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Argentina: Voting No! to the Past

8 minute read
James Kelly

In the first election in a decade, Raúl Alfonsin routs the Peronists

As the returns streamed in, neither candidate could quite believe what was happening. Raúl Alfonsin, refreshed by a barbecue lunch and a three-hour siesta, heard the results at the home of a wealthy supporter in a Buenos Aires suburb. “Let’s wait, let’s wait,” he cautioned excited aides. At his party headquarters downtown, Italo Luder sat forlornly in his office, shaking his head in disbelief. Luder’s supporters, expecting a night of partying, instead drifted quietly out of the building. Finally, at 5:45 a.m., the perplexed Luder emerged from his office, not to concede but to go home for sleep. Said he, wearily: “The counting is not complete.”

A technical point, for by then the election had become a romp. When the votes were tallied, Alfonsin, 56, and his center-left Radical Civic Union party had outpolled Luder and the Peronists, 52% to 40%. Of the 15.2 million votes cast, the Radicals won 7.7 million, the Peronists 6 million. Though the new President faces a horizon of uncertainty, the results marked a fresh chapter in Argentine history. For the first time since it was founded by Juan Domingo Perón 37 years ago, the Peronist party has lost a free national election. Alfonsin succeeded in doing what no other politician or general has done: badly denting if not shattering the mystique of Perón, who died nine years ago but has remained the dominant figure in Argentine politics.

At the same time, Alfonsin’s victory brings to an end the military regime that ruled the country for almost eight turbulent years. Argentina is burdened with nearly 1,000% inflation, an unemployment rate of 15% and a $40 billion foreign debt, the world’s third largest (after Brazil’s $94 billion and Mexico’s $91 billion). Moreover, the new President must bolster a nation demoralized by its ignominious defeat in the Falklands war last year and traumatized by the “dirty war” against leftists in which more than 6,000 people disappeared in the 1970s. So pressing are the tasks facing Alfonsin that the military is expected to move up his inauguration from Jan. 30 to Dec. 12.

Those problems were temporarily forgotten in the euphoria of election night. As the early Radical lead held, supporters chanting “Alfonsin! Alfonsin!” filled plazas across the nation. In Buenos Aires, caravans of celebrators sped through the streets honking horns and waving the party’s red-and-white flags. At 3:15 a.m., Alfonsin addressed his backers from the balcony of the Radical party headquarters downtown in the capital. Abandoning the rhetoric of the campaign, Alfonsin sounded the notes of national unity. “We have won, but we have defeated no one,” he proclaimed. “This is the triumph of all Argentina.”

The Reagan Administration cabled its congratulations, noting that the election marked “a successful step in the return to democratic and constitutional rule.” Some officials at the State Department noted that Alfonsin is an unknown quantity who might prove prickly in foreign affairs. Still, the consensus in Washington was that the new leader will welcome closer ties with the U.S. International bankers took comfort from the fact that, despite its name, the Radicals are the party of the middle class, moderate in the style of Social Democrats in Western Europe. During the campaign, Alfonsin, like Luder, pledged to pay back his country’s debt, though he promised to seek more favorable terms.

The election was a vote not so much for Alfonsin as against the past four decades of revolving civilian and military regimes. The pattern was set in 1946, when General Juan Peron came to power by offering an intoxicating blend of social welfare programs and nationalism to an Argentine working class denied its fair share of the country’s wealth. Peronism promised more than any government could deliver, but the brilliantined charisma of the general and his wife Eva dazzled the country. Even after the middle class and the military joined forces to oust Peron in 1955 for his profligate spending, the general’s sway over Argentina’s descamisados—or “shirtless ones”—enabled him to influence events from his exile in Spain. In 1973, after almost two decades of half-finished presidencies and coups, el Lider, then 77, returned to Buenos Aires in triumph. One year later, he was dead (Eva had died 22 years earlier), and power was passed to his third wife, Isabel.

