December 11, 2013
The return of local politics in this election
By Marcela Ternavasio / Guest columnist
Governors and mayors take centre stage as a crisis of representation deepens
The electoral results of October 27 did not bring much in the way of surprises with regard to the political map drawn up in August. In said map, it’s difficult to identify the political scene of 30 years ago, when, with the advent of democracy, there were less, albeit well-defined political actors: basically the Peronist and Radical (UCR) parties.
The territorial and partisan fragmentation of today has been subjected to many explanations by political analysts who, in general, reflect on the immediate future. But the situation also invites us to dive into the past. A detail of these elections, a novelty at first glance, is the role of protagonist reached by local authorities in different districts (governors and mayors) in national politics. How novel is this in the long electoral history of Argentina?
In recent times, many have insisted that the PASO primaries worked as a sort of great electoral poll, which aside from extending campaigning for several months, were far from the democratization of the contest for candidacies. The UNEN case in the capital was merely an exception within the norm of candidates not willing to compete amongst themselves to settle ranks within partisan structures, which have lost the ability of bringing together people aiming to hold office.
In this way, the country seems to participate in a more global process — which some authors denominate “audience democracy” — marked by the personalization of candidacies and by voters who do not hold strong partisan identities, instead alternating their votes according to the offer of particular issues presented in campaigns. The expression “crisis of political representation” is perhaps the most frequented to reflect this situation.
However, the perception of witnessing a crisis of representation is nothing new. History shows that in the face of profound changes within the modern representative regime, many actors perceive transformation as crisis. This happened, for instance, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when a great part of the Western world shifted from political systems dominated by a small exceptionalist cast to systems founded upon organic political parties.
Publicists from diverse latitudes reflected on the effects brought by the advent of mass democracy, and our country was not foreign to that debate with the sanctioning of the 1912 electoral reform, which cleared the path for the triumph of the Radical Party (UCR). The structure of Radicalism, grounded on the expansion of its “committees,” at the national level, greatly transformed the logic behind the construction of territorial power, also creating a political-partisan identity that was felt at the polls thereafter.
With the rise of Peronism in the ‘40s, the “basic units” acted along with union structures as vehicles for top-down partisan organization, in which identification with their leader was a constituent of this new movement. Today, what appears to be traversing a crisis (or a path of transformation) is that double dimension — organizational and of identity — of large parties. The result is fragmentation, and among other changes, the new role taken up by local authorities is noteworthy. On this point, it is appropriate to revert to the original question, detailed above.
If we look at the not-so-distant past, we can identify old forms of constructing political power that, although recycled to suit a contemporary context, regress to practices with deep roots in the period prior to the reform of 1912, known as the Sáenz Peña Law. The first — perhaps the most visited by political analysts — is the role of protagonist exhibited by governors in recent years. Current Peronism reveals a situation that in some dimensions reminds us of the Autonomist National Party (PAN), created in 1880 and whose dominant figure was Julio A. Roca. As recently shown by the historian Paula Alonso, the PAN was set up through a system of internal competition between different leagues and rival coalitions, grounded in provincial powers. The figure of governor was a fundamental piece in such a competition.
In a federal republic like ours, the principle in that era of prohibiting consecutive presidential re-election and the existence of a hegemonic party without internal institutionalization set the premise for Argentine political dynamics in the last two decades of the 19th century. The control of presidential succession was thus dependent on the support and alliances of these changing provincial leagues.
The second point of comparison is the role of protagonist taken up during this campaign by mayors. It’s well known that during the 19th century, the main gears of mobilization and electoral control were in the hands of municipal authorities. The electoral capital possessed by mayors today is, without doubt, fruit of a process that has been gradually consolidated in recent years, in which the mechanisms and resources assigned to service the construction of territorial power differ considerably from those utilized in the past. Nonetheless, the novelty of local authorities featuring on the front page of newspapers, heading candidate lists and becoming the chief figureheads when it comes down to enticing votes recovers an old slogan of the 19th century’s political culture: the one that identified municipal government as a merely administrative environment without political ends. In this audience democracy, partisan identities and ideological motives on which these were founded cede ground to campaigns that privilege “abilities to govern;” good municipal administration thus comes to replace politics understood as the field for the debate of great questions that affect society and the state. What occurred recently within Peronism in Buenos Aires province reflects this situation well.
The Kirchnerite governments, true champions in cultivating a political rhetoric based on the transformation of society and the state, attempted to control and centralize in their hands the key dispute of our political system: candidacies. Ignoring the Peronist partisan structure and using political capital gained with the personalism they were able to dominate — notwithstanding certain hiccups as that of 2009 — the setting up of lists in different electoral districts. But the latest elections reveal a qualitative shift in this trend, as the fact that local and provincial political networks can place a strong limit to the hegemonic vocation of national executives was left evident. This is what happened to Roquismo at the turn of the 20th century, and is what seems to be happening to Kirchnerism in this new phase.