BUENOS AIRES — Argentina's Peronist party surged to an electoral comeback Sunday, winning important victories in congressional and provincial elections and undermining the political strength of President Raul Alfonsin.
With 62% of the votes counted Sunday night, the Peronists led with 4.9 million votes, or 41% of the national total. Alfonsin's centrist Radical Civic Union party trailed with 4.5 million votes, or 38%.
Celebrating Peronists danced in front of campaign offices and honked car horns as they drove through the streets.
Heavy Voter Turnout
A heavy voter turnout, unofficially calculated at more than 80% of the country's 19 million eligible voters, reflected the intense interest aroused by the campaign.
The main bulwark of power at stake for Alfonsin was the two-seat majority that his party currently holds in the 254-member lower house of the Congress. According to unofficial projections, Alfonsin's party lost 13 to 15 seats.
Also politically important was the outcome of gubernatorial elections in all but one of Argentina's 22 provinces. The Peronists took 16 governorships, while the Radical Civic Union won only two or three, with smaller parties picking up the rest, according to projections.
Not all race-by-race results were clear from Sunday's partial returns. However, the overall tendency was unmistakable as underdog Peronist candidates for governor swept to victory in three of the four most populous provinces--Buenos Aires, Mendoza and Santa Fe.
In the key province of Buenos Aires, Peronist candidate Antonio Cafiero won the governorship with a projected 47% of the vote, to 39% for Alfonsin protege Juan Manuel Casella.
Cafiero, 64, is the leader of a moderate faction in the Justicialist Party, founded by the late President Juan D. Peron. Casella, 46, is the standard-bearer of Alfonsin's party.
Economic Woes Cited
The Peronist campaign emphasized economic difficulties for Argentine workers, whose standard of living is being eroded by triple-digit inflation. The main theme of the official party's campaign was that a Peronist victory in the elections would be a step backward.
Cafiero was economics minister under President Maria Estela Peron, Juan D. Peron's widow. Plagued by political turbulence and economic crisis, her government was overthrown by the armed forces in 1976.
Since then, the labor-based Peronist party has been divided and weak. Cafiero has been regarded as a leader who might be able to unite the Justicialists, especially if he were to win the governorship of Buenos Aires province, which accounts for 37% of the Argentine electorate.
A united Peronist movement under Cafiero would add a new complication for Alfonsin during the last two years of his six-year presidential term.
In a radio message at the close of the campaign, Alfonsin said he hoped that after the elections, "there won't be blind opposition but rather republican collaboration."
Cafiero has been mentioned as a strong contender for presidential elections in 1989. However, last week he said that if he were elected governor, he would serve out his four years in that post.
Barred From Reelection
Alfonsin, 60, is constitutionally barred from seeking reelection. He is planning to push for a package of constitutional amendments that would remove that limitation and also change Argentina's form of government to a modified parliamentary system, with a prime minister at the head of the Cabinet.
Many Argentines assume that he wants to extend his tenure, either as president or prime minister. But after voting Sunday, he told reporters that in 1991, the next congressional election year, "I will vote as a simple citizen, not as president or as prime minister."
To get his proposed constitutional reform approved, Alfonsin would need two-thirds of the votes. Although there were no prospects that his Radical Civic Union would win two-thirds of the Chamber of Deputies in Sunday's election, a strong showing for the party there would increase its chances of forming alliances with other parties.
Pressure From Military
A strong showing also would give Alfonsin moral and political support to face pressure from disgruntled military officers.
A barracks revolt in April put such pressure on the democratic system that Alfonsin and his party reluctantly passed a law exempting most officers from trial for tortures and slayings during the late 1970s, when security forces were fighting Marxist-led subversion.
More recently, some officers have indicated that they will demand a total amnesty for those accused of human rights abuses.
The military unrest is said to be the most serious since Alfonsin was elected and took office in 1983, ending seven years of military rule.
In congressional elections that year, terms for the Chamber of Deputies were staggered. Half of the chamber was renewed in 1985, and the other half was up for election Sunday.
Of the 127 seats at stake Sunday, 65 are held by Alfonsin's party, 55 by the Peronists and seven by other parties.
Voting was by party slate, and seats are awarded according to a complex formula of proportional representation.
The elections were also for district councils and administrators, municipal councils and other local offices.