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Making sense of Argentina's confusing elections.
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.
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...
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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