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Argentine leader meets predecessor amid scandal

de la Rua and Menem
President of Argentina, Fernando de la Rua, right, and former president Carlos Menem  

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Reuters) -- Argentine President Fernando de la Rua met his predecessor, Carlos Menem, on Friday to mend ties with the opposition and nudge the government back on track after stormy weeks rocked by a bribes-for-votes scandal.

De la Rua, of the center-left Alliance, has seen the early successes of his government fade in the public's memory amid allegations that senators took bribes to pass government-backed legislation.

Continuing economic stagnation also has hurt the new government, but the bribery accusations particularly riled Argentines because De la Rua came to office promising to clean up public life.

Keen to gain opposition support in Congress, De la Rua invited Peronist Party leader Menem to the Casa Rosada presidential palace. In the past, De la Rua has harshly criticized Menem for allowing public accounts to deteriorate and for corruption that flourished under his rule from 1989-1999.

But Menem's first return to his former workplace since De la Rua was sworn in last December 10 was cordial and both leaders diplomatic when they met the press separately after the meeting of more than an hour. The two said they discussed the state of the nation, including the scandal, but did not dwell on party differences.

"The fact is that Mr. Menem has been president of the nation and he is president of the Peronist Party and it is my duty to speak with the main opposition party, which is a positive thing," De la Rua said.

A beaming Menem, clearly delighted at returning to the center of media attention, returned the compliments.

"I see the government as very determined, as wanting to continue with the plans which it began to put into place from December 10," Menem said.

The government has cut spending and made hiring and firing cheaper but needs to pass other measures, including a tough 2001 budget. The Peronists control the Senate and are a force in the lower house -- where the Alliance does not have a majority either.

De la Rua, already under fire in the media for being unable to make decisions without long consultation, plans to meet other major political figures, provincial governors and unionists in the near future.

The bribes scandal, which has rocked Argentine politics like none of the corruption scandals during Menem's tenure, exploded last month when a senior Peronist senator said he was sure colleagues had taken money to pass a labor reform bill sponsored by the government. A judge -- who is himself also being investigated for alleged corruption -- wants to interview 11 out of 69 senators on the subject.

De la Rua's labor minister, secret service chief and health minister have all denied providing money for bribes.

The president himself has largely managed to keep distant from the scandal. He spent the first half of September out of the country, visiting the United States, China and other nations.

Notably absent from the meeting was Vice President Carlos Alvarez, a ferocious critic of Menem while in opposition.

Alvarez leads the left-leaning Frepaso wing of the Alliance. His relations with De la Rua's centrist Radicals have deteriorated during the bribes-for-votes scandal. Many Radicals are irritated by the insistence with which the sharp-tongued Alvarez has pushed for the guilty to be found and punished.

The meeting revived memories of an earlier encounter, when Menem invited Raul Alfonsin -- Radical president from 1983-89 -- for bipartisan talks that ended with an agreement allowing Menem to run for another term in office in 1995 and a collapse in support for the Radical Party.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Federal Administration of Argentina (English and Spanish)
  •  Presidency of Argentina (English and Spanish)

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