Argentines see woes as chance for renewal

A new TV gameshow is one of many ways Argentina is voicing frustration with its corrupt political class.

Argentines want new leaders. Badly.

Two measures of the degree of dissatisfaction with the nation's political elite can be found in the success of a cartoon duck and a new television game show.

Turn on the tube Sunday nights at 8 p.m. to catch one of the country's top-rated programs: "The People's Candidate." Sixteen candidates are vying for a chance to win a seat in Argentina's legislature. Viewers call in to pick their favorite, and the winner will get a fully funded campaign in the next election.

The show's success, say political analysts, reflects the depth of discontent with the current crop of familiar candidates for next year's presidential election.

"No single figure has managed to capture the desires and hopes of the nation," explains Nicolás Ducoté, executive director of the Center for the Implementation of Public Policies for Equity and Growth (CIPPEC), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Buenos Aires. He cites recent polls where none of the leading candidates for president reached even 19 percent approval. In the midst of an enduring economic crisis, one of the most popular slogans heard today is "Que se vayan todos [They should all go]."

But the TV show is also emblematic of something else going on in Argentina: renewal. New political parties and NGOs are emerging, led by young people who see Argentina's current difficulties as an opportunity to revitalize the country and close the chapter on a corrupt past. Call them Argentina's new nation-builders - minus the blue helmets.

"For the first time in a long time, Argentina can rethink what it wants to be as a country," says Sergio Berensztein, a political scientist at Torcuato Di Tella University in Buenos Aires. "We thought we were a developed nation, more European than Latin American, but this crisis has exposed that fiction. Now we have the opportunity to recognize our limitations and our virtues.... We have the human capital here - we just need to put it into action."

That action is already under way. "Civil society here is effervescent," says Mr. Ducoté. "Society is demanding a purification of politics, a new kind of leadership. First the demands came through protests, through things like the cacerolazos [pot-banging street demonstrations] and the vote for Clemente last year."

"Clemente" is a wisecracking comic-strip character appearing in the daily newspaper, El Clarín, since the early 1970s. Clemente has no hands, so he can't steal. This incorruptible condition made him an appealing write-in candidate for disaffected citizens during Argentina's 2001 legislative elections, when nearly 4 million citizens cast blank or null votes.

But such forms of dissent are not enough to transform politics, says Mr. Ducoté. "Some intelligent voices eventually began to ask how to transform protests into proposals," he says. "After all, it isn't enough to say what we're against. We have to say what we want."

NGOs - which in Argentina number some 30,000, one-third of which were started in the past two years - are beginning to answer this question. Groups such as the two-year-old CIPPEC and many others are pushing an array of proposals for political and state reform. These proposals include laws guaranteeing free access to public information (akin to the US Freedom of Information Act), the creation of an independent agency that would oversee elections, and protection for whistle-blowers in the public sector who point out misdeeds by their superiors.

Many of these initiatives are modeled on the laws and experiences of other countries. "We don't have to invent everything all over again," says Mr. Berensztein. "We can look around the world for best practices and adapt them to our own idiosyncrasies."

Ducoté also highlights efforts that led to the enforcement of existing laws requiring political candidates to disclose their personal finances. "But even more important than the laws themselves," he argues, "these initiatives have been able to show society that it has something to offer to political life.... This realization alone is an important accomplishment."

Other nonprofit groups are concerned with the impact that Argentina's economic and political troubles are having on popular self-perceptions. "Argentina is more than just this crisis that hurts and saddens us," says Milagros Olivera, the young executive director of the Association for Strategic Reflection in Argentina (AREA), a nonprofit group that seeks to promote youth leadership and political dialogue. "People say we're all corrupt. But why must I accept that? Why do 40 million Argentines have to accept that?"

Part of the problem is simply generational, argues Ducoté. "This is a political class that lived in an Argentina hit by dictatorship. They did not have the chance to grow in an environment where rules and institutions were respected." However, he worries that "young people today don't want to enter politics now because they don't want to get dirty; they don't want to play with the actors that are currently in power."

Despite these risks, some new faces are braving the political waters. "When you have so much power at stake, you'll see people's scruples put to the test very often," says Leandro Popik, the 30-something president of the Party for a Republic with Opportunities, a new party seeking to introduce greater openness and ethics to Argentine politics. "But I think it is very possible to get in [to politics] and not get dirty.

"In Argentina, the leaders we've had have not been very popular with the people," says Mr. Popik, who is running for mayor of Buenos Aires in October 2003. "There is a major task ahead in restoring the strength of democracy and rebuilding the bridge between representatives and the people. There is a trust that has been shattered."

In his former post as undersecretary of public administration in the national government, Popik focused on modernizing the state by making more government services and transactions available online. But he hails from the NGO world as well. At age 18, he and his older brother started an organization that encouraged civic participation among high school students. "I spent six years organizing events to promote the participation of kids across Argentina," he says. "That's clearly was when my political seed was planted."

For Ms. Olivera of AREA, the motivation for activism and political involvement is also personal. "I do this for my two sons," she says. "I had the chance to live in another country in my adolescence, but I returned to my country to give back to this society that gave me so much. I want my boys to ... see the full potential that this country has."

Seeking to counter the country's pessimistic mood, Olivera has launched the "A Different Argentina Exists" project, a two-month nationwide photography competition in which ordinary citizens submit a photograph showing a different, more positive face of the nation. Prize money will be awarded to the top five images. "We'll see what people say. If we get 10,000 photos, that means 10,000 Argentines are telling us what they really think of their land."

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