Argentina: Voter apathy delivers Fernandez victory

With 44.9% of the valid votes cast, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, wife of President Nestor Kirchner, won Argentina's October 28 presidential election. Fernandez was backed by her husband's Front for Victory (FPV) party, still formally a faction within the Peronist (nationalist-populist) Justicialist Party (PJ).

An unusual abstention rate of 28% contributed to the electoral contest being resolved in the first round. According to the 1999 reformed constitution, whoever wins 45% of the valid votes cast, or more than 40% of the affirmative valid votes cast with a difference of 10 percentage points from the second candidate, is declared the winner.

Second place went to another woman, Elisa Carrio, with 22.9%. In third place, with 16.9%, was Roberto Lavagna, ex-minister of economy from March 2002 until December 2005, during the period in which Argentina's economy recovered from its collapse in 2001. Fourth place went to Alberto Rodriguez Saa, with 7.7%.

For the first time in the last 10 years, those who finished in the top four positions did not run on the tickets of either the liberal Radical Civic Union (UCR) or the PJ.

Even more significantly, the four most voted tickets (92.6% of the total valid votes cast) had an eclectic composition.

Lavagna, who has a long history as a Peronist militant, had as his vice presidential candidate a leader of UCR. Rodriguez Saa, the only candidate who accentuated his position as a peronist and received the support of neoliberal Peronist ex-president Carlos Menem ran a journalist as VP.

During the election campaign, Carrio, who comes from a UCR background, repudiated the Alternative for a Republic of Equals, the party she helped create at the end of the 1990s. She selected as her running mate a senator from the Socialist Party, a small social-democratic party.

Lavagna, who has a long history as a Peronist militant, had as his vice presidential candidate a leader of UCR. Rodriguez Saa, and received the support of neoliberal Peronist ex-president Carlos Menem.

A double example of the disintegration and weakening of the traditional party system was offered in the province of Mendoza, governed by Cobos until December 10, the day on which he will assume the vice presidency. There were traditionally three major parties in the province — the UCR, PJ and the provincially based conservative Democratic Party. In the October 28 election there were 36 lists in Mendoza, and the candidate Cobos backed to succeed him as Mendoza's governor lost the election to a rival candidate from the FPV.

Another outstanding feature of this campaign was the total apathy of the electorate, which flowed from the absence of proposals and programs, and the absolute lack of debate — literally — between the candidates. This distancing of the electorate from the political contest not only manifested itself in the lack of participation of ordinary men and women in the electoral campaign, carried out exclusively by publicity agencies and campaigners hired to stick up posters and distribute leaflets. It also manifested itself in the rate of abstentions, unprecedented since 1928 in Argentina, where voting is compulsory.

It was also expressed in a surprising and unheard of way — 72 hours before election day it became known that 92% of the electoral officials in Buenos Aires province had refused to staff the polling stations. The government had to order court employees to assume their tasks. As a result, there were delays in the commencement of voting, installation of less voting tables, long queues to vote and delays in counting the votes.

As opposed to the ritual repeated after each election, there were no celebrations in the streets of Buenos Aires on the night of October 28.

Fernandez will be Argentina's second woman president. She is preceded by Estela Martinez, who in 1974 assumed the position following the death of her husband, Juan Peron.

Fernandez's resounding victory will not exempt her government from great difficulties. Firstly, pro-government candidates were defeated in the local elections in the three biggest cities in the country — Buenos Aires, Santa Fe and Cordoba.

Secondly, and probably with a bigger and more immediate impact, is the fact that Daniel Scioli, Kirchner's outgoing vice-president and an old ally of Menem, was elected governor of Buenos Aires province, out polling Fernandez's candidate by 6%. When electoral trickery is taken into account, this means that more than a few FPV campaign managers in the surrounding parts of Buenos Aires pushed for a vote to the detriment of the president-elect. As a result, the parliamentary majority that the FPV obtained will not necessarily manifest itself in a united and disciplined way when it comes to voting on significant questions.

The burning issues that Fernandez will have to face from December 10 include:

•Defining the position of Argentina in the South American political context, accentuating or redefining the course of regional economic cooperation, predominate since the beginning of 2002.

•Deciding what position to adopt with regard to the use of petroleum and minerals, today in the hands of foreign corporations.

•Solving the contradiction between the increase in prices and volume of exports of grain and meat, which is dragging internal prices upwards and which threaten to create dangerous social and political problems.

•Dealing with the problem of subsidised prices (particularly in energy and transport), at the same time as resisting pressure from the big capitalist groups to increase the price of services.

•Reverse the regressive course that the distribution of the national rent has taken in such a way as to overcome the impoverishment of the majority, which has paradoxically accompanied the economic recuperation of the country.

•Resolving the conflict with Uruguay over the building of two industrial paper mills on the Uruguayan side of the Uruguay River, which is shared by the two countries.

During the election campaign, Fernandez gave away no clues as to her future actions on these and other burning issues. Her electoral slogan "Deepen the change" was sufficiently ambiguous to rally behind her a heterogeneous coalition while at the same time allowing each voter to interpret her "platform" according to their own views and desires.

The unexpected presence of the defeated French Socialist Party presidential candidate, Segolene Royal, at Fernandez's post-election victory celebration has been pointed to by the official presidential team as a sign of Fernandez's international alignment— convergence with social democracy in general and the governments of Brazilian President Lula de Silva and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet within the region.

In the midst of the celebrations, a high ranking member of the presidential team assured journalists that the photo opportunity with Royal would be followed at the inauguration ceremony on December 10 by one with Hillary Clinton, presidential candidate for the US Democratic Party, to be invited as a special guest.

The election registered the continuing collapse of the left, which has not stopped going backwards since the 1980s.

Fernando Solanos, the candidate for a front constituted barely two months before the elections, obtained the most votes among this sector, with 1.6%. Behind him came the Socialist Movement of Workers, with 0.7%. The Communist Party, which unexpectedly stood as its candidate the head of the Humanist Party, obtained 0.4%. Another three or four left groups limited themselves to seeing if their vote was one tenth above or below the rest.

But the surprise came from those sectors that, coming from the left, incorporated themselves into the government and Kirchner's political structure. None of the principal representatives of these groups, who as a general rule are long-term social movement activists, obtained the candidatures they were waiting for and which they have campaigned for internally within the FPV.

Strategic definitions by Fernandez and the recomposition of the lefts, inside and outside the pro-government forces, are therefore principal political unknowns for the months ahead.

The principal one, however, emerges from the implicit message in the ballot boxes — an apathetic and distant electorate that continually shifts its vote around, each time with greater speed, and which it votes with its eyes set on GDP indices, seems to be waiting for a political reconfiguration that can win its heart and conscious.

[Abridged from America XXI #30 (November 2007). Translated with permission by Federico Fuentes.]