December 13, 2013
The curfew before the vote
A respite from campaigning can only be a good thing
This morning, the Right Honourable Bob Marley once sang poignantly, I woke up in a curfew. Marley, like anybody who grew up in the developing world, knew what he was singing about. Most curfews are ugly and manned by, to quote Marley again, officers “dressed in uniforms of brutality.” It was no different in Argentina during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, rest assured.
But Argentina’s electoral curfew that started on Friday morning ahead of today’s midterm vote is benign. The desperados continued to canvass on the social media networks, a sphere not regulated by the electoral law, to win one more vote before the polling stations open nationwide this morning. But here is to the spirit of the electoral curfew.
It is designed to allow voters in this volatile republic to take a respite from all the campaigning so they can have a quiet moment to themselves and think about who they really want to vote for on Sunday. The curfew is also a good time to consider what this election is essentially about. Is it about settling contests so that presidential hopefuls can emerge for the race of 2015 when President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will end her mandate? Yes and no.
Technically today you are voting congressional candidates who will sit in the Lower House of Congress and the Senate. But, like in every election, the political implications of the outcome of today’s vote are numerous. Say that Tigre Mayor Sergio Massa, the leader of the dissident Peronist Renewal Front in Buenos Aires province, wins the Lower House race against the Kirchnerite Victory Front coalition today like he did in the primaries staged in August. Then it is likely that Massa will behave like a presidential candidate. Yet what the Kirchnerites will essentially be looking at tonight is the number of congressional seats actually won by each political party. (See also the backpage.)
Fernández de Kirchner’s administration currently controls Congress after the president scored a landslide win and was re-elected in 2011. Massa won the primaries in Buenos Aires province against Lomas de Zamora Mayor Martín Insaurralde, the candidate handpicked by Fernández de Kirchner to head the Victory Front ticket for the Lower House of Congress.
The symbolic implications of a big win for Massa today are clear enough. The Kirchnerite coalition has lost the territorial control of what is supposed to be its bastion, Buenos Aires province. But what will be far more unsettling for the president is if her Victory Front effectively loses control of Congress tonight. Key contests for crucial seats include the battle in Buenos Aires province between Victory Front candidate Daniel Filmus and Fernando Solanas, the candidate of the centrist UNEN coalition, for the minority Senate seat. Also watch closely the result in Neuquén province where the three Senate seats up for grabs could make all the difference once the newly-elected Upper House starts to session again next year.
Many candidates will celebrate tonight. Others will be disappointed, but in the backroom of every party headquarter the calculations about what kind of look the new Congress will have will stretch into the wee hours of the night. Much of the anxiety — and fun — of this election has been sapped by the PASO primary contest headed in August.
The relatively-new system was originally conceived by the Kirchnerites after their defeat of 2009 as a way of sorting out internal differences ahead of the actual election. But most candidates, including Massa, who is technically a Peronist now at odds with the CFK administration in which he once served, chose to skirt the formality by running away from the official party structure.
Massa has established a Renewal Front away from the Victory Front coalition, which has the Peronist party as a main member.
Massa, the renegade Peronist now criticizing the Kirchnerite leadership, won more votes than Insaurralde in August. But both qualified for today’s contest simply because they now belong to different political groups. Massa’s move was bold. He collected on an audacious decision by winning in August. But a bigger test will start for Massa tomorrow because he is expected to also run for president in 2015.
Massa, by formally leaving the Victory Front and openly criticizing Kirchnerism, is now at odds with Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli, who is the formal head of the Peronist party. Scioli announced long ago that he will run for president, in a Victory Front primary, in 2015 if the president did not reform the Constitution to seek a third consecutive term in office.
One of the many symbolic messages from this election is that voters, by punishing the Victory Front so clearly in August, evidently in their majority do not favour any kind of initiative to reform the Constitution. Critics have aimed to pin the Victory Front’s defeat in all the major districts (Buenos Aires City, Buenos Aires province, Santa Fe and Córdoba) directly on Fernández de Kirchner.
Indeed, Fernández de Kirchner in person faced the music on primary night along with Insaurralde and most other prominent Victory Front candidates. That will not be the case tonight. The president underwent surgery on October 8 to drain a hematoma on her head and doctors ordered “strict” rest for 30 days. Fernández de Kirchner checked into the Favaloro Foundation hospital on Wednesday night for a checkup after the operation. All is well, doctors said. She can now take walks in the Olivos residence where she is resting, the doctors said. But that “strict” rest period of 30 days must continue — away from any stress. Fernández de Kirchner, according to a detailed medical report that was released on Wednesday night, will have to undergo further tests on her heart condition. The president’s operation is the biggest unexpected development to have happened between the August 11 primaries and today’s election. Fernández de Kirchner, according to the official information, injured her head in a fall she suffered on August 12 — the day after the primary election. If the Victory Front faces defeat tonight then the president, who is referred to by her supporters as la jefa (the chief), will not be there to face the music.
The president is officially not informed of any developments to avoid any stress, as ordered by the team of prestigious Favaloro Foundation doctors who are treating her.
CFK lost her husband and presidential predecessor Néstor Kirchner in 2010 (exactly three years ago today) in 2010. The president’s two adult children, Máximo and Florencia Kirchner, are reportedly the best allies of the doctors in trying to get their mother to take the rest period seriously.
Political events continue to unfold, but officially the president is not in touch with what is going on. Reportedly the inner circle now supervising decisions includes Máximo Kirchner and Carlos Zannini, the president’s legal secretary. The national government is still taking decisions.
Interior and Transport Secretary Florencio Randazzo on Wednesday, the same day on which the president went back to hospital briefly, announced the total nationalization of the Sarmiento train line. A Sarmiento line train crashed against the buffers at Once station in Buenos Aires City, injuring over 100 commuters last Saturday.
The engine driver is under investigation. Randazzo on Wednesday showed a video of the engine driver allegedly slacking while driving another train prior to the crash. Randazzo has called the Sarmiento line conflict “political” and he is directly at odds with the railway unions over the reforms he introduced after a Sarmiento commuter train crashed at the same Once station in February 2012, killing 52 people.
A sweeping privatization of Argentina’s sprawling railway system was ordered in the 90s by then president Carlos Menem, a Peronist who embraced neoconservative policies. Menem negotiated management deals with the trade unions who continued to have clout in the metropolitan services to and from Greater Buenos Aires. A railway workers union gang has been found guilty in court of the 2010 murder of Mariano Ferreyra, a farleft activist who was taking part in a demonstration to condemn outsourced contracts for railway workers. Violence is always latent. Milagro Sala, a pro-government activist in Jujuy, was “ambushed” by a group carrying guns while canvassing in the provincial capital. Sala said that her group was attacked by a gang at the service of the Radical party. The Radicals have denied the allegation and described the attack as infighting in Sala’s militant group, which has a lot of territorial clout in Jujuy.
The national Supreme Court meanwhile had a say in today’s vote by accepting a Radical party injunction against the re-election of Santiago del Estero Governor Gerardo Zamora, once a Radical and now a Kirchnerite ally. The provincial constitution bans Zamora from re-reelection. But the provincial high court had ruled the ban unconstitutional.
All this has happened while the president is on sick leave. Randazzo caused a stir when he declared that the sweeping nationalization (originally designed to be more gradual after the 2012 crash) had not been consulted with Amado Boudou, the acting president. But the president is expected to make a full recovery.
The biggest decision after today’s election is likely to be a major Cabinet reshuffle.