“May the people vote.” With this exclamation President Roque Sáenz Peña presented law 8871 to the Argentine Congress, one to which his name will forever be associated, and which was passed on 10th February 1912. It was a law which revolutionised the country’s electoral system and allowed for the true democratisation of the Argentine body politic.
The Sáenz Peña Law, as it has come to be known, introduced the secret ballot, compulsory voting, universal suffrage for all Argentine born men of 18 years and older (votes for women would not be forthcoming until 1947) and the representation of minority interests with the introduction of the incomplete list system..
The law was a response to the vote-rigging that had previously kept oligarchic vested interests of the rural landed-owners and educated porteño elite eternally in power, buying executive power through its control of the electoral college which chose the president. As this unfair system triggered social unrest that threatened to make Argentina ungovernable, the new law brought transparency and the inclusion of people of all ideological persuasions into the political process.
With the voters rolls in the hands of the Ministry of the Interior, and therefore by extension the government of the day, the registration of voters could be doctored to eliminate the supporters of their opponents. Public servants who did not vote for their political masters would routinely find themselves out of a job, meanwhile there were repeated instances of people voting in several different districts, especially in rural constituencies when registering at the polling station was done by a simple verbal statement of name.
However, at the turn of the twentieth century, with the country under the leadership of a broad coalition of oligarchs and elite interests called the National Autonomist Party (PAN), there was growing unhappiness at this perversion of the democratic process, most notably leading to the formation of the Civic Union, led by Leandro Alem and Bartolomé Mitre. When Mitre was accused of helping to perpetuate the status quo by agreeing with the ruling elites, an offshoot was created called the Radical Civic Union (UCR), who declined to participate in elections, claiming them to be fraudulent.
It was into this climate of social unrest, which had seen uprisings in 1893 and 1905 that Sáenz Peña assumed the presidency in 1910. A skilled political operator, he saw that the only way that Argentina could progress as a nation, was to break the stranglehold of the elites and give a voice to the disenfranchised and disillusioned
The first vote after the enactment of the law took place later that year in the province of Santa Fe with the election of its governor, and four years later in 1916 saw Hipólito Yrigoyen of the Radical UCR party elected to the presidency, ending years of oligarchical hegemony, and becoming the first president to be chosen by the truly popular vote. The complacent PAN opposition having assumed that they would easily the election, and riven by internal dissent failed to organise themselves properly and were decisively beaten.
Some criticisms of the law have been that it excluded women – although in Europe at the time few countries had extended the franchise to women – and that it also excluded immigrant workers from Spain and Italy, who by now made up a sizeable proportion of the Argentine population. At the same time, it was argued that the law’s introduction would encourage the integration their children, who by virtue of their Argentine birth to have a stake in the political system.
The lasting testament to Sáenz Peña’s far-sightedness is that the law bearing his name, with few modifications, has withstood the test of time and remains a cornerstone of Argentina’s democracy to this day.