Election of lawmakers to test leader's policy

Monday, October 15, 2001

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Argentines weary from years of recession and austerity were expected to deliver a blow to President Fernando De la Rua in Sunday's congressional vote.

De la Rua is not a candidate, but the vote is his party's first major test since his 1999 election and is seen as a referendum on his attempts to drag the South American country out of recession and stave off a default on its $130 billion public debt.

Up for grabs Sunday are the entire Senate, 127 of the 257 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, at least 11 provincial legislatures, a provincial governorship and many municipal posts.

With one in every 10 voters likely to void their ballots in protest, the election was shaping up as a public outcry against the policies of the beleaguered De la Rua, who has seen his approval rating plunge to 18 percent.

Argentines are in a foul mood after 40 months of recession that have raised the jobless rate to above 16 percent and plunged millions into poverty.

Corruption scandals and seven unpopular austerity programs in two years have added to the popular discontent.

Among the tough economic medicine dished out by De la Rua and his powerful Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo has been sharp cuts in the education and health budgets, and a 13 percent reduction in state workers' wages. They have also trimmed pensions.

Yet despite the pain, the economy remains in crisis and the specter of a debt default looms.

De la Rua urged the 25 million registered voters not to spoil their ballots.

"Voting is a step that fortifies the nation," he said as he cast a ballot at a school two hours before polls opened at 8 a.m. "In difficult times like these for our country and the world, we should heed the ballot box."

But some like 62-year-old retiree Jorge Petraglia doubt the election would make a difference. "There's nothing new out there. Everyone's making promises. In the end, they just fight among themselves."

The vote was not expected to drastically alter the balance of power in Argentina. The two largest parties -- De la Rua's centrist Radicals and the opposition Peronists -- are expected to continue to dominate.

In the Senate, the Peronists, who currently have 39 of 72 seats, may lose some ground but are expected to maintain their majority.

In the Chamber of Deputies, the Peronists have 99 seats to 102 held by De la Rua's ruling Alliance coalition of the Radicals and the leftist Frepaso party. The opposition was expected to make some gains, but not enough to end the Alliance majority.

Those with the most to lose, analysts say, are De la Rua himself and Cavallo.

Many of the new lawmakers elected from De la Rua's ruling Alliance coalition are expected to be his political foes, weakening his control of the coalition and making it difficult to pass legislation.

"The De la Rua administration will be even weaker after the election," political analyst Rosendo Fraga predicted. "As a result, its big political challenge will be to maintain its ability to govern."

Also, polls indicate that about one in 10 voters plan to spoil their ballots, with at least 20 percent threatening to do so in the capital, Buenos Aires. Voting is compulsory.

If a significant number of Argentines spoil their ballots, the symbolic gesture would undermine De la Rua's credibility, analysts say.

The president also insists he will keep Cavallo on if he reshuffles his Cabinet after the vote. Cavallo turned around Argentina's inflation-ridden economy in the early 1990s but has since seen his popularity plunge.

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