The Miami Herald
December 23, 2001

 Debate in Argentina stalls appointment of new leader


 BUENOS AIRES -- Last-minute wrangling over whether Argentina will hold new elections in March or put them off until 2003 slowed the country's game of musical chairs with its presidency Saturday night.

 Populist provincial governor Adolfo Rodríguez Sáa still appears certain to be named the country's third president in little more than 100 hours, but his appointment to the interim post was delayed by a controversy over the timing and mechanics of the next election. The debate kept Argentina's Legislative Assembly arguing fiercely into the night.

 The congressional leadership set a deadline of 11 a.m. today for a decision on the election.

 The political fireworks came at the end of a turbulent week of rioting that left dozens of people dead, hundreds of businesses looted and burned, and forced President Fernando de la Rúa to flee in a helicopter as rioters surged through the streets below.

 The controversy in the Legislative Assembly revolved around three scenarios for the next election, from which the Congress must choose:

   The most likely one was an election under Argentina's ``Lemas'' law, a bloc-based election in which political parties are permitted to run several different candidates for president, and whoever gets the most votes is also credited with the votes of the rest.

 The Peronist Party, which controls Congress, favored this type of election because its top candidates are provincial governors with a significant political machinery at their disposal, who together would most likely get the most votes. But the Peronists would need extra votes in Congress to get the two-thirds majority needed to approve this kind of election.

   Holding conventional open elections at the end of de La Rúa's term in December 2003, with the candidate receiving the most votes becoming president. This scenario would allow Rodríguez Sáa to head a caretaker government until that time.

 Center-left opposition leaders said they preferred open elections in 2003 than a bloc-system election in March 2002 because it would give their candidates a better

   Holding conventional open elections in March 2002. Though the Peronists are dead-set against the idea, opposition parties were hoping to gather enough popular
 support on the streets Saturday night to force the Legislative Assembly to call for open elections.

 Rodríguez Sáa, a man described as obsessed with details and who ran the corruption-plagued rural Andean province of San Luis for 18 years, will succeed Ramón Puerta, the Senate leader who was transition president for only 48 hours.

 Argentina has been hovering on the edge of defaulting on $132 billion in foreign debt. The country is in its 43rd month of ruinous recession, with 18.3 percent


 Central Buenos Aires has been much calmer since de la Rúa left office. The city's more affluent citizens have been busy stocking up on food and wine for the Christmas holiday, and at many branches of the Disco supermarket chain there were scores of shoppers standing in line at each cash register.

 But there have been continued reports from the city's blue collar and poor neighborhoods of residents arming themselves with steel rods, pipes, clubs and firearms to
 guard their streets against a wave of thieves and thugs unleashed by the unrest.

 The residents claim the police are too burdened with maintaining order in the administrative and business city center to keep the peace where they live.

 Rodríguez Sáa, a 54-year-old lawyer, comes from a small province, and until recently was a minor player in national politics. He comes to the job with some personal liabilities. Chief among them: a notorious videotape from 1993 showing him having sex with a female aide. A married man, Rodríguez Sáa maintained he was forced to make love to the woman after she and her friends kidnapped him for reasons he never explained.

 Analysts here are unsure how much Rodríguez Sáa can do about the once-rich country's economic chaos.


 Most economists expect him to preside over the largest debt default in history as well as a potentially chaotic devaluation. But Rodríguez Sáa -- who governed arid San Luis province as a populist, staging large public works projects such as the construction of 30,000 homes for the poor -- has given mixed signals about his planned economic course.

 He called last week for ``the suspension of payments of the public debt until all Argentines have a job,'' a classic populist policy prescription. ``I will govern for the most humble and for those who suffer,'' he added.

 But he also said he would like to retain the decade-old policy of tying the value of the peso to the dollar, even though most economists in Buenos Aires and on Wall Street believe a valuation of as much as 50 percent will be needed.

 Before any devaluation, aides to Rodríguez Sáa say, he will print scrip money in the form of low-interest bonds to pay government salaries and inject money into the
 sagging economy.


 An advisor to Rodríguez Sáa, David Espósito, has suggested yet a fourth currency for Argentina -- the Argentino -- to be paid to government employees and to an
 estimated 1.5 million workers the new government wants to hire for new federal construction and forestry jobs.

 The Argentino would join the peso, the American dollar, and patacones (promissory notes circulating in Buenos Aires only) as legal tender. He did not explain whether the Argentino could be exchanged for dollars, or even for pesos.

 ``Here is the problem,'' said Beatriz Gordini, 61, a shopkeeper debating the issue with friends at a sidewalk coffee shop in the exclusive Recoleta district. ``If you have agreed to make your car or mortgage payments in dollars, how are you going to do that if you are paid in Argentinos?''

 Despite the president's pledge to keep the peso tied to the dollar, Gordini and many other Buenos Aires residents say a devalued peso is inevitable. ``If that happens,'' she said, ``it will be the same problem -- your dollar obligations.''

                                    © 2001