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Political Violence Is Rising As Argentina Nears Vote

While praised for their financial reforms, Argentines find road to full democracy rocky

WITH less than two weeks before high-stakes national elections, Argentina is facing a surge in political violence, including a round of attacks on journalists.

While praised in international financial circles as a model of economic reform, Argentina may be finding the road to full democracy is not as smooth.

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``The election is polarizing the society at intolerable levels,'' says Martin Granovsky, an editor at one of the country's leading dailies, Pagina/12. ``The government has to determine the level of democracy it wants. The alternatives are not democracy or dictatorship, but low-quality or high-quality democracy. Which type of democracy are you building?''

Argentina has been negotiating its way through democracy for the last decade, after years of military rule ended with the election of former President Raul Alfonsin in 1983.

Mr. Alfonsin set the stage for press freedom and other civil liberties, but left the presidency several months early in 1989 after hyperinflation had ravaged the country's economy.

President Carlos Saul Menem, elected on the Peronist party ticket in 1989, has led the country through a series of radical economic changes that have stabilized and opened the economy to international markets.

While political tensions have surfaced during previous Congressional campaigns, analysts say the stakes are bigger in the upcoming Oct. 3 election.

President Menem, whose term ends in 1995, is also intent on reforming the Constitution so he can run for another term.

To do that he needs enough support in the next Congress, which is expected to debate constitutional reform.

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About half of the 257 seats in the House of Deputies are up for grabs.

The result, analysts say, has been an atmosphere of growing tension that gives government intelligence agencies and marginal groups - whether in or outside the government - room to maneuver.

``Menem is not giving direct orders,'' says Graciela Fernandez Meijide, a director with the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights and an opposition candidate. ``But these groups see it as an opportunity to win favor with Menem. And Menem has been very verbal in his anger with the press.''

Adds Rosendo Fraga, a local political analyst: ``People who want to be liked by Menem do something. Then the journalist begins to investigate. It provokes more attacks. It's a cycle.''

Others say the central question is whether the government has the capacity to find the culprits.

``Whether it's the Peronists or the Radicals is not important. The question is, `Can the state identify who is doing it?' '' says Fernando Moijuer, president of a Buenos Aires-based marketing company. The Radicals are the main opposition party in Argentina.

So far, the government has been unsuccessful, despite pledges by Menem and the new interior minister, Carlos Ruckauf, to investigate.

On Sept. 1, police were forced to release two suspects arrested in connection with an attack on a journalist for Pagina/12 because the journalist was unable to identify the suspects.

The journalist, Hernan Lopez Echague, was beaten up and slashed with a razor on Aug. 25, two days after the publication of his story that linked organized criminal gangs with high-ranking officials in the Peronist party. Mr. Lopez was picked up and beaten again on Sept. 9. He was told by his abductors that the next time he would be killed.

Police officials are still looking for suspects connected with the July attack on another journalist and assaults on journalists and pensioners at a public meeting in Buenos Aires last month. Dozens of journalists also have reported receiving death threats over the telephone in the past month.

``They [government officials] say we're going to investigate, but they're not investigating anything. It's impossible to believe that they can't find them,'' Ms. Meijide says.

Juan Carlos Torre, a researcher at the Center of Social Investigation at the Torcuato Di Tella Institute, says Menem's obsession with being reelected has him grabbing for anything, even reaching back to the revival of old Peronist allegiances used during the 1950s.

``The government has lost its sense of direction.... It has no clear strategy,'' Mr. Torre says. ``It's playing many cards at the same time.''

Analysts say the government's campaign to create pre-election anxiety may have started this summer with press reports on police attempts to monitor the political leanings of high school students in several provinces. News also surfaced about the monitoring of job applicants for a plant run by the National Atomic Energy Commission.

But they differ on what is new - the political investigations or merely the leaking of information to the press, which could point to an internal power struggle among the police. Either way, the result is to add to the climate of intimidation.

``Nothing has stopped in Argentina. It's been latent, with the same intelligence services and the same machines,'' says Mr. Granovsky. ``The message to society is that it's justice by brute force.''

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