August 10, 2021

Latam

ARGENTINA: Key considerations ahead of delayed mid-term primary votes

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 6 mins)
  • Under the new voting timetable, partial legislative mid-term elections now take place on 14 November. They will be preceded by party primaries to be held on 12 September, just under five weeks from now.
  • The mid-terms will not just determine governability in the second half of President Alberto Fernandez’s administration, but will also lay down markers for the 2023 presidential contest.
  • The primaries (known as the Open, Simultaneous and Obligatory Primaries, or PASO) function as a fairly accurate – though not infallible – opinion poll ahead of the vote.

PASO

The PASO is a peculiarity of Argentina’s electoral system. Unlike more conventional party primaries, PASO votes are not restricted to party members but are open to all; in fact, voting is compulsory. However, the law does not require parties to put more than one candidate forward. Furthermore, even if there is no intra-party competition, candidates must still participate in the primary. In this election, the governing Front for All (FdT) coalition has already settled on most of its candidates, so there will be genuine FdT primaries in only a handful of districts. Regardless, all candidates must take part in the primary. The opposition Together for Change (JxC) coalition has many more rival lists competing against each other for the right to go on and participate in the elections proper.

Electoral mechanics

The November elections are for half the lower house (127 seats out of 257) and one third of the Senate (24 seats out of 72). The lower house vote uses a system of party list proportional representation. The number of seats is determined by each province’s population. This makes for a very uneven seat allocation. Four provinces account for over half of the seats in contention: Buenos Aires province elects 35 deputies, the capital elects 13, while Cordoba and Santa Fe each elect nine. Meanwhile, eight provinces are involved in the Senate election. Each province elects three senators; the party receiving the highest number of votes wins two senate seats, while the third senate seat is awarded to the party receiving the second highest vote tally.

What’s at stake

In the lower house, 60 seats (out of a 115-strong bloc) currently occupied by the opposition Together for Change (JxC) coalition are in contention. The governing Front for All (FdT) Peronist coalition is defending 51 of its 119-strong bloc. The FdT needs ten additional seats to gain a simple majority in the lower house; the JxC is trying to prevent that from happening. In the Senate, where the FdT has a fairly comfortable majority thanks to its 41-strong bloc, 15 of its seats are in contention. JxC must defend eight of its 25 Senate seats, while the coalition will be hoping to erode the FdT majority.

Buenos Aires province

Buenos Aires province is – as ever – the most significant electoral battleground. The province accounts for 37% of the national electorate and will be voting in more than a quarter of the lower house seats in contention. Moreover, the conurbano urban sprawl around the capital, which is part of Buenos Aires province, is Vice-President Cristina Fernandez’s electoral bastion. It is also an area that has suffered notably from the pandemic restrictions and the associated economic fallout. The province’s electoral value explains why JxC has made it priority number one.

Opposition maneuvering

JxC is running two rival lists for Buenos Aires province. The first is led by Diego Santilli, who is right-hand man to the JxC mayor of Buenos Aires (capital), Horacio Rodriguez Larreta. The second list is led by the neuroscientist Facundo Manes, who has been toying with a political career for years and has now finally made the plunge. Santilli is from the Republican Proposal (PRO) of former president Mauricio Macri (2015-2019). Manes is fronting a list devised by the PRO’s partner in the JxC, the Radicals (UCR). Polls show Santilli in a reasonably comfortable lead over Manes. In theory, if Santilli wins the PASO, Manes and the UCR would swing behind the Santilli list in November when they would face their common enemy: the FdT.

The contest is significant because of what it says about the current state of the opposition and how JxC is approaching the 2023 presidential election. With his move into Buenos Aires provincial politics, Larreta is clearly making a play for 2023. A Santilli win in the PASO would be an important step for Larreta. At the same time, Larreta needs to ensure his candidates perform well on his home turf; his list in the capital is led by none other than the former Buenos Aires provincial governor Maria Eugenia Vidal. However, Vidal faces two rival lists from within the JxC that she needs to defeat in the PASO. Furthermore, in both city and province, JxC faces insurgent campaigns by economic libertarians Javier Milei and Jose Luis Espert, who could take away right-leaning votes. Finally, Macri himself does not appear to have entirely given up on another presidential run in 2023. The better Santilli does in September, the greater the boost for Larreta’s 2023 chances.

FdT

The FdT has managed to suppress most of its many internal divisions (Santa Fe is a notable exception), a possible reflection of how difficult the campaign is expected to be. In Buenos Aires province, the FdT settled on a single list led by Victoria Tolosa Paz, though the coalition does face an external challenge from the dissident Peronist Florencio Randazzo, who could attract disenchanted Peronists. The FdT’s challenge stems from the state of the economy 16 months into the pandemic. Two problems stand out: inflation and unemployment, both of which are felt strongly in the conurbano area. In an attempt to lift the public mood, the government has accelerated the vaccine rollout; turned on the spending spigot; kept costly utility subsidies largely in place; introduced tax relief measures for the self-employed; and allowed collective wage talks to reopen and green-lit wage hikes, among other measures. No matter the economic consequences later down the line – the priority is first the September PASO and then the elections proper in November.

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