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Midterm Elections in Argentina: Open, Compulsory and Simultaneous Primaries

- August 21, 2013


In our continuing series of election reports, we welcome back political scientists Natalia C. Del Cogliano and Mariana L. Prats with the following post-election report on last week’s Argentinian elections


On Sunday, August 11th, open, compulsory and simultaneous primary elections were held for the second time across the whole of Argentina since their enactment in 2009[1]. However, they were still far from being primaries stricto sensu. They were probably more like simple primaries. As we already said in our previous Monkey Cage election report, the actual system of primaries can mostly be defined as a virtual first round of an unofficial two-round legislative election. Our primaries function more like a de facto national poll that sets the stage for the general election.

Still, these primaries defined the nominations for the general elections that will be held on October 27th. More importantly, they provided us with real data on which candidates, alliances or parties, if any, have enough popular support so as to start building a political career oriented towards taking the presidency in 2015.

The big name in this regard emerged from within the Partido Justicialista[2] (PJ) in the biggest and more relevant district in the country: the province of Buenos Aires. Sergio Massa, the Major of the municipality of Tigre—and once National Chief of Cabinet during Cristina Kirchner’s former administration—had taken office as a candidate of the Frente para la Victoria (FpV), but in June 2013 he created his own Peronist electoral label (Frente Renovador). Although under the logic of Argentinean politics no national legislator could ever become president, Massa jumped from the municipal level to the national legislative level as a way of projecting himself towards 2015 and in order to test his popular support. Massa appeared as the “moderate” alternative (he tried not to be identified either for or against the national government) aimed at becoming the alternative to the ruling party (FpV).

The fact that the new main alternative to the national government emerged from within the provincial Peronist Party is not an unexpected outcome in a moment in which the remaining parties and alliances in the opposition[3] cannot offer novel candidates, deliver leading proposals, or even command the campaign towards October. This resulted in a campaign mostly concentrated in Buenos Aires and starring y peronist or philo-peronist candidates.

A novel feature in these primaries was the participation of teenagers aged 16 or 17 years old. Following the enactment of the law allowing voluntary suffrage from age 16 to age 18, the number of eligible voters increased by 4.5%, or more than a million. However, as teenagers had to renew their ID in order to be able to vote, only 592,344 (1.94% of the national electoral roll) did so. Although critics from the opposition alleged this law was a strategy of the national government aimed at broadening its network of supporters, teenagers’ participation could not skew the results of this election.

Considering the whole country, 175 parties presented 254 ballots of pre-candidates. Only 43 parties presented more than one list to contend in primaries, but only 24 of those primaries were competitive. These numbers show that these primaries have been at least a little more competitive than the ones of 2011 when the PASO were implemented for the first time. Notwithstanding this, the most important parties still presented one single ballot of candidates.

Two districts have been key in the PASO and will be key in October as well: the City of Buenos Aires and the province of Buenos Aires. Regarding the first one, the Alliance UNEN and the ruling party in the City since 2007 (the PRO) gathered 63% of the total vote. Here, UNEN acted strategically under the new rules. This Alliance presented four different lists of pre-candidates both for Senators and Deputies and starred the only competitive primaries in the district. As a result of that, collecting the votes from each of those lists, the Alliance “won” this stage of the electoral process beating the ruling party in the City and the weak candidates of the national government. Voting majorities in the City have traditionally been contrary to any Peronist candidate, and the degree of the defeat or victory for the candidates of the national government in this district always is a relevant political signal.

As for the province, history shows that no national victory is possible without carrying it: Buenos Aires concentrates 37.3% of the national roll. Contrary to the City, it has been a long-standing Peronist stronghold, thus offering little margin for other parties (in fact, in this election Peronist candidates got almost the 80% of provincial vote). Here the president had vigorously campaigned for Martín Insaurralde (first candidate in the FpV list for National Deputies) in order to try to impede a possible victory of Sergio Massa (Frente Renovador). Even though it was a tight contest between both municipal majors, the latter prevailed. Massa, the big news in these primaries, got a 35.05% of the provincial vote whereas Insaurralde got 29.65%[4].

