Rodriguez Saa Becoming Argentina's Third President in Two Days

Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, a jovial governor lauded for expanding business in his desert province, is taking on the more formidable task of being Argentina's interim president and tackling the crushing recession that toppled his elected predecessor.

Lawmakers meeting in a special session were expected to vote late Saturday to appoint the 54-year-old populist politician to fill an office held until Thursday by Fernando de la Rua, who resigned following widespread looting and rioting that resulted in 26 deaths and 200 injuries.

Rodriguez Saa takes over after Senate leader Ramon Puerta served as acting president for a day as congressional leaders sought a replacement.

Assuming a job many in his own Peronist party spurned, Rodriguez Saa is expected to serve for at least 60 days, until new elections tentatively scheduled for March 3. The leader elected then will finish out the two years of de la Rua's term.

His appointment restores Argentina's largest party, the Peronists, as the country's dominant political force after the worse unrest since the late 1980s, when another financial crisis gripped this South American country of 36 million people.

Rodriguez Saa's main role will be confronting a four-year recession that has pushed unemployment above 18 percent and has the country on the brink of defaulting on its $132 billion public debt.

Serving as governor of San Luis province in western Argentina the past 18 years, he was known for colorful rhetoric and a populist touch, an image far different from de la Rua's solemn, technocratic style.

But it is Rodriguez Saa's record in San Luis that perhaps will be most inspiring to Argentines, who grew increasingly angry over the belt-tightening policies enacted by de la Rua.

Rodriguez Saa transformed his province by bringing in modern industry to replace faltering mines, putting in reliable water systems and highways and building 30,000 houses for the poor. With a low jobless rate and reputation for good, state schools, San Luis has become a magnet, growing in population from 220,000 in the 1980s to 350,000 today.

He once said there are two types of politicians: optimists like Franklin D. Roosevelt and himself, and pessimists like de la Rua. "We are governed by a generation of old-timers," he was quoted as saying Saturday by the newspaper Clarin. "Argentina's next president should be under 40, because this generation is ruined."

Rodriguez Saa told the television network Todo Noticias he would release an economic plan later Saturday aimed at easing the economic crisis. "I will work with all my might on behalf of my country. I am going to work hard and with honesty," he said.

He was expected to outline the economic program after he assumed office.

He reportedly has suggested Argentina will have to declare a moratorium on repaying its debts and vowed to try to keep a key economic law pegging the Argentine peso to the U.S. dollar.

Polls indicated a majority of Argentines support keeping the dollar peg in place despite increased warnings from many economists and several political leaders that only a currency devaluation can help the economy rebound.

Rodriguez Saa also was reported to be considering easing banking restrictions imposed by de la Rua earlier this month that limit Argentines to withdrawing $1,000 each month from their bank accounts.

Argentines wary of surging joblessness and poverty, salary cuts and tax hikes are deeply skeptical of more calls for belt-tightening.

"Enough. No more austerity plans!" said Pablo Arteaga, a 36-year-old dentist whose wife is a state worker whose salary has fallen by 13 percent in recent months. "That was the message the people sent to de la Rua and all the other political leaders. We hope this new government understands that."

De la Rua stepped down after two days of street protests, food riots and supermarket looting.

Leaving halfway through his four-year term, de la Rua complained the Peronists forced him from office by rejecting his call to join a government of national unity.

Felipe Noguera, a pollster and analyst, said Rodriguez Saa's appointment might help alleviate a yearlong political crisis that has aggravated the country's economic woes.

In his efforts to stop the economy's slide, De la Rua, who led a coalition government, frequently found himself at odds not only with many members of his own party, but also with opposition leaders.

"The fact that now both the Congress and presidency are held by the same party may offer the only ray of hope that this crisis could eventually subside," Noguera said.