Argentina and Uruguay voters face surge of religious and conservative candidates in weekend elections

Both countries head to the polls this Sunday, where unprecedented numbers of candidates oppose sexual and reproductive rights. Español.

Diana Cariboni
Nicolás Iglesias Schneider María Emilia Cerra Agostina Mileo Diana Cariboni
23 October 2019, 3.24pm
Presidential debate in Santa Fe, Argentina 2019.
Photo: Matías Baglietto/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Voters in both Argentina and Uruguay will go to the polls for national elections this Sunday, where they will face unprecedented numbers of religious, conservative or openly ‘anti-gender’ candidates.

An investigation from openDemocracy and Economía Feminista, a gender-focused data journalism platform in Argentina, has reviewed the positions of hundreds of candidates in both countries, on issues including legal abortion, sex education and LGBTIQ rights.

We found that at least 160 out of the 646 candidates in Argentina can be classed as conservatives, along with at least 87 included on 998 electoral lists in Uruguay. According to the results of primary votes, polls and their positions on these lists, the candidates stand to win up to 51 seats in Argentina’s congress as well as up to 21 in Uruguay.

Andrés Snitcofsky/Economia Feminista.

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Argentina’s currently-governing Together for Change (Juntos por el Cambio) party, and the electoral frontrunner Front for Everyone (Frente de Todos), have put forward numerous conservative candidates alongside more progressive politicians. Meanwhile, almost 40% of this year’s 108 governor candidates oppose legal abortion.

These are significant shifts from previous elections in both countries. Never before has abortion been such a high-profile campaign issue, while new and explicitly ‘anti-gender’ parties have also emerged.

In Uruguay, an anti-gender party called Cabildo Abierto (Open Town Hall) has put forward 43 candidates. It is led by former army chief Guido Manini Ríos who’s publicly rejected ‘gender ideology’ as a “foreign script” that’s designed to “divide us into tribes fighting each other”.

‘Gender ideology’, a term first introduced by the Vatican in the 1990s, has become a key focus of conservative movements which say sexual rights threaten ‘traditional families’. This weekend, the power of such claims to reach large numbers of people will be put to the test.

Uruguay: vying for one-sixth of Parliament

In Uruguay, our investigation identified 43 conservative candidates from the new self-declared ‘anti-gender’ party, Cabildo Abierto, along with 44 other religious and conservative politicians, primarily from the National Party, the main challenger to the incumbent, moderate-left Broad Front.

Primary votes, polls and their positions in electoral lists suggest that these candidates could win up to 16% (21 out of 130) of parliamentary seats. The lower chamber would have nine religious legislators (four evangelicals and five conservative Catholics), half of whom are running for re-election. Cabildo Abierto is set to win 10% of the vote, another nine seats in the lower chamber and three in the Senate.

The leader of this seven-month-old party, Guido Manini Ríos, was removed from his position as an army chief in March, after rejecting the convictions of military officers who had been found guilty of human rights violations during the 1973-1985 dictatorship. He’s also stated that job offers must go first to Uruguayan workers, not immigrants, and has attracted some followers with apparent neo-nazi inclinations.

Uruguayan presidential candidate Guido Manini Ríos (centre), from the new ‘anti-gender’ Cabildo Abierto party, poses with a follower wearing a neo-nazi t-shirt.
Credit: Ricardo Antúnez, courtesy of la diaria.

This would entail a marked political shift for Uruguay, a country with a recent record of progressive laws on issues including legal abortion, same-sex marriage, gender identity rights and comprehensive protection for trans people. What can explain this potential change?

Mariana Mota, a former judge and the current director of the National Institution of Human Rights, told openDemocracy: “This advancement on protecting rights did not keep in step with social change,” and this explains how “part of society disagrees with it”.

These candidates, she added, “attract the conservative Uruguayan with a traditional-role family coupled with military ideology, a concept of western Christian family that provided the social base to dictatorship”.

Conservatives everywhere in Argentina

From Argentina’s governing centre-right coalition Together for Change, six out of 14 candidates for senate seats, and 42 out of 130 candidates for parliament’s lower chamber, oppose sexual and reproductive rights.

Meanwhile four of the 16 senate candidates from the contender and electoral frontrunner coalition, Front for Everyone, oppose these rights along with 16 of its 130 candidates for the lower chamber.

Overall, primary votes and voter surveys suggest that conservative candidates could win up to 51 of the total 154 seats being contested.

Matias Lammens, Front for Everyone candidate at party headquarters in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Photo: Matias Baglietto/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Across the political spectrum almost every party has conservative nominees in this election, with only one – the Workers’ Left Front, which is set to grab just 2.5% of the vote – supports legal and free abortion.

Buenos Aires province, with 12.2 million voters – and more than a third of the country’s entire electorate – is a key example of how progressive candidates are also teaming up with conservatives.

There, the Front for Everyone’s governor candidate and likely winner Axel Kicillof supports legal abortion while his running-mate for vice-governor, Verónica Magario, opposes abortion, included an evangelical pastor in her cabinet (she is currently mayor of the La Matanza district) and officially declared a day of evangelical churches.

Other progressive Front for Everyone candidates, including Matías Lammens (running for mayor of Buenos Aires city), and senator Anabel Fernández Sagasti, are on electoral lists alongside ultra-conservatives like the governor of Tucumán province, Juan Manzur, who declared his district ‘pro-life’ and defended forcing an 11-year-old girl who had been raped to undergo a cesarean-section instead of having an abortion.

