BUENOS AIRES — President Carlos Saul Menem and former President Raul Alfonsin, ardent political rivals, have come to terms on a deal that could change the game of power politics in Argentina.
Under their agreement, reached Nov. 14 in a secretly arranged meeting, Menem will be permitted to run for a second term--something Alfonsin had adamantly opposed.
In return for a constitutional amendment to allow his reelection bid, Menem has made concessions to Alfonsin that would put new limits on presidential power--something Menem has abused.
In essence, Alfonsin agrees to help remove the constitutional barrier to extending the Menem presidency, if it would not be the "imperial presidency" that Menem now enjoys.
Underlings are negotiating details of the complex deal, which includes these terms:
* As an initial guarantee of judicial impartiality, three members of the Supreme Court would be replaced soon. After taking office in 1989, Menem packed the court by increasing its membership from six to nine.
* A constituent assembly would be elected in early 1994 to change the constitution with a package of amendments outlined by Menem and Alfonsin.
* One amendment would create the office of "coordinating minister." The premier-like official, responsible for public administration, would be appointed by the president but would report to the Congress and be subject to congressional censure.
* A third Senate seat would be added to each province's congressional representation, increasing chances for opposition parties to win seats.
* A blue-ribbon "magisterial council" would be created to appoint judges, reducing the executive's influence over the judicial branch.
* Stricter limits would regulate the president's power to bypass Congress with emergency decrees. Alfonsin's Radicals complain that Menem has issued more than 240 emergency decrees, 10 times as many as all of his predecessors under the 1853 constitution.
* The president would be elected to a term of four years, instead of the current six, with the right to seek a second consecutive term, which is now barred. This would permit Menem to run for a new term starting in 1995.
Menem's Peronist Party says he needs a second term to consolidate economic reforms that have brought inflation under control, privatized state corporations and favored free enterprise. Polls show that his policies are popular--and that Radical criticism of them does not win public favor for Alfonsin and his party.
The Radicals floundered in October, when Menem's Peronists won an impressive victory in elections to renew half of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress. But the Peronists fell short of the two-thirds majority needed in the chamber to convoke a constituent assembly.
Radicals opposed a package of amendments proposed by the Peronists, arguing that it would not only permit Menem to run for a second term, but would further strengthen executive powers. So Menem scheduled a Nov. 21 plebiscite aimed at bringing popular pressure on Congress to support the amendments.
Menem was expected to win the plebiscite, and the Radicals faced another humiliation they could ill afford, said pollster Manuel Mora y Araujo, who noted: "The October election ratified them as losers. Another defeat would be very grave."
Menem and Alfonsin held their Nov. 14 meeting and quickly emerged with their compromise. Menem then suspended the plebiscite.
Details of the deal need to be worked out by Dec. 3, when it is to be submitted to a Radical Party convention. Although an anti-Alfonsin faction of the party opposes the agreement, the convention appears likely to approve it, if three pro-Menem members of the Supreme Court have been replaced by then.
Supreme Court justices are appointed for life. But officials in Menem's administration have been strongly suggesting resignations as a "patriotic gesture." Critics say such political pressure is unseemly in a democracy; the newspaper La Nacion protested in an editorial late this week that the resignations would be "spurious and illegitimate."
Mora y Araujo said Alfonsin gave up little or nothing by agreeing to allow reelection of the president because the Radicals have practically no chance of defeating any Peronist candidate in 1995.
By reaching an agreement with Menem, Alfonsin has presented himself in the national spotlight as a reasonable, conciliatory politician fighting to perfect the democratic system.
The Presidential Give and Take
The deal would give President Carlos Saul Menem a chance to continue his economic reforms, which polls show are popular.
Menem would get: Chance to run for second term
Alfonsin would get: New limits on presidential powers
Argentina Fact Sheet
Population: 33 million
Size: 1.072 million square miles (more than four times bigger than Texas)
Background: The country went from riches to rags after years of failed leadership. Enormous foreign debts and inflation only recently have begun to come down as a result of austeritymeasures.