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Argentina Announces Presidential Election Dates - 2002-02-05

Argentine President Eduardo Duhalde has announced a date for presidential elections next year, as his government takes steps to prevent further turmoil from the ongoing financial crisis. Mr. Duhalde's government is expected to lift a two-day bank holiday Wednesday, and begin the free-float of Argentina's currency, the peso.

Mr. Duhalde says presidential elections will be held on September 14 next year. In a radio broadcast Tuesday, the Argentine leader said he hopes a new reformed political system will be in place by that date.

Mr. Duhalde, who will step down in December 2003, was chosen by Congress on January 1 to complete the four-year term of ex-President Fernando de la Rua, who resigned on December 20 after two years in power. Mr. de la Rua left office following bloody protests over his failed economic policies. He was succeeded by an interim president who lasted a week before also stepping down, because of protests by Argentines angered over continuing banking restrictions.

Argentines have been unable to obtain unlimited access to their bank deposits, many of them originally denominated in dollars, since a freeze was imposed by the de la Rua government in early December. The freeze was designed to prevent a collapse of the banking system. Mr. Duhalde, who devalued the currency last month, has maintained many of these restrictions.

In his radio broadcast Tuesday, Mr. Duhalde again warned that lifting all limits could set off a time bomb.

"We inherited a time bomb from the previous government, and we have to proceed carefully to dismantle it to prevent an explosion," he said. "If it explodes no one will get their money back and there could be a loss of lives - which is what we want to avoid."

On Sunday, the Duhalde government announced it would ease, but not eliminate, a freeze on bank accounts that was ruled unconstitutional Friday by the Supreme Court. It also announced it will abandon its two-tier exchange rate system in place for almost a month and let the peso float freely against the dollar, starting Wednesday. A bank holiday was declared until Wednesday, to allow time for the central bank to issue new regulations.

On Monday, the government ordered banks to convert their dollars into devalued pesos. It is also reported to be studying measures to limit the purchase of dollars in an attempt to end the practice by Argentines of using the U.S. currency.

Until last month's devaluation, the Argentine peso had been pegged by law at a one-to-one rate to the dollar since 1991 - a monetary policy that ended hyperinflation but became increasingly unsustainable as Argentina became mired by debt and recession.

Meanwhile, sporadic protests continued Tuesday in various parts of Buenos Aires by various groups, including unemployed workers, demanding a solution to the crisis.