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Argentina Chooses Interim President - 2001-12-22

Argentina's Congress is preparing to convene in a joint a session later Saturday to choose an interim President to replace Fernando de la Rua.

Mr. de la Rua was driven out of office Thursday by widespread protests and rioting over his failed economic policies. Argentina's Peronist party, which controls Congress, has already chosen its candidate for the job and also is proposing that new presidential elections be held in March.

The Peronist party has chosen provincial governor Adolfo Rodriguez Saa to become the country's interim President, and will formally put forward that choice at a joint session of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, which opens later Saturday.

The party, which controls both houses of Congress, also will present a resolution calling for a presidential election on March 3. There is little doubt both proposals will be passed, and Mr. Rodriguez Saa will govern this South American nation for the next 60 days.

Caretaker President Ramon Puerta announced the Peronist party's decisions late Friday, following hours of closed door meetings with political leaders. Mr. Puerta, who assumed office after the resignation of Mr. de la Rua, will hand over power to Mr. Rodriguez Saa after he is declared President by the Congress.

Mr. Rodriguez Saa inherits a country in the midst of an economic crisis. Argentina is mired in a recession that has lasted almost four years - and which shows no sign of ending soon.

Unemployment at 18 percent is growing and poverty now affects one-third of the country's 36 million people. Argentina, which has a massive $132 billion debt, also faces difficulties in making its debt payments. Its currency, which has been pegged to the dollar since 1991 at a one-to-one rate, is widely considered to be overvalued and is one of the factors hampering an economic recovery.

Mr. Rodriguez Saa has said he favors keeping the current exchange system. However, Peronist party officials say he may try to take others measures, including declaring a moratorium on foreign debt payments. He is expected to unveil his economic program Saturday, after being selected by the Congress.

At a news conference Friday in which Mr. Rodriguez Saa's name was unveiled, caretaker President Puerta told reporters these and other questions about the economy will have to wait until the provisional President takes office.

He said, "we as a party have always played by the rules of the game, but those decisions which all the people of Argentina are waiting for will have to wait until after Saturday when the new President takes office."

The Peronist proposal to hold new elections in March is meeting with resistance from some of the opposition parties. The Radical party of ex-President de la Rua says Argentina should not have to go through a Presidential election in the midst of an economic crisis. But this view is not very likely to prevail, later Saturday, when the Congress makes its decisions, since the Peronist party holds a majority.

Political analysts say it is not clear who the Peronists will chose as their candidate for the March third election. Analyst Felipe Noguera says the party has not yet recovered from losing the 1999 presidential election that brought Mr. De la Rua to power.

"Peronism is divided internally and they really haven't had time to get over their loss in '99 and come up with a new leadership. Formally, former President Menem is still the leader of the party, most of the other top leaders in the party don't recognize him as such. So it's not a party one would say is ready to go into an election," he said.

Whoever is elected in the proposed March 3 elections will serve out former president de la Rua's remaining term, which ends on December third 2003.