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Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín Foulkes - 1983-1989

On October 30, 1983, Argentines went to the polls to choose a president, vice president, and national, provincial, and local officials in elections international observers found to be fair, open, and honest. The country returned to constitutional rule after Raul Alfonsin, candidate of the Radial Civic Union (UCR), received 52% of the popular vote for president. He began a six-year term of office on December 10, 1983.

Raül Alfonsin, who was born in a small city in the province of Buenos Aires in 1926, had joined the UCR at age 17 and had been elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1953 and again in 1963. After 1970 Ricardo Balbin, who headed the party's powerful machine in Buenos Aires, became the leader of the UCR, and Alfonsin established a rival "Renovation and Change" faction. BalbIn's death in 1982 left the door suddenly open to the still relatively unknown Alfonsin, who sought a younger and more dynamic image for the Radicals.

His victory in 1983 was more a rejection of the Peronists than a popular embrace of Alfonsin and the UCR. Alfonsin won 52 percent of the popular vote versus 40 percent for the Peronist candidate, Italo Luder. The UCR also won an absolute majority of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies, giving Alfonsin a clear mandate to pursue his own policy agenda. This agenda had been given only vague, left-of-center definition during the campaign: the power of the armed forces was to be limited, and they were to be held accountable for past excesses; the economy was to be reactivated with a primary role envisioned for the state; and a nonaligned foreign policy was to emphasize the need to recover the Falkland/Malvinas Islands through peaceful means.

The election and inauguration of Raül Alfonsin in 1983 marked the end of Argentina's most recent plunge into military rule. The return of democratic rule did not end the conflict within the Argentine polity, but, very importantly, it did mark the reining in of conflict to within legal boundaries.

Alfonsin's most immediate task, for the sake of his political survival, dealt with the armed forces. Three days after his December 10 inauguration, Alfonsin named new commanders for the three armed services and, by reaching down the ranks for personnel whose loyalty he felt assured of, forced the retirement of 40 senior generals and admirals. Drastic cuts were ordered in the military budget, which had been greatly inflated during seven years of military rule, and trials were ordered for nine former junta members for their roles in the dirty war. After the armed forces' own top tribunal found them innocent of any wrongdoing, they were ordered to be tried by a civilian federal appeals court.

The months preceding the April 1985 opening of the trial, dubbed "Argentina's Nuremberg" by the press, were filled with tension. Terrorist bombings, death threats against a number of the 1,000-plus witnesses, and frequent reports of planned coups d'etat by officers both angered by Alfonsin's budget cuts and unrepentent with respect to the dirty war evoked an eerie sense of déjà vu.

One month before the trial began, Alfonsin forced the retirement of 16 more top officers (leaving only three of the 53 army generals who had been on active duty when he assumed office) by naming new army and air force commanders. Although this second purge of the top ranks silenced the coup rumors, critics argued that hundreds, if not thousands, of like-minded officers and noncommissioned officers remained in the lower ranks. Furthermore, his naming Air Force Brigadier General Teodoro Waldner to chair the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the armed forces' highest position, which had traditionally been held by an army officer, exacerbated interservice rivalries that had blossomed as a result of public recriminations following the 1982 South Atlantic War.

The year 1985 held the potential of becoming, before its end, an even more important watershed in the nation's political history. Through May the nascent democracy had been threatened by runaway inflation as the government spent recklessly to satisfy the economic demands of various interest groups.

Then, after announcing the need to institute a "war economy" to attack the nation's economic ills, Alfonsin implemented a series of austerity measures in June that together constituted the most drastic economic "shock treatment" ever attempted in the nation's history. All interest groups were asked to sacrifice in the short term in order to confront collectively the crisis wracking the economy, which had been stagnant for more than a decade and was on the verge of complete paralysis because of inflation and a staggering foreign debt of some US$48 billion.

Argentines were asked to put aside their traditional divisiveness and, together, adhere to measures designed to stop inflation in its tracks and restore the productive potential of an economy with many and varied natural, human, and industrial resources. Such an expression of political will to set a truly national agenda was a rare act of statesmanship in the history of a nation whose politicians seldom looked beyond their particular interests to consider the common good. Three months after the program's implementation — to the amazement of observers accustomed to the contrariness of Argentines in matters that affected their pocketbooks — the population remained supportive of AlfonsIn's austerity measures.

Elections took place as scheduled on 03 November 1985. The results were widely interpreted as a boost for Alfonsin and the UCR. Incomplete returns showed the UCR with some 43 percent of the national vote compared with some 34 percent for all the factions of the PJ combined. UCR representation in the Chamber of Deputies increased to 130 while the PJ's declined to 106. More significant, the UCR also scored victories in several of the provincial contests, increasing the likelihood that it would achieve a majority in the Senate in elections scheduled for 1986.

In 1987 large turnouts for mid-term elections demonstrated continued public support for a strong and vigorous democratic system. The UCR-led government took steps to resolve some of the nation's most pressing problems, including accounting for those who disappeared during military rule, establishing civilian control of the armed forces, and consolidating democratic institutions. However, constant friction with the military, failure to resolve endemic economic problems, and an inability to maintain public confidence undermined the Alfonsin Government's effectiveness, which left office six months early after Peronist candidate Carlos Saul Menem won the 1989 presidential elections.

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Page last modified: 07-01-2015 18:41:06 ZULU