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Accord Near in Buenos Aires

S. America: Party leaders work to rescue Argentina from political and economic turmoil. Senator emerges as the front-runner to assume presidency for two years.


BUENOS AIRES — Leaders of several of Argentina's most important political parties were close to an agreement Monday to form a "government of national salvation" that would place a powerful senator in charge of this troubled country for the next two years.

A day after Argentina's third president in less than two weeks resigned, Eduardo Duhalde, a senator from Buenos Aires province, was emerging as the consensus candidate to become the leader of a nation ravaged by political upheaval, economic collapse and violent street protests.

Duhalde was the Peronist party candidate who lost in the 1999 elections to Fernando de la Rua, the Radical Party leader who resigned Dec. 20 after weeks of rioting and demonstrations by Argentines angered by his economic policies, which included budget cuts and strict banking restrictions.

"Today, the most logical thing to do is to choose an experienced man," said Carlos Ruckauf, the governor of Buenos Aires province, referring to Duhalde. The two men have long been intense rivals within the Peronist party, which is the largest in both houses of Congress and the ruling party in most of Argentina's provinces.

It was not clear late Monday whether Duhalde would accept the offer. An extraordinary session of Congress is scheduled for today to elect a new president to fill the vacancy left by Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, who stepped down Sunday after holding the post for less than a week.

On Monday afternoon, as most Argentines prepared for New Year's Eve parties, several leading Peronist politicians were gathered in Duhalde's home in Lomas de Zamora, a Buenos Aires suburb.

The negotiations came amid a climate of extraordinary social tension and uncertainty across this nation of 37 million people. Squads of federal and local police were posted at key points in the center of this capital city, the scene of recent street battles.

For the New Year's holiday, the government allowed a one-time withdrawal of $500 from each banking account, and Argentines formed long lines at banks. Many were concerned that their deposits might soon be frozen or that Argentina's currency, the peso, might suddenly be devalued. Already, the peso is considered worthless in Chile and other neighboring countries, where most businesses and exchange houses refuse to accept it.

"The system is collapsing," said Analia Castilla, 24, as she waited in line at a Buenos Aires bank. Last Friday, she had waited seven hours in an unsuccessful attempt to collect her paycheck. (Many salaries here are deposited directly into bank accounts.)

"Today I came to see what would happen," Castilla said. "I need my money."

It remained unclear Monday whether a new government--whoever leads it--would continue the dramatic economic measures announced last week by Rodriguez. The interim president had promised that he would not devalue the national currency, the peso, and said the government would issue a new currency, the argentino, to pay government salaries, pensions and other government outlays.

If Duhalde were to assume the presidency, it would be thanks to a compromise between the Peronists and their chief rivals, the Radical Party and the center-left Frepaso.

After De la Rua's fall, the Peronists had wanted to appoint an interim president until March, when elections would be held to choose a new leader to complete De la Rua's term. But members of the Radical Party and Frepaso said the nation's unstable social climate made fair elections impossible.

"It would be better to have elections, but Argentina wouldn't make it to election day," said Anibal Ibarra, the mayor of Buenos Aires and leader of Frepaso. "Even if it's only once, all the [political] factions should unite behind" the plan of a coalition government.

Federico Sotrani, a congressional deputy representing the Radical Party, said his party would support a Duhalde presidency but was still debating whether it would join a government of national unity.

The political negotiations Monday night followed weeks of social chaos and political vacuums. Since De la Rua announced a series of banking restrictions in early December--including a $250 weekly limit on withdrawals--Cabinet ministers have resigned in the wee hours of the morning, while looters have sacked hundreds of grocery stores and other businesses. Thousands of middle-class Argentines have taken to street corners to beat pots and pans.

From his ranch in Crawford, Texas, President Bush expressed concern over the country's instability.

"Once they elect a president, we'll work with him," Bush said. "But the future president has got to deal with the economic crisis at hand. And once they come up with a plan that will sustain economic growth, then we're willing to work with them."

Argentina's latest head of state was Eduardo Camano, the president of the lower house of Congress. He took the oath of office Monday to serve for just a few hours before today's congressional session to choose the interim leader.

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