Argentina Moves, But Where?

Argentina's new president, Nestor Kirchner, has his work cut out for him. The economy is in turmoil, struggling with a $170 billion foreign debt. Some 60 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty level.The country has had six presidents in the past 18 months. Only two presidents in the past 20 years have finished their terms.

Moreover, Mr. Kirchner became president without an electoral mandate. He got only 22 percent of the vote in April's first round of elections, and then was automatically elected when his opponent, former President Carlos Menem, withdrew from the second round after polls made clear he would lose badly.

What Argentina needs now is real democracy, clean government, an independent and honest judiciary, a modern economy, and a population that takes civic responsibilities such as paying taxes seriously.

What it does not need is a return to traditional rule by a caudillo, or strongman, who appoints cronies to judgeships and government positions and meddles in the economy - usually to the country's detriment.

Kirchner stands at a crossroads in Argentine history. Since taking the oath of office May 25, he has purged the leadership of the military, police, and intelligence services. He has moved to revive congressional impeachment of the notoriously corrupt Supreme Court. And he has taken action to strip Mr. Menem of his remaining power in the ruling party.

It's too early to tell whether Kirchner is playing the democrat or the caudillo. The moves could be interpreted as a desperately needed housecleaning. But they could also be the prelude to Kirchner appointing his own loyalists, especially in judicial slots, as he did as a provincial governor. Indeed, his new Army chief is a junior general who's an old friend.

Kirchner's economic policies are no clearer. He campaigned on a platform of more state intervention in the economy and public spending on jobs and poverty programs - the very Peronist approaches that helped get Argentina into this mess. Last week, however, he announced he'll seek a new long-term debt agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

Fixing the economy will be hard on average Argentines, and that will have political consequences. How Kirchner and the public deal with that will determine whether the country breaks through to prosperity or continues down the dead-end road it's been on.

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