Manzur, whose province is known for political leaders opposing legislative advances in human rights, is a close ally of frontrunner presidential candidate Alberto Fernández, and could be a cabinet member, despite Fernández saying that he supports legal abortion.

‘Buenos Aires is a key example of how progressive candidates are also teaming up with conservatives’

The incumbent governor of Buenos Aires province, María Eugenia Vidal, who’s defending her post on Sunday, opposes legalising abortion. She overturned a 2016 resolution signed by her health minister to comply with a federal protocol for the assistance of non-punishable terminations (in cases of rape, or when the woman’s health or life is at risk).

Vidal, a leading political figure in Argentina, showed her support for anti-abortion activists this month, wearing their pale blue scarf on her wrist. Previously, abortion was not an electoral issue in the country but last year’s landmark Congressional debate on these rights changed this.

Protestors wearing ‘green scarves’ mounted historic demonstrations to support a legal abortion bill (which passed in the lower chamber but was defeated in the senate), and ignited an unexpected, anti-feminist backlash from opponents who donned pale blue scarves instead.

Abortion rights protest in front of parliament in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2019.
Photo: Claudio Santisteban/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Last year, former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the main opposition leader and Fernández’s running mate, said her movement “could not afford” a split between green and pale blue scarves.

Incumbent president Mauricio Macri, who’s running for a second term, isn’t free of contradictions either. He enabled the congressional debate last year on legalising abortion but recently declared his support to “save both lives” (a key anti-choice slogan) on the current campaign trail.

If primary results are confirmed on Sunday, a new abortion bill could get razor-thin 114-109 support in parliament’s lower chamber, with 34 seats undecided or unknown. However, in the senate, these results suggest that 37 pale blue seats will beat 33 greens, with just 2 undecided.

‘The family, the countryside and the military’

As in Uruguay, Argentina has a new conservative party called Frente Nos, which has 34 candidates opposing sexual and reproductive rights, according to our analysis. They won 2.6% of the vote in the primaries.

This party’s presidential candidate, Juan José Gómez Centurión, is another conservative with a military background. The retired military officer fought in the Falklands/Malvinas war and took part in the 1980s carapintada’ revolts. He said he would veto a 2012 gender identity law while campaigning for “the family, the countryside and the military”.

His running-mate, Cynthia Hotton, is a former diplomat and legislator who founded her own political party, called Values for my Country, which is now part of the Frente Nos (effectively an umbrella coalition for candidates connected to the “save both lives” anti-abortion campaign).

Hotton, a neo-pentecostal politician, is also an organiser of local ‘prayer breakfasts’ held in Argentina for more than 20 years, according to a 2008 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks. She is a fan of Donald Trump and is frequently invited to the original National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC organised by The Fellowship Foundation, the secretive group explored in the Netflix documentary series ‘The Family’.

Other politicians in the Frente Nos include Amalia Granata – a TV celebrity who embraced anti-abortion advocacy, and this year won a seat in Santa Fe’s provincial legislature with 15% of the vote – as well as evangelical pastor Patricia Silva de Cattaneo, a newcomer to electoral politics who now stands to win a seat in congress, if polls are correct.

“They used us and we are using them”

Numerous evangelical pastors have publicly endorsed the Frente Nos including Hugo Márquez, part of the ultra-conservative lobby at the Organization of American States (OAS) and a member of the Ibero-American Congress for Life and Family.

Márquez explained his pragmatic approach to elections in a meeting last year with other pastors in Punta del Este, Uruguay: “We are not part of Together for Change nor of Peronism, we do not support parties but values… We are with ourselves. They used us and we are using them. We are going to get our people in parliamentary seats with any party.”

At Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council, researcher Sol Prieto accredited rising evangelical influence in politics to humanitarian work these groups do with poor families. But, apart from their public opposition to abortion, Prieto told openDemocracy that these candidates are “not playing a unified game in the electoral field”.

“Their expansion needs to be understood,” she continued, in a context where “politicians seek support from religious groups to develop public policies and reach places that are beyond the state’s capacity”. Meanwhile, alongside evangelicals, there is also a “network of ‘pro-life’ mainly local parties… coordinated by a mostly Catholic structure”.

Screenshot 2019-10-23 at 15.35.16.png
President Donald J. Trump attends the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC, US 2019.
Photo: Sipa USA/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

In Uruguay, Baptist legislator Gerardo Amarilla, who is running for reelection, is currently the chair of the Ibero-American Union of Christian Legislators, along with three other parliamentarians from his country.

They were also among the more than 600 Latin American legislators who signed a 2017 declaration against alleged efforts of the OAS system to “advance and impose” what it called “ideological policies… that threaten life, family and religion.” This declaration was also promoted by the US Christian right legal army Alliance Defending Freedom.

Amarilla and his colleague Álvaro Dastugue have further been invited to National Prayer Breakfasts in Washington DC. In Uruguay, Amarilla launched the program Parliament and Faith and local prayer breakfasts, and Dastugue contributed this year to a failed referendum campaign against legal protections for trans people which he called ‘disgusting’.

These groups, said Lucy Garrido, campaign coordinator of the civil society group Marcosur Feminist Articulation, are an “extreme expression of patriarchy. They seek an impossible return to passed times. Luckily they express into the democratic system, and we have to respect that, but they have people in denial on gender violence.”

Garrido described a “fight for cultural hegemony” in the region but insisted: “I have no doubts that gender equality will prevail. People want to live better, and countries with strong economies and development are also stronger in human and gender rights. They [conservative groups] are just reacting to the victories the rest of us are winning.”

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