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Argentina Set to Cut President's Power, Permit Reelection

ARGENTINE President Carlos Saul Menem is likely to retain power until the end of the decade thanks to a political deal cut with a former president and political foe.

Mr. Menem and former President Raul Alfonsin signed a reform pact on Monday that would revise the Argentine Constitution and allow Menem to seek reelection in 1995. The reform accord must be formally approved by Congress in a constitutional convention next year.

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While permitting reelection, the revision also would shorten the current six-year presidential term to four years. The powers of the presidency would also be reduced, with the head of state no longer able to issue emergency decrees with the force of law.

The pact also trims the president's powers to appoint judges, creating a judicial monitoring body that would help select members of the supreme court. And the mayor of the city of Buenos Aires, previously named by the president, would be elected.

``It's good for society. It was an extremely strong presidency,'' says one analyst who declined to be identified.

Analysts expect that a bill calling for a law to amend the 140-year-old Constitution will be sent to Congress later this month. The House of Deputies and Senate must act before a constitutional convention is held next summer.

Initially reached last month during closed-door negotiations at the presidential retreat in Olivos, the so-called Olivos pact stunned many political observers by bringing Menem and Mr. Alfonsin, head of the opposition Radical Civic Union, together.

In 1983, Alfonsin became Argentina's first democratically elected president after years of military rule and following the military's ``dirty war'' of the 1970s, during which thousands of Argentines were killed or ``disappeared.''

Alfonsin is credited with reinstating the country's democratic institutions, but was unable to solve its difficult economic problems. He handed the presidency to Menem six months early in July 1989 because of disastrous economic conditions in the country.

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Menem, while criticized for abusing his power and ruling by decree, has garnered public support and the respect of the international financial community by stabilizing and opening the Argentine economy.

Inflation has been brought down to 8 percent this year from four-digit levels in the late 1980s. Argentina has one of the highest levels of growth in Latin America.

The secret dealmaking has served both men well. Menem got his opportunity to run again, and Alfonsin has regained some of his political stature.

``The new constitution is not bad. It's good for the country,'' says Hector Pessah, president of a Buenos Aires marketing research firm. ``The problem is that they've been discussing all the procedures in silence and not in Congress.''

Two key points of Alfonsin's support for reelection have been the creation of a premier and the replacement of several slots on the Supreme Court.

The most controversial element of the reform debate has been the judicial issue and replacement of slots on the Supreme Court.

Considered by many to be rubber-stamping the wishes of the executive branch, the court was expanded from five to nine members by Menem in 1989. Alfonsin asked for the resignation of three judges and the power to designate the replacements - giving the Radicals an influence in the court's future decisions. Three new appointments on the Supreme Court were named last week. The reforms would also change the method of electing the president from an electoral college to a direct election by popular vote. Other changes include scrapping the requirement that the president be a Roman Catholic; increasing the number of senators elected from each province from two to three; and reducing the years of each senate term from nine to four years.

While Alfonsin, the newly-elected chairman of the Radical National Committee, still has to deliver the support of his party members in Congress, most analysts expect that President Menem will get his bid for reelection and capture the presidency for four years in 1995.

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