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Argentina Getting Another Interim President - 2002-01-01

Argentina's Congress is to pick a new President for the second time in less than two weeks. The special joint session was called following Sunday's resignation of interim President Adolfo Rodriguez Saa after just one-week on the job.

Caretaker President Eduardo Camano, who until Monday was House majority leader, has convened the special Congressional session, as provided for by Argentina's Constitution when there is no President or sitting Vice President.

Mr. Camano, who will serve in his post for the time it takes for lawmakers to choose a President, told reporters Monday he hopes the decision can be made quickly.

"I hope within a 24 hour period we can have a new President chosen by the Congress who can implement a serious program to restore the quality of life for all Argentines," said Mr. Camano.

Lawmakers can choose either a Senator or Deputy, or one of Argentina's provincial governors to become interim President. But with Argentina's traditionally dominant Peronist party in control of the legislature, it appears almost certain that the new President will be a Peronist.

As lawmakers prepared to meet, a consensus was forming around Senator Eduardo Duhalde, a one-time vice president, former governor and unsuccessful Presidential candidate in the 1999 election.

Mr. Duhalde, a 60-year-old lawyer, is a veteran Peronist party leader and a critic of free-market policies.

If elected, Mr. Duhalde will take the place of former interim President Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, whose surprise resignation Sunday plunged this South American nation into a renewed crisis. Mr. Rodriguez Saa, the Peronist governor of a small western province, was chosen by a special session of Congress on December 23 following the resignation of President Fernando de la Rua several days earlier.

Mr. de la Rua, who was elected President in 1999 when he defeated rival Eduardo Duhalde, was driven out of office following bloody riots and protests against his failed economic policies.

In his seven-days in power, Mr. Rodriguez Saa announced a series of measures, including a proposal to launch a new currency and to create one-million jobs to revive Argentina's stagnant economy. He also suspended Argentine payments on its huge foreign debt.

But these announcements, especially the move to create a third currency to operate alongside the Argentine peso and dollar, failed to generate much confidence. The former interim President also was criticized for picking advisors who had been accused in the past of corruption and for not lifting banking restrictions imposed by former President de la Rua that limited cash withdrawals.

This spurred thousands of middle class Argentines in Buenos Aires to turn out in the streets late Friday, banging pots and pans in protest. By Sunday, it was clear Mr. Rodriguez Saa also had lost the support of several key Peronist governors - and so he resigned.

His resignation means Argentina will have a fifth President, including two temporary caretakers, in less than a month. This, coupled with continuing unrest, has led some politicians, including Mr. Duhalde to warn of anarchy and even the danger of civil war.

But a leading Argentine political analyst and consultant, Felipe Noguera, says so far these sudden Presidential transitions are being dealt with constitutionally. "On the one hand, one does have the impression that there is a sort of institutional meltdown," explained Mr. Noguera. "But if you look at it more closely you find that the institution that has been melted down has been the Presidency. The governorships, the legislature, and the rest of the institutional system is there. I do not think you can really say there has been an institutional collapse so far. I think that the fact that Argentina has moved through this process, respecting its constitution, its laws, and so on is important, and I presume this will continue," he said.

When Congress selected Mr. Rodriguez Saa president, lawmakers gave him a mandate to serve for up to 90 days to allow for the election of a new president on March 3. It is not clear now if Congress will again choose someone to preside over new elections, or to serve the remainder of ex-President De la Rua's term until December 2003.

Whoever assumes the Presidency will have to deal with the same problems that brought down the De la Rua government. These include a recession that has lasted almost four years, an 18 percent unemployment rate, an overvalued currency and the burden of Argentina's huge $132 billion public debt.