The results of yesterday’s mid-term elections, which saw half of the lower house and a third of the Senate renewed, have spawned a number of different, divergent, even contradictory interpretations.
Unlike presidential elections, legislative ones are not a zero sum game, and reading the results can be more complicated. There are 24 districts to analyse, plus other factors such as the national total, the comparison with past elections (2011, 2009, or 2007, depending on who is doing the comparison), percentages, number of seats, impact on public opinion, forecasts for 2015…
Each camp, of course, will use the information most convenient to them and spin it to appear better placed in the political race. As everyone tries to come up with the definitive answer to the question of who “won” the election, it may be better to acknowledge that sometimes reality is not that black or white.
Winners or Losers?
As expected, most of the post-election analyses revolve around the national government and their performance. Whilst the governing Frente Para la Victoria (FPV) retained its place as the most voted party at the national level, it lost in the country’s main – most populous – districts.
With 33% of the combined national vote for deputies, the FPV came first with a 12-point difference over the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) and its allies. This result leaves the FPV and its allies with a total of 132 seats in the Chamber of Deputies (out of 257) and 40 in the Senate (out of 72). The FPV won in 12 out of 24 districts, a result very similar to that predicted by the primaries, with two main exceptions: the provinces of La Rioja and San Juan, both of which the FPV had surprisingly lost in the August primaries and managed to snatch back (in the latter, the helicopter accident which left a deputy dead and the governor fighting for his life is sure to have had an impact).
However, despite the government doing its best to focus on the fact that it got more votes than any other party, the spotlight is inevitably focused on the districts where it lost, as they are the largest in the country. Some of them, like the City of Buenos Aires (where the FPV lost its senator but gained two new deputies) or Santa Fe, have historically been hostile to the current administration, while others, like the provinces of Buenos Aires and Córdoba, have swung.
Without a doubt, the biggest defeat for the government has been losing the province of Buenos Aires, which is by far the largest district in the country (with over 11m registered voters and 70 Deputies) and historically a key support base. It is generally agreed that the victor, Sergio Massa, who lead the new Frente Renovador list and came almost 12 percentage points ahead of his FPV rival Martín Insaurralde (a much greater difference than in the primaries) was yesterday’s principal winner.
What conclusions we get from the results also depends on which election we compare them with. Compared with the last election in 2011, the government lost a massive 20 points. However, comparing presidential with mid-term elections can be tricky.
Voters typically behave differently in purely legislative elections than they do in elections where both the executive and the legislative are being elected.
In Argentina, ballots for the different categories (such as president, deputies, and senators) for a single party are attached together. While there is the possibility of splitting the ballot and voting different parties for different categories, most people tend to vote for complete ballots.
As the presidential election is seen as more important, the presidential candidate tends to attract the vote and pull the other categories along with it. This is not only a mechanical issue: voters may consider it important that the future president has a strong backing in Congress.
In mid-term elections, however, voters are more likely to seek a balance between government and Congress, and are also less likely to be concerned about casting a ‘useful’ vote, voting truer to their convictions or sympathies.
The second reason why comparing yesterday’s election only to 2011 may not be most appropriate, is because the seats up for renewal in the Chamber of Deputies this year were those elected in the 2009 mid-terms. Comparing 2013 with 2009 therefore gives another idea of what each party has lost and gained, and how that will affect the composition of the Chamber (in terms of the Senate, the other election to look at is 2007, as senators serve six-year terms).
How much will change in Congress then? For the government, not much, as 2009 was a particularly bad year for them. Out of the 47 seats they – together with their regional allies – had in the lower house up for renewal, they managed to hold on to all of them. In the Senate, they had 15 seats up for renewal, and obtained 14, enough to hold on to the majority. In both chambers, they will retain a (tight) majority.
Some of the main opposition parties, despite celebrating yesterday’s victories, actually lost seats in the lower house, as they were renewing those gained in their best election (2009), and gained three seats in the Senate. The Trotskyist left-wing coalition Frente de Izquierda y los Trabajadores (FIT) deserves a special mention, as they managed to break all records and obtain more than 1mn votes and three deputies, with their most impressive result coming in from Partido Obrero’s second place in the province of Salta.
At the same time, while analysing the results against those of 2009 may be technically correct, it is likely that the public opinion will tend to perceive the results of the election as a huge loss of support for the government – not an invalid or far-fetched conclusion. With this in mind, yesterday’s result leaves the government with the Herculean task of re-gaining the voters’ trust before 2015… much as they did after their (even worse) overall performance in 2009.
Eyes Set on 2015
The media, and some of the potential candidates, have already set their sights on the 2015 presidential election. The opposition – triumphant in the large districts – has the momentum, but remains fragmented and has so far been unable to reach national agreements. The only other party beyond the FPV with presence across the whole country is the UCR, which owes its most significant victories yesterday to its alliances with other parties. At this stage, Sergio Massa’s Frente Renovador – the new shining star in the political sky – only really exists in one province, albeit the most important.
Overcoming this fragmentation at a national level is something that the opposition will need to work on before 2015. The question is whether simply opposing the government is a strong enough basis to form a solid alliance capable of governing the country (many Argentines will be wary of such a possibility, the memories from 1999′s Alianza still too fresh in their minds).
UNEN – the coalition between Coalición Cívica, Proyecto Sur, the Socalist Party, UCR, and others in the City of Buenos Aires – is so far the most promising alternative in that respect. Having successfully chosen their candidates via the primary elections in August, they managed to secure the minority Senate seat in the City of Buenos Aires and gained five seats in Deputies, the same number as PRO, which again emerged victorious in the capital. Despite the candidates’ assurance that UNEN is more than just a passing alliance engineered to improve their chances in this election, they will now have to prove in Congress that they can overcome their ideological differences and strong personalities to build a sustainable coalition.
With different names and make-ups, the UCR has entered into similar coalitions in a number of districts, obtaining positive results in Santa Fe, Mendoza, City of Buenos Aires, Jujuy, and Catamarca. However, the result in the province of Buenos Aires, quite polarised between the FR and the FPV, was disappointing, with a loss of ten points since 2009. However, whilst the UCR has lost much support over the last few years, as the country’s oldest political party, it can provide its allies with a much needed and well-established national structure.
Such national structure is what Sergio Massa is lacking, highlighted in his call last night to “cross the border and walk Argentina.” Buenos Aires province may be the most important district, but it is only one of 24. As Massa’s star started to rise earlier this year, Buenos Aires City mayor Mauricio Macri made significant -but ultimately, unsuccesful- efforts to seal a deal with him, as he also suffers from limited national support. As both mayors are now hopeful presidential candidates for 2015, they could see each other more as potential rivals than allies.
The other possibility for Massa is to try and reconstruct an ailing ‘dissident’ Peronist faction, taking the fight to the government from within. The only succesfull dissident Peronists still standing, however, seem to be the Rodríguez Saa brothers in San Luis, who have been generally reluctant to form broad pan-Peronist alliances, and Córdoba governor José Manuel De la Sota. If Massa is smart in riding the wave of his success, he could try to lure some of the government’s current allies in the provinces, whose loyalty may wane as the election results sink in.
For the government, the moment they have feared for the last two years is approaching fast. Without a successor for President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in sight, they will need to either find one within their ranks soon, or decide which outsider they trust to continue their legacy.
It is unclear what role Buenos Aires governor Daniel Scioli will play in this scenario. The election campaign was an opportunity for him to patch up the rocky relationship he had been having with the national government, as he became involved and threw his weight behind Insaurralde, risking his own political capital in the defeat. Will that be enough to re-gain the trust of many in the government who consider him a Trojan Horse for the right?