Uncertainty and elections in Argentina

Is the Argentine vote determined by the pro-peronist/anti-peronist axis? Do their choices depend on the left-right divide? Or is it more populism-republic? Español

Facundo Cruz
18 July 2019, 12.00am

The 2019 presidential elections in Argentina will take place on October 27. The axes of the vote, as well as the building of coalitions, are a source of contention between the main contenders. That is, between Mauricio Macri’s government and the opposition led by Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

The long race that is currently underway started at the beginning of this year with the primaries in the province of La Pampa. The candidates and coalitions which will be competing for national office - first at the national primaries in August, then at the general elections in October and, probably, at the second round of the presidential elections in November – have already been decided. We are already at the start of the second half and you can feel the tension.

This is a long battle, and it is quite clear who the two main competitors are. On the one hand, the national government of the right-wing coalition Cambiemos will seek to retain the Casa Rosada. To this end, it has reshaped its structure, increasing allies and maintaining the faithful. It has even done some rebranding: the alliance is now called Together for Change. On the other hand, Peronism, that broad and heterogeneous movement encompassing almost anything, has tried and succeeded in unifying most of its internal currents under the banner of the Front for All. We are back to square one: Mauricio Macri versus Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Other options trail behind: the Federal Consensus (a coalition of progressive parties and Peronists not aligned with Kirchnerism), two leftist options, and a few right-leaning ones.

It could be argued that this year’s electoral process did not start in June, but much earlier at the recent provincial elections, the results of which clearly showed a split between voters.

This wave of defeats for the national government indicate that we could see greater parity between the main players in this year’s contest.

It should also be pointed out that strong competition dynamics will in all likelihood characterize the main competitors’ presidential race in October and we should finally pay attention to the rules of the game.

The first half

Argentina’s electoral system is markedly federal: the 24 districts that make up the country define their own electoral rules and, specifically, decide when to call provincial elections. Governors in office have the possibility of separating themselves from, or joining the national elections.

This is a strategic tool that is particularly useful if they wish to give a local tone to their campaign, or when they try to prevent the national discussion from affecting the provincial candidacies or the election results.

Except Santiago del Estero and Corrientes (two provinces with an out-of-date calendar for the renewal of posts), only 5 out of 22 districts chose to hold their provincial elections together with the nationals: the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires and the provinces of Buenos Aires, Catamarca, La Rioja and Santa Cruz.

Out of the remaining 17, 14 have already held elections, with a somewhat bitter result for Cambiemos: 10 governorships were won by electoral fronts led by the Justicialist Party (PJ); three by coalitions of provincial parties; and only one by a governmental ally (the Radical Civic Union).

This is not, by any means, the best way to prepare for the second half. This wave of defeats for the national government indicate that we could see greater parity between the main players in this year’s contest, and a reversal of the omen of the 2017 elections, when the yellow tide looked set to become hegemonic.

In fact, Cambiemos is expected to win only in the City of Buenos Aires and Mendoza. In the province of Buenos Aires and Santa Cruz, the fight will be tight up to the very last minute.

And it looks like it is going to be more down to luck in Catamarca and La Rioja, where strong Peronist candidates will engage all their strength and determination to stay in office.

How the elections will unravel

Argentina’s characteristic, historical competitive dynamics appear to be changing at least in the context of these forthcoming elections. Since the mid-twentieth century, the political contest has revolved around the peronist/anti-peronist axis or to put it more simply, between government and opposition supporters.

Argentines have been reluctant to adopt the traditional left-right axis as a continuum in relation to which political parties and voters position themselves, mainly because the political actors, Peronism and Radicalism, have included both conservative and progressive currents in their fold.

This year appears to be an exception, although it will not necessarily become the new rule.

This year appears to be an exception, although it will not necessarily become the new rule. Much of the electoral fight and the political discussion will revolve around the effects of the current economic program and the necessary future adjustments, the expansion and recognition of women's rights (such as the right to the voluntary interruption of pregnancy), and the intervention and the role of the country’s security forces in complex phenomena (drug trafficking, demonstrations, borders). These are modern, current debates all around the world. Argentines are back.

The way out of the trappings of the peronist/anti-peronist logic has been prompted by a phenomenon recalling the 2003 elections: the three main presidential coalitions include at least one Peronist leader each.

