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Electoral bill raises questions on electronic voting, campaign financing

Interior Minister Rogelio Frigerio, President Mauricio Macri and Political Affairs Secretary Adrián Pérez present the electoral reform bill in Buenos Aires last week.

Experts challenge official reports filed by Macri’s Let’s Change coalition

The government-sponsored electoral reform bill introduced last week is likely to have smooth sailing in Congress, but its proposed instruments are far from being a panacea.

As opposition leaders continue to express their doubts over the draft bill’s calls for the implementation of the electronic voting system, measures for increasing transparency in political finance were also met with scepticism, as official funding reports of all the main parties — including the PRO — were plagued with irregularities.

In last year’s elections, the financial officials responsible for the reporting of the financial affairs of Let’s Change (Cambiemos) coalition were two retired women, aged 68 and 82, with no official affiliation with the party led by Mauricio Macri, La Nación reported yesterday.

Those revelations, in turn, come less than three months after the Chequeado fact-checking website revealed that President Mauricio Macri had received almost three million pesos in cash donations from government contractors ahead of the 2015 presidential elections.

These and other irregularities were confirmed by the auditor’s body at National Electoral Court (CNE) that is now reviewing the financial reports submitted by the country’s political parties after the PASO primaries held in August last year.

But interestingly enough, should the bill be passed, the auditor’s body will be expanded from eight to 24 members — a long-time demand from election monitors.

In other words, the ruling party is promising to give the Judiciary more tools to monitor party financing while at the same giving no signs that it would reform its own financing practices.

Yesterday afternoon, federal prosecutor Jorge Di Lello responded to news of alleged illegal practices spotted in Macri’s PRO but also in financial reports filed by Victory Front (FpV) candidate Daniel Scioli and Renewal Front leader Sergio Massa.

“Either those doing the accounting don’t know their maths, or there’s something strange going on,” Di Lello told Radio del Plata. “Campaign financing is the greatest corruption phenomenon in the country.”

Di Lello stressed however that the final report has not reached the federal prosecutor’s office, the necessary step before he submits a final report to electoral judge María Romilda Servini de Cubria.

A closer look at campaign reports

According to the fine print of the draft bill introduced by Interior Minister Rogelio Frigerio and Political Affairs Secretary Adrián Pérez, the government’s intention is to strengthen the anti-corruption provisions of the Political Parties Financing Law passed in 2009 by giving the Judiciary “more tools” to fight those irregular practices.

One of these measures include expanding the auditor’s body — currently a seven-strong team led by a coordinator working on the third floor of the National Electoral Court, located just metres away from the Pink House — to 24 members in order to address short staffing. Since 2002, auditors have been insistently requesting that the Executive increase the allocation of funds to help audit the financial reports filed by Argentina’s political parties.

In 2015, the auditor’s body had to review a staggering 3,727 reports at the national, provincial and municipal levels filed for the PASO, the general election and the runoff.

Experts in political financing have said campaign expenses and contributions in last year’s elections were underreported, suggesting the declared funds amounted to less than 10 percent of the total. The presidential ticket headed by Macri and Gabriela Michetti, for instance, declared expenses of only 27 million pesos (some US$2.9 million at the exchange rate at that time) and 22 million pesos in private contributions. Actions such as opinion polls, political consultancy services, rallies in the provinces and payments for prime-time TV appeareances are hardly ever declared.

Electronic voting

The government-sponsored bill calls on replacing the existing paper ballots currently in use in most of the provinces with the electronic system first used in Salta in 2009, and extended to the Buenos Aires City mayoral election last year.

With the reform, which the Let’s Change (Cambiemos) administration hopes to have implemented by the 2017 midterm elections, the government wants to achieve greater “transparency and agility” during the vote count.

Yesterday, Peronist (PJ) party legal counsel Jorge Landau said the Macri administration should not rush to implement the electronic system.

“Since we’re talking about a new, unknown tool for most Argentines, there should be a progressive implementation of the measure — they way they did in Salta,” Landau told the state-run news agency Télam, adding that Brazil “took eight years” to switch from paper ballots to the electronic system.

Omar Duclós, the legal counsel of the Renewal Front, requested all political parties take part in the “design and implementation” of the new system, saying citizens should be properly trained before it’s fully incorporated into the system.

Workers’ Leftist Front (FIT) legal representative Guillermo Pistonesi, for his part, said he agreed with the electronic voting since leftist parties “had been systematically affected by theft of paper ballots.”

As for the PASO primaries, the government had first suggested they would be removed from the electoral agenda but then backtracked following criticism from Radical (UCR) party leaders, who are part of the ruling coalition.

PRO party’s legal counsel José Torello stressed that one of the new provisions of the electoral reform bill will be to allow the losing candidate of a coalition’s internal elections to become the front’s vice-presidential candidate in the general elections.

Herald staff

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