- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2002

"Elections now!" thousands of pot-banging demonstrators chanted Tuesday night as they flooded the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital. Amid an escalating economic crisis and the Argentine legislature's recent assault on democracy, their outrage is unmistakable and thoroughly justified. On Tuesday, lawmakers scrapped the March 3 presidential elections and put in place a leader of its own choosing, Sen. Eduardo Duhalde, to hold power through 2003. Yesterday, the Peronist Party leader was given a farcical inauguration ceremony, making him Argentina's fifth president in two weeks.

The decision to grant Mr. Duhalde power for a two-year term, with no popular mandate, profoundly undermines Argentina's democratic tradition, and the Argentine people have made it abundantly clear that they desire a more open and representative government. Given all that, and the precarious state of the economy, the legislature's decision could have unfortunate consequences.

First of all, the Peronist Party, which controls the Argentine House and Senate, has practically rendered the opposition powerless during the ongoing economic meltdown. As Argentina burns, the Peronists have demonstrated a bewildering resolve to put their own interests above those of their imperiled country. Rather than grant what the country desperately needs and what the people are demanding, the Peronist politicians continue to look for ways of leveraging the crisis to hoard power undemocratically.

Moreover, Mr. Duhalde himself inspires little confidence. During his stint as governor of Buenos Aires, he ran up such huge debts that the province is now bankrupt. In 1999, he launched an unsuccessful, circus-like presidential bid, run by political strategist James Carville, that debuted a Spanish-language rendition of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." And he would have needed quite a bag of tricks to meet his conflicting campaign promises. Mr. Duhalde recommended a one-year suspension of debt-servicing by Third World countries, which would have prompted a severe, international credit crunch. Also, he declared an unwillingness to cut public spending, promised to increase pensions dramatically and simultaneously cut the value-added tax from 21percent to 15 percent. His campaign was accused by the head of Interpol Mexico of receiving more than $1 million in drug money from the Mexico-based Juarez Cartel.

What's more, Mr. Duhalde is saying very little about his agenda other than to support suspending payments on Argentina's massive $132 billion debt. He also appears to favor a devaluation of the Argentine peso, which may be unavoidable. More positively, Mr. Duhalde has expressed a willingness to change a confiscatory policy of the de la Rua government, which strictly limited Argentines' access to their own bank accounts.

As Argentina enters the New Year, it appears to be in state of economic mayhem more severe than that of the 1980s. So, it is clear what the legislature must do: Hear the people, who are clamoring for democracy and economic reform.

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