SUNDAY'S ELECTION in Argentina was not big news, which says a lot for the country's remarkable development. Until 1983 Argentina suffered under brutal military rule, and for several years thereafter a fragile democracy lived in the shadow of a restive army. Since 1989 the country has been led by Carlos Menem, a civilian who pursued brave economic reform but whose governing style kept alive the strongman tradition bequeathed by past dictators. Now, however, Argentina has elected Fernando de la Rua, a low-key lawyer, and power is set to change hands amid remarkable tranquillity.

Even more remarkable, Argentina's economic policy is set to remain steady. Unemployment stands at 14.5 percent; the economy is expected to shrink by 3.5 percent this year; the number of homeless people in the streets of the capital has tripled. These dire circumstances might ordinarily lead to pressure for the populism for which Argentina was once famous. But Mr. de la Rua won the election by promising more of the austerity that has marked this decade and that has produced some impressive growth as well as victory over the old scourge of hyperinflation.

Argentina's democratic and economic maturity holds out a hopeful lesson. From Pakistan to Russia, there are plenty of examples of how difficult development can be, and each defeat incites despair at the whole project. But Argentina shows that the right policies can work, given determined leadership backed up by help from multilateral aid lenders. It also belies the tired claim that tough economic reform is beyond the grasp of a democracy.

That is the good news. The bad news is that Argentina's experiment now enters a risky period. The economy may get worse before it improves, and Mr. de la Rua must live with provincial governments and a Senate dominated by the opposition party. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund stand ready to help. This is a case where generous aid should pay off handsomely.