AT the expense of their Peronist competitors, politicians of Argentina's Radical Party have been spreading a political joke around Buenos Aires: ``How do you spell Carlos Menem in English? You spell it Jesse Jackson.'' At face value, the comparison between Mr. Menem and the Rev. Mr. Jackson is valid. Both candidates speak for the underclasses of their countries. But the two differ categorically in the places they occupy in their country's political system. Jackson did not win the Democratic nomination for president or vice-president; in 1989 Menem will be the Peronist presidential candidate and, if current trends continue, the next president of Argentina.
Menem represents one wing of the Peronist movement, a conglomeration of interests as diverse as the career of its founder. Surprising most political observers in the country, Menem defeated Antonio Cariero, the powerful governor of Buenos Aires Province and the leader of the ``renovating'' wing of the Peronist movement since its presidential defeat in 1983.
Menem's victory says a good deal about the difficulties of engineering evolution in this movement and about the hopes and dreams of the Argentine electorate. It also threatens the democratic system that returned to Argentina in 1983.
In economic policy, the gulf between Peronist goals and realities proved especially wide. Juan Domingo Per'on wanted profoundly to increase the living standards of the least privileged. His redistribution of income in their favor created wellsprings of hope and political support among the lower class that remain potent today, 14 years after his death. But Per'on's policies redistributed wealth, they didn't create it. He used up the export surplus of World War II and initiated an inflationary spiral that has given Argentina the second-highest inflation in the world (second to Chile in the 1970s and to Bolivia in the '80s). He nationalized the transportation, communications, and energy sectors, creating vast state companies that collectively lose millions of dollars a day.
Since 1983, the Radical administration of Ra'ul Alfons'in has not done much better. That is why the Peronists seem likely to win the presidency again next year.
Both major parties must face these severe obstacles to economic growth: a vast foreign debt, a powerful labor sector that demands wage increases far in excess of productivity gains, and citizens who put more stress on leisure and personal relations than on hard work, education, or technology. But the major parties face these from profoundly different orientations.
Among Peronists, Menem has led the most ``traditionalistic'' groups, those stressing income redistribution, the strength of trade unionism, and the original struggles of Juan and Evita Per'on in the 1940s.
Almost no intellectuals joined him before his recent victory, and he stubbornly refused to establish plans for reform. This is why his candidacy is so different from Jackson's. The American leader had a series of specific policy changes in mind. Voters might admire his oratory or sartorial splendor, but they chose to accept or reject his candidacy on the basis of his proposals. Menem had no such proposals, so voters had to decide on the peripheral issues of style and promises, relying on his invocations of Per'on.
Now that the Menemistas have won the internal Peronist election, the question remains whether or not they can defeat Eduardo Angeloz, the Radical Party's presidential candidate and governor of C'ordoba. Mr. Angeloz is a fighter. Unlike Mr. Alfons'in, the Radical President since 1983, Angeloz harbors no notion that part of the Peronist constituency can be won over permanently to the Radical fold.
Angeloz favors privatization, asking voters and especially Argentine youth for hard work and sacrifice. He promises to make Argentina join the train of the Western industrialized nations, even if it must occupy the last car. He rules out a moratorium on the Argentine foreign debt, which Menem supports. In contrast to Angeloz, Menem made almost no specific promises in the recent campaign, except for a commitment to set up ministries for women and for youth, something that would further bureaucratize the already top-heavy Argentine government.
The choices for Argentine voters seem clear. Will they accept Angeloz, who wants to do in Argentina what Felipe Gonz'alez M'arquez has done in Spain? Or will they chose Menem, with his images, his rhetoric, and his appeals to the past?
The state of the economy during the next 12 months will help determine the answer. If inflation continues to run at 25 percent a month, as it did in July, the Radicals cannot win. But if their recent economic reforms can cut monthly inflation down to single digits, and if more people feel the benefits of economic growth, the Radical Party may retain the presidency.
One of the tragedies is the failure of basic economic education to penetrate the thinking of most Argentine voters. In some areas, Argentines have enjoyed outstanding education and research facilities. Argentines have won Nobel Prizes for findings in medicine and chemistry as well as for peace; they can now deliver overseas atomic energy plants with the enriched uranium to fuel them.
Despite notable achievements, most Argentines still receive no training in what Americans would consider ``basic economics.'' Many Argentines accept the need to raise efficiency and productivity, and they therefore see a need today to rein in the vast state sector that Per'on created. These voters will opt for the Radical candidate. But one of the saddest inheritances of Peronism is the tendency among many other voters to neglect economic realities in the euphoria of the campaign.
Menem's critics within his own party see a number of dangers. First, the selection of Menem may injure the chances for a Peronist victory next year. The more forward-looking Renovationist Peronists once described Menem's challenge as the last gasp of the old guard, but now that the old guard has defeated them, the Renovationist Peronists need to reassess their position.
Second, Menem's victory tends to divide Argentine society. It sets up the disturbing possibility that the 1989 elections could be fought essentially on class and racial lines.
If this occurs, Argentine democracy may not survive. There has been talk that if Menem wins, a military coup will occur within two years. If inflation has been 25 percent a month, the critics ask, with sober economists of the Radical Party in charge and without a strategy of redistributing the wealth, how much higher would inflation go under a Peronist government that was obliged to reward the faithful with large wage increases?
THE military has given democracy a chance during the Alfons'in administration. But some segments of the officer corps would be far less likely to do so with Menem as president.
The Argentine left has a joke ready for this eventuality. ``Why is Menem really like Rin Tin Tin? Because the cavalry always comes following right behind him.'' But the humor is macabre. If Menem wins, and if the Argentine cavalry follows on his heels, all Argentines will suffer, with Peronists likely to suffer the most, as they did under earlier military regimes. Tragically in this scenario, the maintenance of democratic institutions would be destroyed through the vigorous exercise of the democratic franchise.
Frederick C. Turner is professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and president-elect of the World Association for Public Opinion Research.