On Sunday, November 14, Argentine citizens head to the polls to vote in a legislative election that will turn over half of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and a third of the seats in the Senate. We brought together two scholars with expertise in the country to discuss with us this critical moment for Argentina:
Horacio Larreguy is an Associate Professor of Economics and Political Science at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) in Mexico City. His research interests include political economy, development economics using both theory and empirics, and political accountability and vote behavior in Africa and Latin America.
Laura Zommer is the Executive Director and Editor-in-Chief of Chequeado, a non-profit, independent media and fact-checking organization, where she leads strategic planning and defines the editorial criteria for all publications. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the International Fact Checking Network and Sembramedia, as well as a member of the Advisory Council of Gender and Number in Brazil.
Like many other aspects of daily life, the pandemic has played a significant role in the elections that have taken place around the world in the past year-and-a-half. How have they affected the political conditions and electoral campaigning in the lead up to the election in Argentina?
Laura Zommer: As a consequence of the pandemic, the preventive measures taken by the government became a subject of debate during the primary elections campaign. It’s likely that they will generate an impact on the electorate’s decision and influence their votes in the general election. More importantly, the economic and social indicators, far from recovering, have gotten worse in 2020 and 2021.
Horacio Larreguy: In contrast to the case of other countries, where severe restrictions were imposed on electoral campaigning, COVID-19 did not severely affect electoral campaigning in Argentina. Also, after implementing very strict public health measures, the last weeks of electoral campaigning have coincided with a period of a significant decrease in the number of COVID-19 cases, which allowed substantial on-the-ground campaigning.
However, COVID-19 did affect the way that primary elections were conducted. Although voting both in primary and general elections is mandatory in Argentina, voters could justify their absenteeism on the basis of many new exceptions resulting from COVID-19. A turnout of 67.78% was the lowest in the history of primary elections, which started in 2011. For the general election, the government has significantly increased the number of polling places to reduce the density of polling booths and foster turnout.
In any case, COVID-19 has played a significant role in the outcome of primary elections in Argentina since, as in other places, strict public health measures have taken a significant toll on an already deteriorating economy and its associated effect on crime. This led to social discontent of the Argentineans with the government, which was elevated to rage when the press released photos of an illegal, sizable gathering to celebrate the first lady’s birthday in the middle of such strict measures.
Who are the top candidates running in this election? What party coalitions have formed, and who is expected to do well and why?
LZ:The main candidates to fill the national representative seats for the Buenos Aires province are Diego Santilli (Juntos por el Cambio), Victoria Tolosa Paz (Frente de Todos), Nicolás Del Caño (Frente de Izquierda), José Luis Espert (Avanza Libertad), Florencio Randazzo (Vamos con Vos) and Cynthia Hotton (Valores).
The candidates for Buenos Aires city are María Eugenia Vidal (Juntos por el Cambio), Leandro Santoro (Frente de Todos), Javier Milei (La Libertad Avanza), Myriam Bregman (Frente de Izquierda), and Luis Zamora (Autodeterminación y Libertad).
A poll by the consulting agency Management & Fit last week showed that the results of the general elections are likely to be similar to those in the primary.
HL: To avoid repeating Laura’s answer, instead, I provide some context of who the Frente de Todos and Juntos por el Cambio are. The Frente de Todos is the incumbent party coalition of Peronist forces, mainly from Alberto Fernández (current president since 2019) and Cristina Fernández (current vice president and president between 2007 and 2015, and wife of the late Néstor Kirchner, who was the president between 2003 and 2007). Importantly, the latter is the one that has stronger ties to the social movements doing the bulk of on-the-ground voter mobilization. Juntos por el Cambio,in turn, governed between 2015 and 2019.
The primary election outcome speaks of a significant defeat for the incumbent Frente de Todos, which got 32.43% of the votes relative to the 48.24% in the 2019 general elections. The Juntos por el Cambio, in turn, got 41.53% of the votes, consistent with the 40.28% in the 2019 general elections. Recent polls indicate that the general election outcome should not be dramatically different, but many variables might affect the Frente de Todos’ losing margin.
First, as in previous elections, turnout between the primary and general elections should increase at least 5 percentage points, and possibly more so in these elections, especially after the changes in electoral administration I mentioned earlier. Adding half of the 4.54 % and 1.61% of the blank or nullified votes, we should expect at least 8 percentage points of new positive votes. Second, 8.87% of votes in the primary elections were cast for parties who did not pass the 1.5% threshold to compete in the primary elections. These votes are largely for left-wing parties, and thus more likely to be captured by the Frente de Todos. Third, while it is not clear the extent to which it has materialized, the announcement of a sizeable increase in social spending might significantly complement the on-the-ground voter mobilization efforts by the Frente de Todos. Ultimately, I would then not be surprised if the Frente de Todos manages to significantly cut down its losing margin through on-the-ground voter mobilization, which I explain below is critical to think of Argentina’s governability in the years ahead.
