What are Argentines electing? Who are the candidates? A brief introduction to Argentine Elections, the electoral system and possible challenges to be faced by the future administration. By Hugo Passarello Luna
On Sunday October 28th Argentines will renew their executive power. A new president will be chosen from the 13 different vying for the position.
After months of negotiations, mysteries, and rumors, the candidacies were finalized in early September. Unfortunately, like in most Latin American countries, the scenario is complex. Trying to shed some light on who is who and what their differences (if any) are is a Herculean task. In this article I will attempt to clarify what exactly is going on and what might happen after December 10th, when the new president takes over.
On October 28th Argentina will be electing not only a president and a vice-president, but also 24 national senators, 130 national deputies, 9 provincial governors and around 300 provincial legislators. Millions of Argentines will vote at 73 thousand electoral tables distributed around the country.
The electoral system is guided by the Electoral National Code. The system’s last major change was in 1994 in the Constitutional Reform when, among many changes, the Electoral College (similar to the American system) was erased and the “ballotage” (run-off concept) was introduced. In the run-off election, the two candidates who received the most votes in the first election compete and the one that gets the most valid votes is elected.
Chances of reaching a ballotage this year are slim. The electoral code states that if a candidate receives more than 45% of the total votes OR 40% with a 10 points difference over the runner up, then the leading candidate is elected without a second round. Most polls indicate that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will either get more than 45% or will lead by enough to safely be the victorious contender. The second candidate, according to recent polls, Elisa Carrió, is far behind with only 11%.
Nevertheless, there are still doubts about these estimates because polls have been largely discredited after serious inaccuracies in recent elections. They are mostly perceived as part of the campaign of each candidate: if they contract a polling company, they will get the results they want to show. This distrust of polls makes the electoral scenario even more complex to observe as numbers are all over the place. Despite this, it is clear that far ahead in the race, we find Cristina.
One feature of Argentina’s elections is that, like in Australia, Perú and Ecuador, it is compulsory to vote. Voting is considered not only a right but also a duty that every citizen must fulfill. What happens if a citizen does not vote? If the absence is not justified within 60 days (justifications can be, among others, official medical certifications or being more than 500 km away from the corresponding voting centre), the law applies a fine ranging from $50 to $500 pesos. However, this fine is hardly enforced. It is difficult to find somebody who, not exercising his/her voting right, is punished with this fine. Approximately a quarter of the electorate does not show up to vote. The highest turnout was in 1983 with the return of democracy when around 84% voted.
Political parties and candidates: curiosities
There are 13 candidates for the presidential position (3 of whom are women). However, the Argentine situation allows certain curiosities.
Even if there are 13 candidates, people will find 16 different ballots, because one of the candidates, Jorge Sobisch, is running with 4 different political parties.
In this election the two historical political parties, the Union Cívica Radical (a middle class center party) and the more popular Partido Justicialista (better known as the Peronist Party), are not officially presenting any candidates. Their members are spread and mixed in one of the many alliances of parties (old and new) for this election.
Alliance, front, movement, coalition, and confederation are the main names in this election. “Party” seems to be a bad word, as only 4 candidates are representing a party while the other 9 are heading a coalition of some sort. Political parties are perceived as the most corrupt institutions, thus the willingness of politicians to avoid the word “party” and create fronts that are mere electoral alliances. These alliances are nothing solid, just a feeble union of forces to get through the elections and give a fake idea of an all-inclusive political platform. Then we have Cristina leading the Frente para la Victoria (Victory Front); Carrió, the Coalicion Cívica (Civic Coalition); Roberto Lavagna, Alianza Concertación UNA (Alliance UNA); and so on with the other contenders.
Another interesting point is that none of the main candidates were elected in primaries; they just impose their candidacy in their respective coalition of parties. The importance of personalism in this election is so strong that it is difficult, if not impossible, to find information about the coalitions; you can only get information about the candidates. There are no websites for many of the running alliances, only sites for the candidates.
