BUENOS AIRES — President Raul Alfonsin on Friday appealed for national sacrifice and a "war economy" to safeguard Argentina's imperiled young democracy.
In a passionate, old-school-style address to a huge crowd he had summoned to "defend democracy," Alfonsin vowed that conspiring "political alchemists" would not be allowed to overturn constitutional order.
"Democracy is order. Dictatorship is chaos," Alfonsin thundered from a second-story balcony of the Casa Rosada, the presidential office building on Plaza de Mayo in downtown Buenos Aires. "The only anarchy and the only chaos and the only irreparable disgrace that we Argentines can suffer is the loss of our rights."
Alfonsin, who earlier this week charged that right-wing politicians had unsuccessfully sought military support for a coup, was repeatedly interrupted by cheers and applause in a 52-minute address highlighted by his call "to defend democracy daily in every arena."
Trial Stirs Passions
As Alfonsin spoke, a court trying three former military presidents on human rights abuse charges completed the first week of a trial, expected to last several months, that has stirred political passions and triggered rumors of a coup against his 17-month-old government.
On Friday night, however, historic Plaza de Mayo belonged to Alfonsin. "United, the people will never be defeated!" the crowd chanted, and Alfonsin shouted the same words back.
Swollen by government employees released early from work and by political faithful brought by trains and buses from the provinces, the crowd overflowed the plaza and eddied into surrounding streets. "Raul, beloved, the people are with you!" the crowd chanted from a forest of banners and flags. The private Argentine news agency DYN estimated the crowd at 170,000.
"I know you have not come to support this government," the president said. "You have come to support democracy. Once again, like so many times in the past, there has been an attempt to assail, not a government, but the Argentine people."
Resembled Inaugural Speech
Although the style of the speech mirrored the populist fervor that is Alfonsin's trademark, its content was more like a sober inaugural address.
At one point, Alfonsin silenced the huge crowd with a single phrase: "We must raise taxes, \o7 senores.\f7 "
Saying that a prolonged economic crisis accompanied by galloping inflation requires "a war economy," Alfonsin called on Argentines to become "foot soldiers in the battle we must fight."
Without mentioning specific policies, Alfonsin said that his first priority must be to control an inflation currently running at nearly 1,000% on an annual basis.
"Nobody has to come from abroad to tell us that with a foreign debt or without it, with funds or without them, that we must conquer inflation. Nobody has to tell us that inflation hurts most those who have least," Alfonsin said.
Higher Taxes Promised
In addition to higher taxes, Alfonsin promised to diminish a government deficit through a reduction in state manpower, more efficient government operations and transfer of money-losing government enterprises to the private sector.
The economic emphasis of a speech whose motivation was clearly political seemed intended to win popular support for austerity measures that Alfonsin has so far been reluctant to invoke.
Prospective austerity provoked derisive whistles from the crowd, which included members of a number of centrist and leftist political parties in addition to Alfonsin's Radical Civic Union.
Ever since returning democracy to Argentina in December, 1983, Alfonsin has sought to blunt the social impact of an inherited economic crisis that includes a $45-billion foreign debt.
His critics say that Alfonsin's unwillingness to vigorously pursue the very austerity policies he urged Friday night has brought the economy to an even more desperate pass, and with it the ever greater likelihood of social and political upheaval.