BUENOS AIRES — Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem's supporters, euphoric from victory in congressional elections, are hoping that the main opposition party will obligingly help change the constitution so Menem can run for a second term.
Unrealistic as that hope might seem, it is being taken seriously here. Argentine newspapers Thursday were full of reports on how Menem lieutenants were preparing for negotiations with leaders of the Radical Civic Union, and how at least some Radical leaders were willing to talk.
Menem's Peronist Party soundly trounced the Radicals in elections Sunday to renew half of the lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies. Peronists won about 42% of the national vote to 30% for the Radicals. Peronists even won in the capital district of Buenos Aires, a traditional Radical stronghold.
It was an impressive moral victory for Menem, 63, after four years of his six-year term. Few Argentine presidents have ever weathered the wear and tear of office so well.
Analysts agree that the vote reflected public support for an economic program that reduced inflation from 196% a month in July, 1989, when Menem took office, to an average of less than 1% a month this year.
Despite the election victory, the Peronists failed to win a majority in the 257-seat chamber. They increased their numbers by nine to 127, but fell two short of a simple majority, according to preliminary returns.
The Radicals lost a seat in the chamber, but with the help of opposition leftists, they can still muster more than one-third of the votes. And that is enough to block passage of a resolution needed for convoking a constituent convention to amend the constitution.
Before Sunday's elections, Menem's Peronists had proposed a package of constitutional amendments that included one to permit the president to run for a second consecutive term. The resolution was to be voted first in the Senate, where Peronists and their allies wield a two-thirds majority.
But two rebellious Peronist senators refused to go along with the plan, arguing that a broader consensus, including opposition parties, was needed to validate such an important step. So the government postponed the vote until after the elections.
Menem and other government officials have also spoken of plans for a national plebiscite on amending the constitution. A plebiscite would have no legal force, but Menem lieutenants contended that a strong popular majority in favor of a second presidential term could bring persuasive pressure to bear on the Radicals.
This week, the plebiscite plan was on the back burner as attention focused on expected Peronist-Radical negotiations.
How could an opposition Radical be persuaded to help Menem run for a second term? The question is the subject of a speculation frenzy.
Maybe the Radicals would go along in return for constitutional amendments they want, such as one to reduce presidential authority by creating the office of Cabinet "coordinator." The coordinator would answer to Congress, like the prime minister in a parliamentary system.
Or perhaps the presidential term could be shortened to four years. That might tempt ambitious Radicals who know they are not yet strong enough to win the next presidential election but don't want to wait another six years for a new chance.
And some analysts speculate that the Peronists may try to buy support in the Chamber of Deputies from Radicals who are at odds with their party's leadership. There was talk of appointments to the Supreme Court, other posts and pork-barrel favors to be offered--even whispers of possible bribes. (These things are not unheard of in Argentina.)
Some jurists say two-thirds of the total membership of both houses of Congress is needed to pass a resolution for a constituent convention. But Peronists contend that only two-thirds of the members present is needed.
The Peronist interpretation, of course, would make it easier to pass a resolution, if several Radicals failed to show up for the vote. And, obviously, it would be easier for a Radical to be absent from the voting session than to vote with the Peronists.
How the two-thirds question might be resolved is unclear. Either way, if the Radicals stick together against a constitutional change to make Menem's reelection possible, "they should be able to block it," a diplomatic analyst observed.