AS Argentine President Ra'ul Alfons'in prepares to hand over office tomorrow to Carlos Sa'ul Menem, he can congratulate himself on achieving his key ambition: to hang the blue and white presidential sash over the shoulders of an elected successor. ``Alfons'in's obsession has been to preserve democratic continuity at all costs'' after six decades of regular interruption in political life by military juntas, says novelist and political analyst Tom'as Eloy Martinez.
``In the name of that obsession, he resorted to short-term measures on the economic front to keep afloat,'' he adds. ``And those solutions were never more than temporary.''
It is that economic failure that is uppermost in Argentines' minds as Mr. Alfons'in steps down. For he is leaving the country in unprecedented economic and financial chaos, with hyperinflation raging at 114 percent last month alone, closing thousands of businesses and throwing tens of thousands out of work.
In addition, Argentina's foreign creditors have virtually cut the country off from fresh sources of funds since it stopped servicing most of its $60 billion external debt in April last year. It has piled up over $3.5 billion in interest arrears since then.
And although tomorrow's ceremony will be a victory for Alfons'in's tenacious defense of democracy, it will also represent a personal failure. For he found himself unable to control the economic collapse. And in order to ``preserve the institutions of the republic from risks,'' as he put it, he is stepping down five months ahead of schedule.
His demise was further accelerated last month by an unprecedented wave of food riots in slum areas, which left 15 people dead and scores injured.
When Alfons'in went on nationwide television three weeks ago to announce that he was leaving office early, he looked exhausted and defeated - scarcely recognizable as the man who symbolized Argentina's reborn hopes at the restoration of democracy in 1983.
Some observers blame Alfons'in himself for making too much of those hopes. ``His big mistake was to create an atmosphere of euphoria when he took office,'' argues human rights activist Emilio Mignone. ``He should have said right out that the situation was extremely grave instead of promising to pay the foreign debt, raise salaries, and reform the state all at the same time.''
Other analysts lay the blame more on the Argentine psyche. ``People deified Alfons'in at the start, the way they have always believed here in caudillos [strong leaders] with magic powers who can solve problems overnight,'' says one Latin American diplomat. ``They could only be disappointed.''
BUT Alfons'in and his Radical Party proved unable to deal with the organized interest groups that define Argentine political life - the so-called ``corporations:'' the Army, the Roman Catholic Church, big business, and the trade unions.
Alfons'in accused them of dragging Argentina down, and in the end he blamed them for his own downfall. In a speech shortly before last May's election, he complained that ``Argentine society has seen its path blocked and threatened by sectoral selfishness ... corporatizism.''
His attempts to cut the corporations down to size, however, met with only limited success.
One target - the opposition, Peronist-dominated General Labor Confederation (CGT), a trade union umbrella - proved particularly resilient. Alfons'in's efforts to wrest power away from the CGT, by allowing individual unions to decide whether or not to affiliate, were buried by the Peronist opposition in parliament.
The President had more success in facing down the Catholic Church to push through a bill legalizing divorce. But he incurred the Bishops' deep hostility during their tussle, and Alfons'in never really made a dent in the influence that the church wields over education in Argentina.
With the big industrialists, the grain exporters and the bankers who control ``La City,'' as Buenos Aires' financial district is known, Alfons'in was never comfortable. And as the economic debacle gathered pace toward the end of his term, his relations with big business soured to the point of open enmity, with each side blaming the other for the catastrophe.
If Alfons'in's most spectacular early success in dealing with the ``corporations'' was his prosecution of military commanders for human rights abuses, that field was also the scene of later humiliations.
THE Army has never forgiven Alfons'in for putting its leaders in the docks for the crimes committed during the 1970s' ``dirty war'' - the armed forces' crackdown on leftist guerrillas and political dissidents. And in three rebellions over the past two years, mutinous officers have gradually reasserted the military influence over Argentine politics.
Most dramatically in Easter week 1987, President Alfons'in put down an Army uprising only by promising to promote a law that protected all but a handful of officers from human rights trials.
With each set back in his sallies against the traditional pillars of Argentine society, Alfons'in and his government lost a little more credibility. Finding ``no way either to get a grip on the corporations or to negotiate with them, doing neither one thing or the other'' left Alfons'in highly vulnerable, argues Mr. Eloy.
But if the President's ratings at home have plummeted, he remains a well-respected figure internationally.
Six years ago Argentina was a pariah nation, its military rulers shunned for the barbarity committed during their dictatorship. Today, Buenos Aires' voice carries weight in international forums, especially in the debates over Central America's future and on Latin America's foreign debt.
President Alfons'in has returned his country to the international fold on the strength of the unprecedented political freedoms that he has guaranteed during his five and a half years in office.
Never before has an Argentine government shown such respect for freedom of the press, for opposition rights, or for the autonomy of provincial governments.
And the democratic system that Alfons'in has rebuilt has stood up in recent months to heavy battering from a fierce election campaign and hyperinflation that would have undermined many other nascent democracies.
Despite all the trouble, points out Radical party ``eminence grise'' Aldo Ferrer, nobody even mentioned the possiblity of a military coup.
``The fact that all the options under consideration were within the institutional framework is a real achievement,'' says Mr. Ferrer. ``Governments here have fallen for much less than what has happened now. Our democracy is young, but perhaps it is not so weak as it looks.''
Alfons'in is clearly expecting that the system he nurtured has a future. As soon as he invests Mr. Menem with the symbol of office tomorrow morning, he plans to return to his home town of Chascomus to address a political rally. Friends say it will be the first speech in his political comeback.