So who are the main candidates? At the very top there is Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, wife of the incumbent president and most likely the leader of the next administration. Most polls mention another woman, Elisa Carrió in second place. Right after Carrió, stands Roberto Lavagna, former economic minister of Kircher’s administration who now finds himself confronting his old boss. The list continues with Ricardo Lopez Murphy (another former economic minister), Alberto Rodriguez Saá (governor of San Luis Province) and Jorge Sobisch (previous governor of Neuquén province).
Regarding Rodriguez Saá, only a month ago he ran and was reelected as governor of San Luis. Despite this, he is running now for President. If elected, on December 10th he will have to yield power of San Luis to his vice-governor. This action is typical in Argentine politics (examples can be found all over the political map), where candidates run for several positions simultaneously hoping to get something out of the democratic game. This might sound disrespectful to the electorate, but almost no Argentine seems to care and votes for them time and time again for whatever position they are running for, as if deputy, governor, and president were all the same.
Where do these candidates stand in the political spectrum? This exercise is very useful to a new observer trying to understand who is who. Unfortunately, this has always been hard to do in Argentina where differences among candidates are difficult to pinpoint, sometimes even for the candidates themselves. Doing a quick glance, we could place Cristina, Carrió and Lavagna somewhere on the center-left. Ricardo Lopez Murphy, Alberto Rodriguez Saá and Jorge Sobisch, can be placed somewhere in the center-right (Sobisch being the most to the “political” right and Lopez Murphy being more to the “economical” right). The list is completed with 7 other candidates spanning from the strongest right (Obreid Beid) to a committed but fragmented and often anachronistic set of leftist candidates (Pitrola, Ripoll, Montes, Ammann, Solanas and Castells).
Beyond this, ask any Argentine and they will have a hard time pointing out the differences between Carrió and Lavagna or between Sobisch and Saá. This is not only because their proposals are similar but also because the communication channels between the political world and society have been severely strained since the crisis.
Challenges after December 10th: Economy
It is the economy, stupid, that matters the most to people everywhere, and Argentina is no exception. The “miraculous” recovery of the country after the severe crisis in 2001-02 made a big impact among the population. Whether true or not, a sizable section of the electorate gives the Kirchner clan credit for this.
However, there are some factors that make us think that the next years will show a diminishing growth. Inflation is the main worry for the majority of the population, particularly the classes with fewer resources that suffer the most during the constant rising of costs, especially of food products. The high international prices of these primary products are strongly pulling the local values up. Even though it is a problem to be considered, some opposition candidates are overreacting and spreading rumours about a possible inflationary explosion. Kirchner’s manipulation of inflation numbers did not help to clarify the real situation of prices. Rebuilding trust on the INDEC (the official statistical agency) will be a major test for the following executive.
Another topic is the energy crisis. The country is producing energy at capacity. During the past few months, several main factories had to temporarily stop production due to the lack of electrical power. The government’s decision to cut energy to industries instead of households (something to avoid in an electoral year) heavily impacted production, causing losses. Kirchner has started to build new sources of energy (two nuclear plants and other hydroelectric complexes), but these won’t be ready until the beginning of 2009, if everything goes as planned, which in Argentina, never happens.
Another challenge that will face the following president is the long overdue institutional strengthening. If Argentine democracy wants to be taken seriously, the political parties’ crisis must be confronted. Respect for the legislative power must also be restored. As things stand now, the Congress yielded many of its privileges to the executive (locally known as the executive “superpowers”).
In the international realm, if Cristina is the following president, it appears that Argentina will rearrange its relations. During Kirchner’s administration, the focus was in Latin America, especially with Hugo Chavez and Lula. Cristina’s main challenge in the international sphere will be to attract needed investments to maintain growth. Just before the elections, Cristina toured the US, Spain, France and Germany among other key countries and asked to increase investments in Argentina.
With only few days before the election, it appears to be clear to everybody who will win the votes of the people. Even opposition candidates are campaigning lightly.
However, in the land of Argentina everything is possible, for good or bad. Only the future will tell.