and immediately widened his coalition by inviting Peronists to join his economic team. And to their credit, they accepted, defying a longtime partisan tradition. Old political habits die slowly in Argentina, but some are passing away, thanks to Alfons'in and a new generation of white-collar Peronists. Where it will all end, no one knows for certain. But for now it seems clear that Ra'ul Alfons'in will probably work overtime in the presidential office for another year.

Gary W. Wynia, a political science professor at Carleton College, is a member of the board of advisers on Latin American affairs of the Roosevelt Center for American Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

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