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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Argentina goes to the polls for a general election - or a coronation?

By Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

The Republic of Argentina holds a general election on Sunday, October 28, 2007, to choose a new president and vice-president. Voters will also elect one-third of the Senate and half the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. In each of the eight provinces holding Senate elections, upper house mandates will be allocated on a two-to-one basis between the largest party and the runner-up. Meanwhile, Chamber of Deputies seats will be distributed on a provincial basis by proportional representation; National Elections in Argentina has further information about the country's electoral system and political history.

In addition, most of Argentina's twenty-three provinces will hold provincial legislative elections; eight of these will also have gubernatorial elections, among them Buenos Aires - the country's largest and most populous, housing over a third of Argentina's thirty-nine million inhabitants (and surrounding but not including the national capital of the same name, which is a separate autonomous city).

Outgoing President Néstor Kirchner has chosen not to run for re-election, and voters will have a choice of fourteen formulas spanning the entire political spectrum from far right to far left. That said, one candidate is regarded as the clear front-runner: Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of the ruling, Peronist-oriented Front for Victory. Although she also happens to be Kirchner's wife, Argentina's first lady - known simply as Cristina - is no stand-in for her husband: she is a politician in her own right, with a forceful personality and nearly two decades of experience in elective office, first as a provincial deputy in the Kirchners' home province of Santa Cruz, and since 1995 as a national legislator, most recently as Senator from the province of Buenos Aires.

Unlike most Latin American nations, Argentina is a fully developed and relatively prosperous country with an overwhelmingly white population, largely descended from European immigrants (mainly from Spain and Italy). However, the South American nation was plagued by political instability for most of the 20th century - between 1930 to 1976, the armed forces overthrew civilian governments a half-dozen times - and the country's economy has experienced frequent boom-and-bust cycles.

Since the end of World War II, the Peronists and the Radicals have been Argentina's major political forces, and the two parties have alternated in power since the restoration of democracy in 1983. The populist Peronists - formally the Partido Justicialista or Justicialist Party - have been largely sustained by the urban working class, particularly the labor unions that flourished during the first presidency (1946-55) of Juan Domingo Perón, the party's founder and long-time leader. Meanwhile, the centrist Radicals - in full, the Unión Cívica Radical or Radical Civic Union - historically drew their support from Argentina's large middle class.

However, the severe economic crisis of 2001-2002 - which left a majority of the country's population living in poverty - practically wrecked the party system, and both major parties split into numerous factions. For the 2003 presidential elections, the Peronists couldn't even agree on a single candidate, and three party leaders ran against each other for the presidency: former president Carlos Menem (who pursued a neo-liberal economic policy of privatizations during his tenure in office from 1989 to 1999), Santa Cruz governor Néstor Kirchner and former San Luis governor Adolfo Rodríguez Saá, who had briefly served as interim president in late 2001 (during his brief tenure, the country defaulted on its large external debt). Although Kirchner came in second place in the first round of voting, right behind Menem, the latter withdrew from the runoff election when opinion polls indicated Kirchner would win a landslide victory. Consequently, Kirchner was declared the winner by default.

Under Kirchner's presidency, the economy has staged a remarkable recovery, and the percentage of Argentinians living in poverty has declined markedly. In addition, Argentina restructured its external debt. Cristina Fernández is running on the ruling party's record of strong economic growth, and opinion polls suggest she could easily win the presidency in the first round against a weak and fragmented opposition, becoming Argentina's first elected female president.

However, in the weeks preceding the election a controversy erupted over the soaring price of tomatoes - a main salad and pasta sauce ingredient in Argentina - which was not reflected in official economic statistics that continued to show a much lower figure. While Kirchner's government belatedly stepped in to reach a price agreement, a consumer boycott appears to have effectively driven down prices.

Not surprisingly, recent polls show a slight decline for Cristina Fernández, but she retains a commanding lead over the other presidential candidates. Her authorized biography is titled "Reina Cristina" (literally, "Queen Cristina") and the absence of a credible challenger has led some commentators to remark that the upcoming vote won't be so much an election as a coronation. While comparisons have been drawn between Eva Perón - the late president's charismatic second wife - and Cristina Fernández, the latter insists her political role model is U.S. Senator (and former first lady) Hillary Clinton, who also aspires to become her country's first female president.

At this juncture, the only race that seems to be taking place in the presidential election is for second place. Former national deputy Elisa Carrió, a liberal Christian backed by the Civic Coalition, and former Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna of An Advanced Nation party appear to be the strongest candidates after Cristina Fernández, while former cabinet minister Ricardo López Murphy of the Recreate for Growth party and Alberto Rodríguez Saá of the Justicialist Liberation Front are further behind. Both Carrió's party, Affirmation for a Republic of Equals and the right-of-center Recreate for Growth are Radical offshoots; Lavagna, a self-described centrist, is supported by what remains of the Radical Civic Union (along with dissident Peronists), while Rodríguez Saá defends "traditional" Peronism.

If none of the presidential and vice-presidential formulas wins at least forty-five percent of the vote in the upcoming election, or at least forty percent and a ten percent lead over the formula arriving second, a runoff election will be subsequently held between the top two formulas, and the formula with the largest number of votes will be declared the winner. The ruling party is anxious to avoid a runoff, in which opponents of the government may coalesce around the second-placed candidate to bring down Cristina Fernández. A large number of mostly older Argentinian voters remain reluctant to support a woman president, in no small measure because of the bitter memories of Perón's third wife, María Estela (Isabel) Martínez de Perón, a politically inexperienced former cabaret dancer who succeeded her husband as president when he died in office in 1974. Her brief presidency, characterized by spiraling political violence and runaway inflation, is generally regarded as an unmitigated disaster that precipitated the 1976 coup and the ensuing "dirty war," in which as many as thirty thousand Argentinians were victims of forced disappearances carried out by the military government.

While gender would not be an issue in a runoff between Fernández and Carrió - who was Argentina's first major female presidential candidate in 2003 - a Fernández-Lavagna runoff would be a different story, all the more so as Lavagna is widely regarded as the architect of Argentina's miracle recovery during his tenure in the Ministry of Economy from 2002 to 2005. However, the prospect of a runoff election remains unlikely, and Cristina Fernández appears set to be elected (or crowned?) president next October 28. In any event, one thing is certain: no one will be throwing tomatoes over the election outcome - they remain too expensive.


As widely anticipated, Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was elected president of Argentina by a landslide margin in the first round of voting held last October 28. Definitive 2007 presidential election results, announced on November 12, 2007, were as follows:

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner - 8,650,990 votes (45.3%)
Elisa Carrió - 4,401,953 votes (23.0%)
Roberto Lavagna - 3,229,637 votes (16.9%)
Alberto Rodríguez Saá - 1,458,918 votes (7.1%)

A total of 19,101,819 valid votes were cast in the election. Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner carried 21 of Argentina's twenty-three provinces, losing only in the City of Buenos Aires (to Carrió) and in the provinces of Córdoba and San Luis (which voted for Lavagna and Rodríguez Saá, respectively).