Growing poli tical violence between left-wing and right-wing terrorist squads and 600% inflation led the military to take charge once again in 1976. Not only did the regime fail to repair the economy, but it introduced a campaign of brutal repression. Death squads, sanctioned and in some cases staffed by the military, abducted and murdered suspected leftists. President Leopoldo Galtieri’s decision to seize the Falklands last year was more an attempt to retain the military’s grip on power than to reclaim property, but the humiliating defeat at British hands just hastened the regime’s end. To quell the public uproar, retired General Reynaldo Bignone, Galtieri’s successor, announced elections for a civilian government.

The nation’s two major parties differed little on the issues, so the outcome depended on strategy and style. Alfonsin, who lost a bid for his party’s nomination when elections were last held in 1973, concentrated on wooing the nation’s 5 million first-time voters and persuading the working class that the Peronists were violence-prone and manipulated by corrupt union leaders. He also profited from divisions within the Peronist camp. After a brawling convention last September, the union leaders won the nod for Luder, a constitutional lawyer and former Senate president. Already perceived as a labor puppet, Luder and his running mate Deolindo Bittel often found themselves overshadowed by a fistful of union nabobs, including the party vice president, Lorenzo Miguel, leader of 140,000 metalworkers, who has been accused of sparking union violence. Says Francisco Manrique, leader of the small Federal Party: “It looked like Luder in government, Miguel in power.”

Alfonsin crisscrossed the country, delivering as many as three rousing speeches a day and plunging into crowds with gusto. Luder, by contrast, seemed reserved and drab, an uninspiring speaker who rarely raised his voice or waved his arms. Toward the end of the campaign, nervous Peronists resorted to pairing Luder with the visage and recorded speeches of Juan Peron in television spots.

The defeat set off a fresh power struggle within the Peronist party. Several members urged that Isabel Peron, now 52 and self-exiled in Spain, return to take the party’s helm. She dispatched a bizarre telegram to Alfonsin, misspelling his name and congratulating him in the name of the Peronist party, “over which I preside.” Some demanded that Miguel and the other labor bosses be tossed out and the party cleansed of unsavory union influences.

Two days after the election, Alfonsin retreated to a ranch at an undisclosed location to plan his agenda. The most immediate problem is the country’s growing debt. Alfonsin inherits an agreement with the International Monetary Fund for short-term loans to prevent a default, in exchange for the imposition of austerity measures. Bernardo Grinspun, the President-elect’s chief economic adviser, estimates that Argentina will need at least $14 billion next year simply to meet its debt payments. During the campaign, Alfonsin promised to study the repayment agreements, but his advisers say they will not be discarded. “We are not going to conduct a Nuremberg trial,” says Grinspun. “If the contracts are in conformity, we won’t touch them.”

Alfonsin will attempt to rekindle economic growth and to cool inflation at the same time. The new regime hopes that its victory will persuade edgy Argentines to return money that they have transferred outside the country. Alfonsin is willing to discuss the future of the Falk land Islands with the British, but Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who welcomed Argentina’s “return to democracy” last week, reiterated that the islanders must be allowed to determine their future.

Like Luder, Alfonsin has pledged to repeal a law passed by the junta last September that, in effect, pardoned the military for crimes committed in the “dirty war.” If, however, the new President tries to prosecute the guilty, as relatives of the victims have demanded, he risks alienating the generals. If he makes good on his pledge to reform trade union elections, he will infuriate the Peronists. Despite their setbacks, the military and the party of Peron would make potent allies and could sabotage Alfonsin’s administration.

“Peron’s only successor will be the Argentine people, who in the last analysis will be the ones who decide.” El Lider uttered those words shortly before he died. In a sense, the Argentine people picked Peron’s successor last week. Peronists, Radicals and generals alike, they will now decide whether Raul Alfonsin becomes the first elected President since Juan Peron to serve a full six-year term. —By James Kelly.

Reported by Gavin Scott/Buenos Aires

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