Argentine president delivers new budget, sets date for next election

Wednesday, February 6th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ Urging the nation's 36 million people to remain calm while he tries to mend the economy, Argentina's president presented an austerity budget and called for elections in 2003.

President Eduardo Duhalde's administration delivered its 2002 budget to Congress on Tuesday. The economic plan contains some $3.5 billion in spending cuts meant to tighten a gaping budget gap that topped $10 billion last year.

Declaring himself the ``president of the transition,'' Duhalde reaffirmed his intent to serve out the term of Fernando de la Rua, who resigned in December amid deadly street riots. In a radio address, Duhalde said presidential elections would be called for Sept. 14, 2003.

Presidents typically serve four-year terms. Duhalde was appointed by Congress on Jan. 2 to finish the remainder of de la Rua's term.

In a sign of Argentina's economic woes, the government said it expected the economy to contract by as much as 5 percent this year, extending nearly four years of recession. Inflation, the government predicted, will rise to 15 percent, a figure most Wall Street analysts say could quadruple by the end of the year.

Argentina's economic crisis, the worst in decades, has triggered the country's default on $141 billion in public debt, choked off factory production and consumer spending and idled 18 percent of the nation's work force.

At least 26 people were killed in the protests that toppled de la Rua, and major demonstrations have been held this month. In protests Tuesday, Argentines blocked a key Buenos Aires boulevard, and thousands marched on the presidential palace demanding jobs.

Calling for calm, Duhalde warned he would maintain order as he tries to resuscitate the economy, saying otherwise ``the next stop in Argentina's brutal slide would mean anarchy, chaos.''

The budget proposal would make big cuts in most areas, but not social spending, economy minister Jorge Remes Lenicov said. More than half of the cuts were expected to come from the suspension of debt payments. There are also plans to improve tax collection.

Authorities said the budget would include slight increases in emergency food aid and other programs for the poor. About 15 million Argentines now live below the poverty line.

Meanwhile, government plans to fully free float the peso were postponed after the Central Bank ordered foreign exchange houses closed for two days, barring all currency transactions. Central Bank authorities said they needed more time to make changes in the banking system.

The peso was pegged at 1-to-1 with the dollar for more than a decade until a January devaluation, when Duhalde set its official rate at 1.4 to the dollar for exports and imports, but floated the currency on the open market for most ordinary transactions affecting Argentines.

The peso has since lost nearly a half of its value on the open market.

Argentina must answer calls by the International Monetary Fund for a sustainable economic plan and for a single, floating currency in order to be eligible for bailout aid. The country is reportedly seeking at least $15 billion in international funds.