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Argentine leader looks to mid-term elections for popular mandate

Simmering military discontent and the return of triple digit annual inflation create an uneasy setting for President Ra'ul Alfons'in in Sunday's congressional and gubernatorial elections. Mr. Alfons'in is counting on the elections to be a popular mandate for his policies during his last two years.

The new congress will determine the fate of the President's constitutional reforms which include a shift to a parliamentary, coalition-style government. This would permit Alfons'in to be reelected chief of state.

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Respected public opinion polls generally show a very close race between the President's Radical Civic Union Party and the Justicialist (Peronist) Party in congress and in the Buenos Aires provincial governor's race. That seat often has been the stepping stone to the presidency.

Both parties, pollsters say, are playing to a public mood hovering over the political center in hopes of political and economic stability. A military rebellion at Easter shocked people all across the political spectrum and added to the general mood of uncertainty created by a declining economy. Argentina is an educated middle-class nation with all the expectations of a middle-class, but few opportunities to fulfill those expectations because of underemployment and lack of investments.

Sources in the Alfons'in administration privately say they expect to lose a few congressional seats, but keep a majority in the 254-seat Chamber of Deputies where they now hold 130 seats. Although the Peronists don't expect to gain a majority of seats, they hope to trim the Radical bloc to below 50 percent.

Center-right parties, which are expected to gain seats and who are closer to the ideology of the Radicals, could be crucial in building a Radical majority bloc.

Just four months ago Alfons'in faced a military uprising. Rebel officers protested his policy of prosecuting mid-level military officials for human rights abuses committed during the military's war against leftists during its 1976-83 rule. They said they were only following orders.

Massive civilian support for Alfons'in helped quiet the military and increase his popularity. Alfons'in later met rebel demands by suspending the trials of mid-level officers. Prosecution of the rebels remains an internal military dispute that observers say could still erupt in military unrest.

Neither Peronists nor Radicals have raised the military issue in the campaigning. (Smaller leftist parties have criticized Alfons'in for caving in on his human rights policy.) But the Radical and Peronist candidates are using photos and videotapes of the Easter crisis in their campaigns to show scenes of Alfons'in and Peronist leaders rousing civilian support on the government palace balcony.

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``We still have a military problem but people forget because they don't like to think about it,'' says Roberto Cortes Conde, a historian at the Di Tella Institute, a think tank here. ``The government really didn't win [against the rebels], but both parties are using footage of it [balcony scenes] in the elections.''

Analysts say the main faction of the Peronist Party, the renovadores, has taken over a divided party from the old-line authoritarian orthodox Peronists. And it has tried to give the party a youthful and progressive look.

The Peronist Party's ideology is still based on traditional Peronist fundamentals like a state-controlled economy with strong labor ties. It advocates a policy of refusing to pay the nation's $53 billion foreign debt under the creditors' terms.

The new image of Peronism, Mr. Cortes Conde and other analysts say, appears to have helped narrow the margin gained by the Radicals in the 1983 elections. The Peronists appear to have moved closer to the center and are appealing to the middle-class radical constituency, Felipe Noguera, a political analyst says.

Key to the Peronist Party will be the Buenos Aires Province governor's race. Antonio Cafiero, leader of the renovadores, is running. If he wins, it would help unify the party by solidifying the renovadores dominance. He would then be seen as a serious contender for the 1989 Presidential elections. This gain, analysts say, would make the party less willing to compromise or negotiate on Alfons'in initiatives such as constitutional reform.

The July inflation rate of 10.1 percent, expected to have hit 12 percent in August, is likely to hurt Radical candidates. The increased cost of living has caused hundreds of wage strikes this year.

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