Argentina's elections: a guide

BUENOS AIRES — “It's not that we're good; it's that the others are worse.”

These optimistic words, attributed to legendary leader Juan Peron, are as applicable today as ever for many of Argentine's 27 million voters, who will elect a third of their Senate and half of the Chamber of Deputies this weekend. Surveys show that many voters despair of distinguishing between the candidates or even remembering what branch of government is up for election on June 28.

And who can blame them? With a former president now running for the lower house of Congress and this midterm election widely seen as a referendum on the presidency of Cristina Kirchner, the branches of the government are looking pretty gnarled up. Voters have scarcely had time to gather their thoughts since the passage of the president's inscrutable motion to hold the elections four months earlier than originally planned. That was just the first of this harried campaign season's many quirks. But nothing comes as much of a surprise in Argentina's political circus.

The parties

Well, to start with, there are 713 of them. That's right. From Justicialists to Union Federalists to Intransigents, from Communists to Leftist Socialists to Radical Socialists, and pretty much every other variety imaginable.

But in case that wasn't complicated enough, those parties aren't the ones that usually get on the ballot. Party politics in Argentina run on constantly shifting allegiances and estrangements. About 400 of the parties are grouped into almost a hundred coalitions. Even worse, one party may have a left and a right wing, and countless sub-schisms.

Such is the main contest this time around: the race in the province of Buenos Aires, which pits Peronists against Peronists, an old sibling rivalry in Argentina. On one side is the current ruling party, an assemblage of mostly leftist Peronists grouped as the “Justicialist Front for Victory.” On the other is the Union-PRO, a motley crew of right-wing Peronists and business moguls.

To make things even more complicated, there are allegations that this opposition would join the ruling party immediately upon entry into the Congress. Union-PRO leaders deny the smear — not on the grounds that it is absurd, but merely false — and, in an I'm rubber-you're-glue moment, stick it right back onto the other party that started the rumors.

Party alliances crop up so quickly that they require the coinage of new ad hoc names, like “the Front of the Left and the Workers, PTS-MAS-Socialist Left.” And in the personalistic political tradition of Argentina, no one is surprised at the use of the term Kirchnerism for the front of friends of the first family. Which brings us to...

The people

Gen. Juan Peron has dominated Argentine politics for most of the past six decades, even when his name was outlawed, and one may have noticed that he still rules Argentina from the grave. But the living Peronist personality dominating this election is the previous president and current first gentleman, Nestor Kirchner. In contrast to his rather unpopular wife, Kirchner enjoyed approval ratings in excess of 70 percent as president. But that still doesn't guarantee him and his alliance, the Justicialist Front for Victory, a victory in the tight contest for the deputy chairmanships of Buenos Aires province.

Kirchner comes from the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz — where he was governor before winning the presidency — about as far from Buenos Aires one can get before the “fin del mundo” Tierra del Fuego. So why is he running in the province of Buenos Aires?

Well, because he can: The presidential residence where he lives with his wife is in the provincial suburbs. And because he should: The province of Buenos Aires — not to be confused with the city, which is a federal district with its own representatives — contains more than 40 percent of the Argentine electorate and 70 of the 257 deputies in Congress. Compare that to the 5 or 10 that most other states get and it's clear that Buenos Aires is the prize of this contest.

But even though we've been talking about candidates, the truth is that no voter can elect a person. Argentine elections run on a list system: Parties name their favorite people, and citizens then vote for the party slate they like. Any party with more than 3 percent of the vote gets a proportional number of seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

If it weren't hard enough for voters to keep track of the 35 candidates on a party's list, a new fun factor has been introduced by Nestor Kirchner: the so-called testimonial candidacies. That's a euphemism. It refers to candidates who are signed up to make the list look good but who have no intention of taking the post if elected because they already hold another office that they prefer. There are well over 30 such candidates, from mayors up to the governor of Buenos Aires province, on the Front for Victory's lists.

The platforms

What's it all really about, anyway? Well, Kirchner threatens that his defeat would plunge Argentina back into the days of economic crisis. Meanwhile, his prime opponent, Francisco De Narvaez, accuses him of harboring Hugo Chavez-like nationalization plans — although, just four days before the election, De Narvaez admitted that he would also want to nationalize much of the energy sector.

There are also some outstanding debates. A new communications bill, for example, is being pushed by the Kirchnerists as an attempt to decentralize the media, but opponents fear that it's a gambit for more state control of speech.

But the basic undercurrent of the election is a renegotiation of the ruling power that was destabilized last year in the government's conflict with Argentina's farmers. President Kirchner's attempt to raise export taxes divided her adminstration and lost her popular and political support. So that's really what's at stake this election: It's not so much about the issues as it is about...

The power

Not long ago, the National Congress was a virtual conveyor belt for both Kirchners' proposals. Now the public is considering whether to leave the golden scepter in the Kirchners' hands, or to paralyze their reign. There are even some murmurings that if the first couple's party were to lose its majority in the Congress, President Kirchner would step down before the end of her term to avoid the pains of lameness. No one's admitting to that, but such presidential resignations are historically a common practice in Argentina, a country that has frequently had trouble navigating the compromises demanded in a balanced-power democracy.

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