A big national surprise in these primaries was the percentage of the votes the left got nationwide: 4.68%. This historical record is a consequence of the strategic use of the new rules by the leftist parties. They understood the psychological and mechanical effects of primaries and the benefits they could get by driving the correct strategy under these rules. Furthermore, the votes the UCR (Unión Cívica Radical) got as a member of the “Frente Amplio Progresista” show that the party might be regaining some former national electoral support.

Another relevant fact is that notwithstanding a widespread defeat of the national government in the provincial level (it got the majority of the vote only in seven out of 24 electoral districts), at the national level the President still has the first minority of the vote (26.31%) whereas the runner-up (Frente Renovador) got 13.54% nationwide. Yet, some signs of decay of the ruling party can be observed: the percentage of votes compared to the previous elections of 2011 when the President won every single district and got the 54.11% of the national vote, has declined. Specifically, the ruling party lost the most important national districts in terms of political and economic relevance: Buenos Aires, Santa Fe and Córdoba, thus displaying the worst performance the Peronist Party has ever had while governing the country. However, this comparison is misleading, as last elections were presidential. Then, compared to the immediate midterm elections of 2009 (when the FpV lost the majority of the Chamber of Deputies), the national government almost maintained that level of support as it got four percentage points less than in 2009. With this scenario, winning the next presidential election won’t be an easy task for the ruling party.

Although not really feasible, by getting the exact same results of this last Sunday, the President will still keep her majority in the Chamber of Deputies, only losing 3 of her 48 seats at stake (considering ten seats that belong to the allies to the FpV). As for the opposition, it would get almost the exact same number of seats it won in 2009.

Under current electoral rules President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will not be able to run for the national executive, because re-reelection (she was re-elected in 2011) is legally banned. Bearing this in mind, the President faces a dilemma: either to create and support a new leader capable of winning elections in order to secure an “inter-period” candidate that would continue the political project in place and that could free her way to the presidency in 2019, or (a less feasible option) to amend the Constitution in order to remain in power for four more years.

For the general elections in October[5] we expect more polarization. The October election can clearly be understood as the beginning of a long campaign for 2015. An important political aspect of these elections is that in 2009 the opposition (a pretty fractionalized spectrum of parties or, more accurately, of candidates with no clear partisan identification) won the majority of seats, and the deputies elected at that time are currently finishing their terms. This means that there is much at stake for the opposition[6]. However, next October President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will need to ensure a working majority in Congress.

Finally, considering the prospects for the next presidential elections we can state that the real outcomes of the PASO were, for one thing, Sergio Massa’s good prospects of becoming the main player of the opposition in the two years until the next presidential elections and, for another, the setback suffered by the current Governor of the province of Buenos Aires, Daniel Scioli, a man with great chances (at least until this last Sunday) of becoming President Cristina’s Fernández de Kirchner’s chosen successor.

In this context, we expect a redefinition of the national government’s political strategy. As the Argentinian political scientist Ernesto Calvo stated, if now the President is not able to choose and define the future presidential candidate, she still has the power to limit or obstruct the ones that the government is not willing to tolerate as such.

[1] Law 26.571 was passed by the National Congress in December 2009, implementing a novel system of open, compulsory and simultaneous primaries (PASO, for its acronym in Spanish).

[2] Partido Justicialista (PJ) or Partido Peronista are both valid names for the same party. Therefore, when we say: peronist or peronism, we refer to the PJ.

[3] Despite their self-proclaimed aim to join against the government, it is evident and sometimes even admitted, that their arrangements are precarious at best. Most of these transitory alliances are not based on commonly agreed electoral platforms or on shared goals and policies, but merely on opposing the government and emerging as the real alternative to the actual administration in order to score a few extra points ahead of the next presidential election.

[4]http://www.resultados.gob.ar/paginas/paginas/dat02/DDN02999.htm. Notwithstanding the results for national deputies, a singular fact is that the FpV won in the category of provincial deputies while the Frente Renovador won the provincial senators.

[5] In the general elections to be held in October, half of the Chamber of Deputies and a third of the Senate will be renewed (as in every midterm election). There are 127 seats at stake in the lower chamber and 24 in the Senate.

[6]The 2009 election, right after the big conflict between the national government and the agricultural trade associations, was the worst performance by the “Kirchnerismo” since 2003.