Protests hit Buenos Aires leadership race

April 21, 2006

The University of Buenos Aires faces a serious split after two attempts to elect a new rector have been frustrated by student protests.

Hundreds of left-wing students, carrying red banners and placards, stopped the 236 members of the university's electoral college from holding an assembly on two separate evenings last week. They took control of the National College of Buenos Aires, a prestigious state secondary school connected to the university and the location for the assembly's meetings.

The students obstructed the elections because they believed that candidate Atilo Alterini, the dean of the faculty of law, had sufficient votes to be elected rector for the next four years.

The protesting students were campaigning against Dr Alterini because he was a judge and a city official during the country's last military dictatorship.

However, they clashed outside the college with hundreds of his student supporters, who accused them of being anti-democratic. After a second attempt to hold an assembly was blocked, 132 supporters of Dr Alterini moved the meeting to the pharmacy and biochemistry faculty.

Dr Alterini and seven faculty deans were present, making enough for a quorum. But the organisers were unable to contact Jaim Etcheverry, the current rector, to ask him to recognise the assembly's legitimacy. In the end, they passed a motion calling for elections to be held by April 18.

Dr Etcheverry, who is standing for re-election, said: "I am worried about the attitude of people who through violent means have tried to impede the free exercise of democracy.

"But I am also concerned about those who have shown disregard towards the existence of minority groups and the legitimate authorities of the assembly."

Dr Alterini's supporters have accused the police of being in league with the students who undertook the sit-ins, because they did not stop the protesters from taking over the college.

Underlining the continuing internecine rivalry at the university, a group of four left-wing deans have claimed that the assembly at the pharmacy and biochemistry faculty lacked "legal validity" because it ignored the "principles of transparency, publicity and democracy that must govern university life".

The university's governing council decided to attempt to hold the elections again this week at the National College of Buenos Aires.

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