Elections, elections, elections… lately, it seems to be all the local newspapers talk about. This year’s busy electoral calendar kicked off in March and will continue until at least late October. This weekend, get ready for another Saturday night in as Argentines prepare to vote on what for many will be a new experience: the primaries.
In late 2009, a political reform bill introduced by the government was narrowly passed by the Argentine Congress. The bill introduced some changes to the functioning of the party system, such as the requisites for parties to be legally recognised, limits to private funding of political campaigns, and the need for parties to carry out open primaries.
The aim of primary elections is to select the candidates that will represent each party in the national election, much as it happens in the US. The mechanics of the election are, however, quite different to those of the US, where each state can legislate on the matter and hold elections at different times. Instead, the primaries in Argentina will be open, simultaneous and compulsory:
Open: means that anyone can vote for any party, without the need to be a member.
Simultaneous: means that all parties will carry out their primaries at the same time. This year, the date set for the primaries is the 14th of August.
Compulsory: as with other elections in Argentina, all citizens (with a few exceptions) are required to vote. It is also compulsory for parties to participate if they want to take part in the national election.
How will it work?
Each party will have to choose candidates for the following categories: president and vicepresident, national deputies and in some districts also national senators.
The ballots will bear photographs of each pre-candidate and will be colour-coded according the party. So, for example, all Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) ballots will be red and all Frente para la Victoria (FPV) ballots will be light blue.
Each elector will be able to vote for one pre-candidate or list in each category, but they can vote across different parties. So it will be possible, for example, to vote for a presidential pre-candidate from one party and a deputy pre-candidate from another.
After the votes are counted, the pre-candidates with the most votes on each category will become the candidates for their respective parties in the general election in October. No candidates will be able to run for election in October if they were not first elected in their party’s primary.
Who can vote?
Being a national election, only Argentine citizens over the age of 18 will be eligible to vote.
What’s the catch?
Political parties have used different ways throughout the years to select their candidates, from democratic internal elections to less democratic choosing by the party leaders. However, if, as the government announced, the aim of the open primaries was to democratise the selection of candidates and to give them more legitimacy, we can so far say that it has failed miserably. Simply put, it’s just too easy to cheat. Most parties have already selected their candidates through their usual methods and are only presenting one candidate each for the primaries, making them a pointless exercise in not choosing anything. The law doesn’t require a minimum of pre-candidates per party, so there’s nothing stopping them from behaving this way. We can expect the 14th of August to be little more than a general rehearsal for October or, as it’s being called, “a national opinion poll”.
If, as some suggest, the aim was to contain the internal struggles within the Peronist party and align all its candidates under the official party banner, it has also failed: three peronists are running as pre-candidates, each with its own ad-hoc party.
The impact that the primaries will have on the campaign for the general election also remains to be seen. Being the first time this is carried out at the national level (something similar was tried in 2005, but most parties, most districts, and most people didn’t participate) it’s difficult to predict its outcome. One of the main problems is misinformation: according to recent polls, a high percentage of the electorate does not know how the primaries work and almost half thinks they are unnecessary. Even though voting is compulsory, this is rarely enforced and there is the chance of a higher level of absenteeism than in normal elections. Finally, even after the results of the election are known, this could say very little about what will happen in October. The recent election in Santa Fe shows that there can be a big difference between the result of the primaries and that of the general election.
There are other issues at play too. One is that many people oppose the state dictating the internal working of political parties and, mainly, giving non-members (and members of other parties) the chance to interfere with internal matters. In the words of Proyecto Sur’s national deputy and presidential pre-candidate, Alcira Argumedo, “the vote of a [party] member is worth the same as the vote of some guy who went out to walk the dog and found it convenient to go and vote”.
Most worringly, the political reform includes a clause which makes it necessary for parties to get more than 1,5% of the vote in the primaries to be able to take part in the general election. This, together with other restrictions brought about by the reform, will likely affect the participation of small parties. Whilst for many this might be seen as necessary in a highly fragmented party system, it can also be considered an undesirable obstacle for smaller parties to develop and gain meaningful representation. It could also have a negative impact on small parties who depend greatly on public funding (part of which is awarded depending on the votes obtained in the general election).
The results of this political experiment will be seen in years to come as the political system adapts to this new reality.