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Argentine official urges early vote in wake of corruption scandal
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Reuters) -- Argentina's Senate has been so discredited by a bribes-for-votes scandal that upper house elections scheduled for late next year should be brought forward, Vice President Carlos Alvarez said on Monday.
Argentina's biggest political scandal in years is testing President Fernando de la Rua's election vow to end corruption that flourished during the 1989-1999 Peronist government of former President Carlos Menem.
De la Rua, leaving Argentina on Monday for a 15-day trip to Mexico, the United States, Canada and Asia, insists there is no evidence that members of his center-left Alliance government paid bribes to secure a long-awaited labor market reform bill in April. He has backed his labor minister and his secret service chief and insists none is about to resign.
But Federal Judge Carlos Liporaci was due to interview Treasury Secretary Mario Vicens later on Monday to scrutinize government accounts for evidence bribes.
The Senate is expected to grant a judge's request on Tuesday to strip eight of its members -- seven opposition Peronists and one member of the ruling Alliance -- of their immunity from prosecution in connection with charges lawmakers took bribes to approve the government-backed labor law.
If the Senate exposes the eight to prosecution, they will lose the right to vote and the Peronists will see their majority in the 69-member chamber evaporate.
Three of the eight have already voluntarily ceded their congressional protection. Four other senators, none of them implicated, have said the atmosphere of public distrust generated by the accusations has made it impossible for them to maintain their seats. They have offered their resignations to the provincial legislatures that appointed them.
"If the judge asks for more senators to lose their immunity, then we'll be left without a Senate," said Alvarez, adding, "We have to consider whether the constitution doesn't allow some room to bring the Senate elections forward." He did not specify when he would like to see the elections held.
Alvarez said that the public standing of the Senate was now so low that any laws it passed would be dismissed as the result of payoffs and deal-making. De la Rua's administration has said it will pass key laws by decree if the scandal paralyses the Senate.
Other senators have suggested bringing forward the elections scheduled for the end of 2001 for half the Senate seats, but until now the government had dismissed the idea as impractical.
Argentina has seen many corruption scandals over the years but few have shaken the nation's institutions like this one, which began with anonymous accusations of bribes to pass legislation in April designed to make it cheaper for companies to hire and fire.
It has left the congressional Peronist Party in disarray and deepened divisions within the governing coalition between De la Rua's centrist Radical Party and the left-leaning Frepaso headed by Alvarez.
Labor unions have taken advantage of the scandal to announce court action to have the labor rules -- which were recommended by the International Monetary Fund -- repealed.
"This law, on top of hurting workers' interests, is totally immoral," said leading opposition unionist Hugo Moyano, just before testifying before Judge Liporaci.
Moyano, who called for a demonstration against the labor laws on Wednesday, says he heard Labor Minister Alberto Flamarique boast that he could obtain Peronist votes by visiting an "automatic teller machine." The minister denies having said that and says he will not quit.
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