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Argentina's Alfons'in: Can he make democracy work?

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DEMOCRACY has never really thrived in Argentina, least of all recently. Twice in the past 20 years, in 1966 and 1976, the military overthrew an elected government before it was four years old. As President Ra'ul Alfons'in begins his third year, the Peronist opposition has just completed the most successful one-day work stoppage in 10 years, protesting government policy. One wonders if his fate will be any different from that of other civilian presidents. At first glance, Mr. Alfons'in's chances of bucking the trend seem slim. Terrorist bombings started again last October, forcing him to declare a brief state of siege to deal with the right-wing culprits. And when an ex-President, Gen. Jorge Videla, was convicted and given life imprisonment by civilian judges last year for his directing the killing of 9,000 citizens in the late 1970s, military officers were furious. Only five of the nine generals and admirals put on trial were found guilty, but the armed forces took no consolation from the acquittal of the others. Nor are they happy with civilian demands for the prosecution of the 1,200 soldiers and police known to have run the crusade.

Still, it is far too early to write off Argentina's democratic experiment. Hostilities are neither as deep nor as violent as they were when the armed forces went to war against terrorists in 1976. And there is no evidence that the military wants to run another government just yet. It will be a while before the wounds that officers suffered from interservice recriminations after the Falklands war are fully healed. Perhaps most important, Argentines do not want the officers back. Quite the opposite: They now expound an uncharacteristic affection for democracy.

Alfons'in deserves some of the credit, too, although he was slow in earning it. His first year was an embarrassing failure, filled with good intentions but little progress toward the restoration of public confidence in either the government or the economy. Then he started over last June, taking drastic steps to halt hyperinflation and to deal with a record $48 billion foreign debt. Instead of raging against the nation's creditors, as is Argentine habit, he bit the bullet and imposed unprecedented austerity on the nation, starting with wage and price controls, a new currency, and budget cuts. It was a harsh solution, but it was welcomed by a nation that desperately wanted someone to take charge.

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