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Who is Eduardo Duhalde? - 2002-01-02

Argentina's fifth President in less than two weeks is a veteran political leader of the populist Peronist party, which has dominated Argentine political life for decades. President Eduardo Duhalde is promising changes in Argentina's free market economic model, to end the country's financial crisis and restore prosperity to the South American nation. VOA's Bill Rodgers has this profile of the man who is set to govern Argentina until 2003.

A special joint session of Congress elected Mr. Duhalde to assume the presidency in the midst of a political and economic crisis that brought down two presidents in the span of less than two weeks. His election Tuesday was by an overwhelming majority.

Mr. Duhalde, a 60-year-old senator of the majority Peronist party, now faces the task of trying to restore confidence and a measure of prosperity, in a country suffering from a prolonged recession.

Born October 5, 1941, Mr. Duhalde joined the Peronist party and won his first local office in 1973, in his home province of Buenos Aires. Temporarily abandoning politics from 1976 to 1983, during Argentina's military dictatorship, he was elected to congress in 1987 and went on to become Argentina's Vice-President in 1989 under President Carlos Menem.

In 1991, he successfully ran for governor of Buenos Aires, and won a second term in 1995. As governor, he implemented a record number of public works projects, and presided over a budget deficit that ballooned from $4 billion in 1991 to almost $11 billion when he left office.

This spending record hurt him when he ran for President in 1999. He lost to moderate Fernando de la Rua, who headed a center-left coalition called the Alliance. After his resounding electoral defeat, Mr. Duhalde pledged to retire from politics but he came back to win a Senate seat in last October's elections.

In his acceptance speech Tuesday, Mr. Duhalde described himself as a traditional Peronist politician and harkened back to the party's populist legacy of more than 40 years ago - the era of founder and dictator, Juan Peron.

"I belong to a political movement that, through Juan Domingo Peron and Eva Peron, promoted social justice in Argentina and raised the banner of economic independence and political sovereignty," he said.

In that vein, Mr. Duhalde went on to promise to create the bases for a new economic model and criticized the free market system that he says has ruined Argentina.

"It is time to tell the truth: Argentina is bankrupt," he said. "This perverse economic model has wiped out everything. It made beggars of two million people and destroyed the middle class."

Mr. Duhalde takes over a nation that has been mired in a recession for nearly four years and is burdened by a huge $132 billion public debt. Its currency, the peso, has been pegged one-to-one to the U.S. dollar since 1991, but is now considered vulnerable to devaluation because Argentina does not have enough dollars to back it up.

Mr. Duhalde's words are likely to resonate among many in Argentina, which was once the most prosperous nation in Latin America. Many say they are frustrated that the privatization and free market policies of the previous decade have not produced results. Instead, unemployment and poverty have risen.

Buenos Aires municipal worker Miguel Angel Buljan is among those calling for change. He was outside the Congress building Tuesday to show support for Mr. Duhalde, as lawmakers convened to choose a new President.

"Duhalde's a leader and he's already shown this when he was governor of Buenos Aires province," he said. "I want him to change the economic model that has been place since the 1970s, and which has created this situation in Argentina."

It was Peronist President Carlos Menem, who governed the country for 10 years and left office in 1999, who implemented many of the free market policies that now seem to be falling out of favor. Mr. Duhalde broke with Mr. Menem over these policies as he unsuccessfully campaigned for President in 1999.

In coming days, Mr. Duhalde faces a daunting task. Former President De la Rua was driven out of office late last month by bloody riots and protests over his perceived failure to pull the country out of its crisis. The interim president chosen by Congress to succeed Mr. De la Rua resigned on Sunday just seven days in office because of the same perception that he was not up to the job.

Political analyst Rosendo Fraga tells VOA he believes Mr. Duhalde respresents the last chance to show that Argentina's traditional political parties can solve the country's problems.

"This is the last chance, and if they fail there will be a wholesale change in the political system similar to that of 1946 when Mr. Peron came to power," he said. However, Mr. Fraga did not think democracy itself is in any danger.

Another Argentine analyst, Paula Montoya, agrees, adding that the new president needs first to restore confidence in Argentina by demonstrating he is capable of being a leader.

"The thing is that he has to show at least, perhaps not immediately economic results because that's difficult, but he has to show some signals, and I think he's a smart person and knows that," said Mr. Montoya. "He has to show he has a good cabinet, with well known and respected cabinet ministers, and I think he will give that signal. I think we all had a lesson last week of what happens to a president that wants to do whatever he wants without respecting what people wanted, and he lasted just seven days."

It is a lesson that Mr. Duhalde is likely to heed as he begins to grapple with Argentina's problems, in the face of restive nation that has shown it will no longer tolerate failure.