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Peronist Candidate Could Be Argentine President for Second Time - 2002-11-27

In Argentina, the man who was president for just six days late last year tops the opinion polls for next year's presidential election, despite having declared the biggest debt default ever by a sovereign nation. Populist Adolfo Rodriguez Saa is now on the campaign trail, promising voters he will bring prosperity to Argentina, as he did to the small western province where he was governor.

Shouts of "Adolfo, Adolfo" echoed through Buenos Aires' cavernous central market on a recent morning, as the tanned, well-dressed candidate walked past stalls filled with fruits and vegetables. Smiling broadly, he waved and shook hands with the vendors. But the cheers were soon drowned out by jeers and whistles from people angry with all Argentine politicians.

This mistrust was evident in a brief exchange between Mr. Rodriguez Saa and two fruit vendors.

"We want the macro-economic conditions to improve," one vendor said, "So we can work and export, nothing else."

"That's what our program is all about," replied the candidate.

But politicians always say one thing, and do another, the vendor shot back, as Mr. Rodriguez Saa turned to move on to another stall.

Asked about the hostility at a news conference later, Mr. Rodriguez Saa played it down, saying he is the only presidential candidate who dares show his face in public.

The 55-year-old politician, a member of Argentina's dominant Peronist party, emerged in the national spotlight late last year, when he was picked by Congress to become president, following the resignation of Fernando de la Rua. Mr. de la Rua resigned in the midst of growing unrest over his failed economic policies.

Upon assuming office, Mr. Rodriguez Saa suspended payments on $132 billion of debt, saying he would use the money saved for social spending and to create one million jobs. He also announced plans to create a new currency. But continued street protests and crumbling support from his Peronist party forced him to step down after only six days in office.

Now, he is running for president, and has taken a narrow lead in early polls for next April's presidential election. His message? Revive Argentina's economy by eliminating corruption, and launching the kind of public works programs he carried out as governor for 18 years of the tiny western province of San Luis.

"I want to do for Argentina," he says in a VOA interview, "what I did for San Luis. It is the only Argentine province that has survived this crisis with a budget surplus, advanced infrastructure, and foreign investment."

In San Luis, construction continues apace on a highway system and on a public housing program that has built 50,000 low-cost homes during Governor Rodriguez Saa's tenure.

Unlike other public housing programs, dwellers pay a monthly mortgage of up to $30 for 15 years for the inexpensive two-bedroom houses, before gaining title to their homes. The money they pay to the bank is used by the government to build more houses. Those who do not pay their mortgages, lose their homes.

The construction boom and cheap housing have brought tens-of-thousands of Argentines to the province in recent years. U.S. companies like Whirlpool and Kimberly-Clark have built plants in San Luis, attracted by the province's modern infrastructure and healthy economy.

By contrast, most of the 24 other Argentine provinces are virtually bankrupt, and collectively have a $2 billion budget deficit. Ten provinces print their own money to pay their employees.

The editor of the local newspaper El Diario de la Republica, Eduardo Jorge Gomina, says, one reason for success is that there seems to be little government corruption in San Luis.

"Government contracts with construction companies are not renegotiated four or five times because of cost overruns, which is the main source of corruption in other provinces," he said. "Here, a contract is completed within the budget agreed to, and if not, judicial action is taken against the company."

As governor, Mr. Rodriguez Saa also cut spending by eliminating the government's fleet of official cars and other perks.

In San Luis' shady downtown plaza, where a giant poster of the candidate overlooks the square, most people praise their ex-governor. Shopkeeper Walter Fernandez is no exception.

"He turned this province around," he said. "There's construction here, there's jobs, whereas, in other provinces, there's not even a brick being laid down."

But questions remain as to whether Mr. Rodriguez Saa can translate his success as a provincial governor into a winning campaign for the presidency. Argentine political consultant Felipe Noguera says, he needs to do more to become a strong front-runner.

"So, he has this message that he can run a small province, he wasn't allowed to run the government late last year, and he deserves another chance," he said. "With that, and with a fairly modern campaign, in terms of using advertising, polling and media relations, and so on, he managed to push through to the front of the pack, the leader of the pack, but he didn't manage to break away from the pack."

Much will depend on whether Mr. Rodriguez Saa wins the Peronist party's nomination in a primary scheduled for early next year. If he does, his chances of becoming president will improve dramatically. However, former President Carlos Menem is the heavy favorite for winning that nomination. Mr. Rodriguez Saa has vowed to run as an independent, if he loses the primary. But his chances will be more difficult, without the support of the Peronist party. At the same time, analysts say, his brand of populism, and success as governor, may attract independent voters, tired of politics as usual.