In the Front for All: Alberto Fernández, Néstor Kirchner’s former Chief of Staff, and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In Together for Change, Mauricio Macri has co-opted Miguel Ángel Pichetto, the eternal boss of the Justicialist block in the Senate. And in Federal Consensus, Roberto Lavagna, former Minister of Economy (2002-2005), stands in alliance with Juan Manuel Urtubey, the famous Peronist governor of the province of Salta.

The drive to captivate Peronist sectors has led to the current competitive situation, a situation which has two particular characteristics. First, the election will be a highly polarized one between Together for Change and the Front for All.

The moves that both coalitions have made to expand politically will not prevent them from showing their teeth during the campaign. Both coalitions do not have nice words to say to each other. Undoubtedly, this brings good results for both in terms of gathering electoral support. Therefore, looking for voters, they will both hardly appeal to moderation, quite the opposite, in fact. And in this, the one that stands to lose is Federal Consensus, the third force, which has a weak territorial structure and lacks a strong team to try and build a space in the middle.

Secondly, each political actor will interpret the left-right axis in its own way. Together for Change is gearing its campaign towards the discussion between republic and populism. Being progressive means defending the institutions, maintaining republican ethics and refusing to resort to successful short-term recipes at the expense of the long term.

It opposes this to the chaos of transient leaders who waste resources which have been produced through much effort. On the other hand, the Front for All will focus on a more traditional construction of the axis.

Progress is achieved through hard work, duly remunerated, with a more marked and tangible redistribution of income and greater levels of equity. On the opposite side stand the corporations, the hegemonic media and international finance and they cannot agree even on the terms of the discussion.

Electoral rules

We should note that in addition to electoral federalism, Argentina has a unique system for defining candidacies: the Open, Simultaneous and Mandatory Primaries (PASO) at national level. Held prior to general elections, the PASO is when citizens choose who will be competing for office and who will have to wait for another occasion (or look elsewhere).

This has recently led to the questioning of the system because of the level of public expenditure involved.

Since these are open primaries, all eligible voters can cast their vote, regardless of whether or not they are affiliated with any specific political party.

The process is simultaneous for all the political actors: the very same day, all the candidates get decided. And the PASO is mandatory both for parties and coalitions wishing to compete in the general elections (you cannot run for office if you have not been through the primary process) and for citizens (voting in Argentina is both a right and a duty).

This differs from Chile where primaries there are only for the parties and coalitions which have not managed to agree on candidates and from Uruguay where they are mandatory only for parties and coalitions, not for voters.

The mechanism has an additional peculiarity with regards to the presidential formula. Both president and vice president enter the competition: the winner gets to run for office and the loser must wait four years before trying again, yet another difference with Uruguay.

At this year’s forthcoming elections, though, all the different parties’ and coalitions’ candidates have already been decided by consensus so, this will be the second time since 2011 in which there will be no internal competition at the primaries.

This has recently led to the questioning of the system because of the level of public expenditure involved. However, it is expected that primaries will be held in several provinces to decide the parliamentary candidates.

This will be the case in 13 provinces for Together for Change, a similar number to 2015 (14) and 2017 (11). The Front for All will hold them too in 7 provinces, a higher number than in 2015, when the Front for Victory held them in three provinces, but much lower than in 2017 (13). Federal Consensus will go through primaries in 3 out of the 12 districts where it could hold them, one of them being the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, which is key to its political construction.

The assessment of the tool ever since it has been in operation is positive. It offers parties and coalitions a possibility in case no consensus is reached, and this has a positive impact on the political system. It has contributed to reduce the number of candidates after the 2001 crisis and has produced more homogeneous behaviour on the part of the voters in the different provinces. The actors have organized and these rules have helped.

In any case, from now until October, the second half of the race will be a long one. At the PASO, each team will measure its own and their opponents’ stamina. They will feel the terrain. They will strive to convince doubters and to keep their faithful in the fold.

The primaries will be a good indicator of the electoral support for each in every corner of the country, and the candidates will save all their strength for the last minutes of the regulation time in October – which is when the parliamentary candidates will be decided (130 deputies and 24 senators).

This article was previously published by Nueva Sociedad

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