Although the presidential ballot is not due until October, election season has already begun in Argentina. On Sunday, 10th April, Salta became the third of Argentina’s 23 provinces (not including the autonomous city of Buenos Aires) to hold a vote, with Juan Manuel Urtubey of the Frente para la Victoria (FpV) party comfortably winning a second term as governor. Salteños also cast their vote for vice-governor, as well as 11 senators and 30 MPs.
Though power and politics in Argentina are highly centralised, the provincial elections can be a good indicator of voter trends and the popularity of individual parties ahead of the presidential elections.
Urtubey’s re-election was welcomed by the FpV, the party of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Though in the end the 41-year-old won by a considerable margin (capturing over 57% of the votes), his first term was not without incident. In 2008, Urtubey faced accusations of nepotism when he named his wife inspector of the rural town of Payogasta. He was also accused of discrimination when he backed a law making catholic teaching compulsory in public and private schools; and, in the same year, his minister for education resigned after distributing school textbooks in which the Falkland Islands were listed as British territory.
Even more encouraging for President Fernández was the party’s surprise triumph in Catamarca, where opposition radical parties have governed for 20 years. In the year’s first provincial election, held on 13th March, Lucía Corpacci became the first female governor of that region, beating long-standing incumbent Eduardo Brizuela del Moral, of the Frente Cívico y Social. According to Corpacci, the previous government made two big mistakes: “Firstly, always blaming others rather than accepting responsibility for the province’s problems and secondly, when Brizuela del Moral said that he would be governor for another twenty years, whether people liked it or not.”
However, things did not run so smoothly in the other gubernatorial election to take place so far, in the Patagonian province of Chubut. After the 20th March vote, it was initially declared that Martín Buzzi of the Peronismo Federal party, had defeated FpV candidate Carlos Eliceche by just 401 votes. However, serious irregularities were noted in some of the recording of votes by polling stations; in the city of Puerto Madryn, over 900 votes had been “miscounted” by two polling stations alone.
After a recount and the annulment of several voting stations, a result is pending a decision by the Tribuno Electoral Provincial on whether to order another vote. Such events in Chubut have somewhat weakened faith in the electoral system and add weight to calls for a more sophisticated and transparent electronic voting system (around 30% of votes in Salta were cast electronically).
Though it is still very early in the electoral race, the promising start for the Front for Victory is a concern for opposition parties. After defeat in Catamarca, the radical candidate barely achieved 2% of the vote in Salta. Meanwhile, the centre-right coalition, Propuesta Republicana (Pro), led by Buenos Aires mayor and presidential candidate Mauricio Macri, celebrated that its candidate, Alfredo Olemdo, came in second. However, as a relative newcomer to Argentine politics (Pro was founded in 2005), Pro’s reputation has been damaged by its controversial candidates for provincial governors.
Alfredo Olmedo’s outspoken and extreme views on issues such as homosexuality made him a divisive figure throughout the campaign. In addition, after giving away motorbikes and bicycles as prizes to attract supporters—leading to accusations of bribery—he was subsequently investigated by the Administración Federal de Ingresos Público (AFIP) for alleged ties to a business that has 400 harvesters working in “subhuman conditions” in La Rioja´s olive groves. The company belongs to the politician’s father, Alfredo Olmedo Senior.
Pro’s candidate for Santa Fe, which will hold an election on July 24th, has caused even more of a media stir. Actor and comedian Miguel del Sel was reported to the National Institute for Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism (INADI) after he said in a press conference that he wanted to “open schools, fix hospitals and make drains so that the ‘negritos’ (dark-skinned people) could have hot water in their baths.” Claudio Morgado, president of the INADI, eventually concluded that the remarks had not been made in a derogatory sense.
Despite being cleared, this was a setback for Del Sel’s credibility as a politician. “Celebrities have the right to speak out, just like any other citizen, but what they say does have more of an impact and we have to live with that,” says Hugo Passarello Luna, a journalist specialising in Latin American politics and creator of the website Argentina Elections (www.argentinaelections.com).
Del Sel’s celebrity status has automatically generated interest yet his controversial statements so far suggest that he could be politically out of his depth.
“Public figures get more votes yet sometimes lack the necessary experience,” says Passarello Luna. “There are some notable exceptions such as Daniel Scioli, governor of Buenos Aires province, and Carlos Reutemann, ex-governor of Santa Fe, both of whom made the transition from professional sport to politics without being drowned by the system.”
A Lack of Interest?
Given the aforementioned centralisation of Argentine politics, it is often difficult to see how provincial elections affect anyone except those within that province.
Provincial elections consistently suffer from low voter turnout. Legally, voting is compulsory except for those deprived of liberty, those over 70 (for whom, voting is optional), those with disabilities, and those who live over 500km away from the nearest polling station, a fact that must be attested by police certificate. Employers are required to give workers time during the day to vote without deducting any salary. There are also sanctions in place for a failure to vote such as fines and public bureau restrictions, for example, inability to renew a passport for a given length of time.
In spite of these rules designed to increase participation, the 2009 local elections still saw only a 69% turnout, the lowest since the return to democracy, and early evidence suggests little or no improvement this year. In comparison, the last presidential elections, in 2007, achieved a turnout of 76.2%—considerably more in numbers yet still not as high as anticipated. Passarello Luna explains one of the reasons for this: “Often people move house and forget to change their details on the electoral rolls.” This means that to cast a valid vote they would have to travel back to their previous address, which is often difficult.”
Perhaps, therefore, decreasing voter turnout does not reflect an increasing political apathy but rather a bureaucratic and legal failure to ensure that as many citizens as possible can and do vote.