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Democracy in Argentina: `What are we going to do with it?'

The symbols of democracy that Argentines most like to cite today range from the sweet to the sour -- from the presence of street musicians to the garbage left on the streets by striking sanitation workers. During authoritarian military rule -- 1976 to 1983 -- free expression by street musicians or striking laborers was not allowed.

Even with its uncomfortable aspects, such as strikes, democracy is popular here. And so is President Ra'ul Alfons'in. This is a sign of political maturity, observers say, for a nation where no civilian president has finished out his term in the last 50 years.

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Surveys show great support for the President and for the sacrifices he has asked of his middle-class nation. Much of this support, Argentines admit, is a popular awareness that Argentina has reached the end of its economic rope and that it can no longer turn to its military to maintain political order.

The military was discredited following the ill-advised war with Britain over the Falkland Islands in 1982 and the ``dirty war'' it conducted from 1976 to 1982 against ``subversives,'' in which more than 9,000 untried civilians disappeared, were imprisoned, or killed.

Mr. Alfons'in, who came to power in 1983, is now well enough established to last out his six-year term, says a Western diplomat. The question, he says, is whether Alfonsi'n will simply survive or if he will be able to push forward and make a new Argentina.

While in power, the military incurred a heavy foreign debt, which has grown to $51 billion. Because of mismanagement, the country's industrial base is too weak to pay off the debt.

Inflation has effectively halved the value of incomes in the past three years, and left this middle-class and highly literate nation full of underemployed and underpaid workers.

Argentines are enthusiastic about the prospect of democracy, but it is not yet clear how they will make it work. One thing is clear: Alfons'in has won great respect in the international financial community with his attempt to curb inflation, known as the ``Austral Plan.'' Everyday life here is frequently frustrated by labor strikes, organized by unions and their allies in the labor-oriented Peronist party, to protest the plan. Yet the plan, including wage-and-price controls and a series of measures to reduce public expenditures and rejig the monetary system, has succeeded in holding inflation down to roughly 5 percent a month since last June.

``On one hand, we're happy with the political system. But the question is: What are we going to do with it? So far it's not working [to solve economic problems], but we're not going to chuck it,'' observes Felipe Noguera, a partner in the nonpartisan polling firm Aftalion, Mora y Araujo, Noguera.

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Recent polls, he says, show Argentines are ``solidly behind democracy.''

``Some people will think democracy means jobs, good salaries, and education, and that's not true,'' explains Roberto de Michele, head of a youth wing of Alfons'in's Radical Party. ``I don't know if democracy will be the cure to all the problems. But democracy provides the setting for peaceful struggle.''

Last year's trials of some members of former ruling military juntas are often cited by Argentines as proof that they are serious about democracy. Even public debate over such issues is a sign of progress, says Carlos Nino, who heads the President's Council for the Consolidation of Democracy.

``People are learning to tolerate debate and not fear discussion. Some of the deepest measures of democracy are culture and attitude,'' explains Dr. Nino.

Nino says that along with enthusiasm to participate in the political system goes a certain amount of inexperience and ignorance among all concerned over just how to proceed.

Less than 20 percent of the members of the first elected legislature of this democracy had any legislative experience -- a fact that some believe has made it easier for President Alfons'in to take powers like debt negotiation and monetary policy into his own hands.

Further explains Nino, local governments have so long been subservient to the military that they don't know what responsibilities they are allowed. C. G.

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