The results of the September 12 primary elections show increased support for the main conservative opposition coalition—Juntos por el Cambio. What does this mean for President Alberto Fernández and his center-left ruling coalition?
LZ: The primary elections conveyed an alert signal of social discontent, according to President Alberto Fernández. This could mean the presence of a more balanced power distribution if the results of September 12th are repeated in the general election. Precisely, in that hypothetical context the ruling coalition—Frente de Todos—wouldn’t achieve a majority in the Chamber of Deputies or maintain its current number of seats. And in the Senate, the government would need to start negotiating with the opposition in order to sanction laws. At Chequeado, we have two pieces that explain the current situation further that can be found here and here.
HL: The primary election results were a clear signal of social discontent with the management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of the economy, and rising inflation. The general election outcome will be important for the future balance of power both between the Frente de Todos and Juntos por el Cambio and within the Frente de Todos. First, as Laura mentions, if the primary election outcome persists in the general election, the Frente de Todos will lose not only the majority Chamber of Deputies and Senate, but also the quorum in the Senate.
Second, and in my view as important, the general election outcome will also shape the future of the Frente de Todos coalition, which is central to Argentina’s governability in the years ahead. After the primary elections, the president resisted implementing significant changes in the Cabinet, as the vice president requested while blaming the president’s team for the loss. As a result, all the ministers from the vice president’s team presented their resignation, and the vice president published an open letter criticizing the president, ultimately forcing more significant changes in the Cabinet that benefited the vice president. The issue is whether such changes will improve the Frente de Todos’s electoral performance and confirm the vice president’s claims. Historically, the vice president and her voter-mobilization machine have delivered at last 35% of the vote. However, an eventual Frente de Todos loss with less than 35% of the voters will signal that the vice president’s political capital and machine are not as strong as they used to be, thus changing the power dynamic within the Frente de Todos.
LZ: A recent piece that we published at Chequeado, showed that contrary to the announcements of the President and public opinion, there wasn’t an increase on social spending after the primary elections. Furthermore, many candidates from the ruling coalition, like Daniel Gollan, talked about bringing “más platita” (a way to say more small money) to the most vulnerable sectors of the population. However, so far it has been a subject of discussion only in statements but not in the facts.
HL: As Laura says, it is unclear how much of the announced increase in social spending has materialized. However, such announcements are key for expectations and the signals they send to voters and the social movements that help the Frente de Todos with voter mobilization. Most Argentineans vote as a function of the temporary income they have, or as we say in Spanish, “votan con el bolsillo.” This largely explains the 2019 loss for Juntos por el Cambio and the result of the recent primary elections. Through such announcements and the freezing of prices until 2022, the Frente de Todos has tried to create a sense of monetary illusion among voters hit harder by the crises. Importantly, such strategies also complement the voter-mobilization work by its aligned social movements, which can use the promise of transfers and inflation fear in the coming general election to mobilize voters. It is hard to say whether the strategy will actually pay off electorally in the short term. Still, I doubt it will hurt given the composition of the Frente de Todos’ traditional supporters. The concern is the associated increase in inflation in 2022 when the freezing of prices is over or stops being effective. Even if the increase in social spending and printing of money does not materialize, the rise in inflation expectations will be sufficient to sustain the rising inflation.
What are some of the other main issues that are likely to come up and play a role in this election?
LZ:In addition to the economic crisis that we’ve been facing in Argentina, the pandemic worsened the conditions. Apart from that, there are other difficulties like the debate about the judiciary discussion because of the processes that Cristina Férnandez de Kirchner faces (some of them have been closed and she obtained two dismissals), the court cases that involve the former President Mauricio Macri, and the debt and agreement with the International Monetary Fund. Moreover, another issue to take into account is the impact of the primary elections results in the inner composition of the ruling coalition, which led to many resignations and changes in the cabinet.
HL:Three recent series of events might play a role in the coming general election. First, after the primary elections, there has been a dramatic removal of COVID-19, which might change the spirit of the electorate. Second, there have recently been a few incidences of severe crimes, which have led to social discontent that the Frente de Todos has not managed to diffuse. Third, the vice president has been charged with leading a corruption network. The press published notebooks written by the driver of the vice president’s former planning minister indicating the bags of cash allegedly delivered to government offices and the vice president’s private residence. Despite many businessmen testifying that they paid bribes contributing to such corruption, the defense argued that those were made up. However, the police have recently been able to unlock an iPhone that supports the veracity of the notebook information. To add to this, the former minister of public works, who was caught while trying to hide nine million dollars in a convent, was recently released from prison. Lastly, while idiosyncratic, the president has made clear mistakes while campaigning, like saying in a province that it was finally time that its people integrate into the rest of the country…there is still time for more of these gaffes before the election.