Legislators pick populist for president

Duhalde becomes fifth for Argentina in 2 weeks

January 02, 2002|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Eduardo Duhalde, a populist who opposes U.S.-backed free market reforms, was chosen yesterday as this insolvent country's fifth president in less than two weeks.

After marathon closed-door negotiations, Duhalde was elected in an emergency session of Congress to serve the final two years of the term of Fernando de la Rua, who resigned Dec. 20 after violent protests against his government. Three interim presidents followed before most major political parties threw their support to Duhalde, who had lost to de la Rua in the 1999 presidential election.

There will be no honeymoon for Duhalde, 60, who takes charge of a government already in default on some of its $132 billion debt after a crippling four-year recession.

Awaiting him are empty treasury coffers, provincial governments that want more federal resources and angry Argentines demanding to be paid their pensions and an end to banking restrictions that limit citizens to cash withdrawals of $250 a week.

His selection could rattle foreign investors and creditors, because Duhalde (pronounced DOO-al-deh) was calling for forgiveness of substantial amounts of Argentine debt as long ago as 1999.

Duhalde is a former two-term governor of Buenos Aires, the country's most populous and most important province.

He was elected to the Argentine senate Oct. 14 with more votes than any other politician seeking office.

As governor, his administration was marked by big spending on public works programs that put people to work but saddled the province with heavy debt.

Duhalde was selected by congress after Interim President Adolfo Rodriguez Saa announced his resignation Sunday night after just a week on the job, bringing Argentina close to economic and political collapse.

Some members of Duhalde's Justicialista Party, also called the Peronist Party, wanted his selection to last only until a new national election in March. But a majority of Peronists felt Argentina was on the verge of social explosion and needed the stability of a leader with time to set a direction.

Aides to Duhalde said he was working on a social and economic program, coordinated by Jorge Remes Lenicov, a long-time associate expected to be designated Argentina's next economy minister. During the 1999 campaign, both warned that Argentina's debt would become unmanageable if the economy continued to sour, as it did. Unemployment is nearly 20 percent.

To have any chance of success, Duhalde's plan must convince Argentines and foreign investors alike that he has a strategy to turn things around.

"Today the country is in the situation Duhalde warned of in 1999. That's why we are here to give him the support he deserves," said Marita Velasquez, a councilwoman from Duhalde's hometown of Lomas de Zamora, who led a pro-Duhalde rally outside the congress.

Other Argentines view him as just another discredited politician.

During violent demonstrations in recent weeks, his was among the names protestors chanted when calling for the ouster of career politicians.

Flag-waving supporters of Duhalde flocked to Argentina's congressional palace in the city of Buenos Aires yesterday afternoon as lawmakers began the emergency session.

While legislators debated, supporters of the new president and leftists clashed with clubs and stones in the nearby streets before police moved in with force and tear gas to quell the violence.

The violence yesterday was the latest measure of desperation in Argentina, a country proud of its European heritage and what once was the highest standard of living in South America.

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