Argentina Enters New Year in Disarray

Government leaders suggested populist Eduardo Duhalde as Argentina's new interim leader at a special congressional meeting called Tuesday to choose the troubled country's fifth president in two weeks, according to Reuters news service.

After the sudden, surprise resignation of President Adolfo Rodriguez Saa on Sunday, party leaders spent much of New Year's Day debating an appropriate person to fill the post.

The new president will step into office to face a crumbling economy and a violent public angered by months of political upheaval.

Reuters reported Tuesday that the country's Peronist Party, which controls Congress, proposed that Duhalde, from the party's populist wing, should be president until 2003. The last two leaders resigned during the course of just one week, as the South American nation continued to struggle with unruly, violent street protests and an intensifying recession.

Duhalde will be faced with the seemingly insurmountable duty of lifting Argentina out of the current financial crisis that is ruining the middle class, which has grown more and more infuriated with leaders it considers corrupt.

Two hours after the Tuesday's Congressional session was to start, politicians were still negotiating over who should fill the presidential and whether to hold new elections in March. Later, according to Reuters, Duhalde emerged as the likely choice.

Saa resigned Sunday from the presidency — which he had held for only 10 days — after failing to secure the backing of his own Peronist political party to confront Argentina's deep financial crisis.

Argentina was plunged into political turmoil when President Fernando de la Rua stepped down Dec. 21 — leaving the government house from the roof in a helicopter — after two days of protests and looting that left 28 people dead.

Eleven turbulent days later, Congress is scheduled to choose a new president — again.

Rodriguez Saa had been selected to serve until new elections. Two other men have also served briefly as acting president since de la Rua's resignation, both reluctantly. Former Senate leader Ramon Puerta inherited the job when de la Rua quit, and Chamber of Deputies leader Eduardo Camano took over Monday from Rodriguez Saa.

"God willing, we will have a new president within hours," Camano told reporters in calling Tuesday's planned joint session of Congress to formally accept Rodriguez Saa's resignation and appoint a successor.

The favorite to become president is another Peronist, Sen. Eduardo Duhalde, a two-time governor of Argentina's powerful Buenos Aires province who ran second to De la Rua in the 1999 presidential ballot.

Duhalde appears to command wider support across political parties than Rodriguez Saa after governing the province where a quarter of Argentina's 36 million people live.

But Daniel Scioli, a Peronist party leader, said the legislative session was being delayed amid disagreements over a Duhalde presidency, including how long he should serve and under what terms.

With unemployment hovering around 18 percent and the economy at a near standstill, lawmakers said they had little time to spare. They also signaled that they may scrap the March election and let the new leader serve until December 2003, when de la Rua's term was scheduled to end.

The transition comes amid spiraling social tensions in Argentina. As the New Year arrived — normally a time of celebration — authorities were on guard against any flare-up of the unrest that brought down de la Rua and flared again, with less violence, under Rodriguez Saa.

Rifle-toting soldiers patrolled the pink-walled government palace, Casa Rosada, while riot police blocked traffic from circulating around the adjoining Plaza de Mayo, a scene of recent protests. Authorities said 45,000 police were standing by.

It was expected that if the parties can agree on Duhalde, he could serve until Dec. 10, 2003 — meaning nearly two years without a popularly elected president.

Whoever takes over will face as daunting a challenge as any Argentine president since 1983, when democracy was restored after seven years of military dictatorship.

Almost immediately after his wearing-in, Rodriguez Saa announced that Argentina would halt payments on its $132 billion debt burden. Consumer confidence is at rock bottom, the banking system is near collapse and Argentina is increasingly under pressure to devalue its currency.

Millions of angry Argentines are frustrated and fed up with recession, political infighting and banking restrictions that limit cash withdrawals to $1,000 a month.

The discontent that spilled over into riots and protests signaled what political analyst Felipe Noguera called a public clamor for clean, effective government.

"Argentina needs new politics," Noguera said. "Right now Argentina's biggest challenge is governing. The next president must bring together all sectors in politics ... he must also capture public opinion. The man on the street has become very important these past two weeks."

Newspaper vendor Luis Antony, 43, does not expect a change for the better.

"We'll have to wait and see but I don't have a lot of faith in any of these leaders right now," Antony said. "Let's just hope for a Happy New Year without violence and with some solution for the problems we're facing."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.