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Saturday, 9 February, 2002, 21:58 GMT
Analysis: Argentines lukewarm on reform
Argentines queue outside a bank in Buenos Aires
Argentina's banks will re-open on Monday
By the BBC's Peter Greste in Buenos Aires

The speech by Argentina's President Eduardo Duhalde outlining his plans for profound constitutional reform is "well intentioned but badly timed", according to many political commentators.

In his pre-recorded address broadcast on national television, the president declared that the nation's discredited political system needed rebuilding from the ground up.

We are painting the Titanic blue, but we are still sinking

Eric Calgano,
It is a hugely ambitious project, that seeks to restore public faith.

"For common citizens, politics has lost its value these days," he said. "It has ceased being a service and has instead become a privilege."

He spoke of doing away with the presidential system of government, and replacing it with a parliamentary democracy, similar to Canada's.

He said he wanted to make the system more accountable, closer to the people, and more efficient.

They are all lofty ambitions, and the detail included in the speech implied that he was serious about pushing ahead with the plans.

But even he admitted that this is just the start of the public debate, and that nothing could happen until the country passes through its current economic crisis.

'Too late'

On Monday, the nation's banks and currency exchange houses are due to re-open after a week-long "holiday" imposed by the government to prevent a run on bank accounts and the collapse of the Argentine peso.

President Eduardo Duhalde
Duhalde says he wants to make the system more accountable
It will be the first day of trading since the government announced that it was unhitching the peso from its peg to the US dollar, and allowing the currency to freely float.

There are still profound fears that Monday will bring economic and social chaos, undermining any plans for political change.

"We are painting the Titanic blue, but we are still sinking," said economist Eric Calgano.

"I think this speech would have had a profound impact if it had been made one month ago, a day or so after Duhalde came to power. But now, it is much too late for people to take any notice."

Most commentators in the local press agree.

'Losing power'

Eduardo Aulicino, writing in the Clarin national daily, said in acknowledging the need to fix the economy first, Mr Duhalde was "recognising reality".

He [President Duhalde] is only trying to save his own skin

"In every respect, this is a discussion of the future. The next few days, with the freely floating exchange rate, will determine the future of the presidential project."

In that respect, the speech seemed to be more of an academic discussion of the president's constitutional ambitions, than any realistic moves towards rebuilding the national political system.

"It is useless to talk about a medium-term project like constitutional reform, when we don't know if he will still be there in a month's time," said Eric Calgano.

"I have no evidence of this, but it looks to me as though he is trying to seize the political initiative because he is losing power."

Little faith

It seems the public agrees.

In a snap poll published in the daily, La Nacion, 31% of people questioned agreed that the president announced his plans because the political system is broken, and he had no other choice.

Nineteen percent said it was because he wanted to win popular support, while only 4% said it was because he was serious about reform.

Those views were reflected on the streets.

In the hours immediately after Mr Duhalde spoke, thousands of protesters gathered outside the presidential palace in central Buenos Aires for what has become a regular weekly demonstration.

"He's only trying to save his own skin," said one woman as she bashed her pot. "But Duhalde is a thief like all the rest of them. We won't be able to fix anything in this country until they are all gone."

It hardly amounts to an alternative political strategy, but shows just how little faith ordinary Argentines have in either their political system or their politicians.

See also:

09 Feb 02 | Americas
Argentina overhauls political system
08 Feb 02 | Business
Argentina to resume IMF talks
06 Feb 02 | Business
Argentina halts currency trading
04 Feb 02 | Business
Argentina unveils crisis package
30 Jan 02 | Business
IMF tells Argentina to cut spending
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