[This article was first published in the World Section of the Huffington Post on 21 October 2015.]
By Jesica L. Santos*
22 October 2015
On 25 October, Argentinians will go the polls to elect their next democratic president who, for the first time since 2003, won't have "Kirchner" as a last name. But the choice Argentinians will really be making concerns not an individual but, rather, the type of country they want to recover.
The current populist government has been in power for 12 years if we count all the administrations of both Néstor Kirchner (deceased) and his widow and current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Having failed to obtain the support needed to amend the Constitution in order to seek a third term, Kirchner recently single-handedly appointed as her successor Daniel Scioli, the former offshore powerboat racing champion and current, more moderate (or at least not as combative) governor of Buenos Aires, the largest province in the country. Scioli owes much of his political support, if not all, to the fact that Kirchner chose him to succeed her as opposed to having a primary, like the rest of the political parties do, to choose the nominee. But first, she made sure to impose on Scioli a running mate whose loyalty to her and her husband has been bullet-proof over the years, Carlos Zannini. And in doing so, rumor is, she has tried to secure her own continuity with decision-making power behind the scenes.
The opposition is represented by five candidates who basically run on the slogan of change, with only two really having the possibility of giving Scioli, who instead promises continuity, a run for his money. These are center-right Mauricio Macri, the current mayor of the city of Buenos Aires (the most important and influential in the country), and Sergio Massa, a Peronist centrist who defected from the Kirchner government two years ago over personal disagreements with Kirchner during the time he served as her Chief of Staff.
A lot is at stake for Argentinians, as their country faces a myriad of serious problems ranging from corruption scandals surrounding the Kirchners themselves and the currently-indicted Vice President Amado Boudou; an inflation rate of over 25% (unless you ask the government who claims it is in low single digits); unprecedented social polarization; a stagnating economy and steep deficit; isolation from global markets; rampant violent insecurity in the streets that were once safe for kids to play in; a total erosion of the public's trust in judicial institutions; rising poverty levels in urban areas; a lack of investment that prevents growth; an unsustainable fiscal situation; and a very dangerous increase in drug-related crimes. These are some of the few but grave problems which plague the country, to which we must add the political style of its current leader, known to have created (or imagined) enemies everywhere and infused society with class-related resentment seen fewer times before.
A mere week away from the national presidential election, (a reminder that for Argentinians between the ages of 18 and 69 voting is mandatory) little do we know with any degree of certainty about what might await the country on December 10 when the new president is to take the oath of office. Polls are generally not to be trusted since most of them are commissioned by the political parties themselves and their results used for marketing purposes during TV ads. And then we have street polls, which give results that are as volatile as the political environment in the country. As an example of this lack of predictability and lasting allegiances, recently, a candidate for Massa's party, Mónica López, switched to Scioli's party but continued to be on the ballot for Massa and appeared on national TV asking that people not vote for her. That is how politics can be in this country.
As a result, we can rely, only a little, on other sources available to get an idea of which candidates people might be leaning towards. If we go by what citizens are manifesting on social media, or to journalists and political scientists on the ground who try to gauge voting tendencies in a professional way despite the natural margin of error that exists with these exercises, we seem to have a scenario in which Scioli continues to be the front runner with approximately 40% of the vote, closely followed by Macri with approximately 30%. This, however, means nothing, particularly if we take into account that to win in this first election and avoid a run-off one, one candidate needs to obtain either 45% of votes, or 40% and a 10-point lead over the candidate who comes in second. As things stand at the moment, and noting once more than in Argentina all can change in a day especially with the high number of undecided voters that exists, it is still improbable that we will see a winner in the first round on 25 October.
The issue that is hard to understand for opponents to the Kirchners' three administrations is that this is still the scenario even though there is clearly 60% of Argentinians who disapprove of the current government and favor change. This standing was manifested in the primary election held last August where results reflected the projections just described as the likely outcomes in the next election as well (Scioli: 38.4%, Macri 30.1%, Massa: 20.6%). But it is the fragmentation of the opposition that seems to be the cause for a potential failure to achieve a victory in the first round rather than an active support for continuity through the endorsement of Scioli.
The opposition has made the mistake of allowing personal egos to get in the way of forming alliances meant to identify what unites them rather than what separates them. A closer scrutiny of the situation also shows that little change can Massa really offer, when he was the Chief of Staff of Cristina Kirchner for two years and the mastermind of major appointments and policies. But, to the ever-growing poorest, Macri may deviate so much from the current populist agenda that these fear they could lose the welfare plans they have been granted in the last decade, although the candidate denied intending to do so if he wins the presidency. And Scioli seems to have reached a ceiling of those loyal to Kirchner so it is questionable if he will be able to expand the margin he got in his favor in the primary election.
These last weeks could have been key to swaying the undecided but, unlike his opponents, Scioli did not show up at the much-awaited first-ever presidential debate on 4 October, claiming he did not want to debate when his ideas are well-known to people already. But what his rivals understood with his decision not to debate them was that either he is not prepared to answer questions, or that Kirchner did not let him, casting a doubt over his preparedness to assume the responsibilities associated with running a country.
But so, if we have no clear winner in the first election, what can happen on 22 November (date set for the second round)? This will depend on whether at that point the opposition will strike a deal to push for change and achieve it, finally. It is my assessment that if Scioli were to face a second round, he could lose if the opposition rallies support for the only candidate at that time who stands a chance. At a minimum, Scioli would be greatly debilitated politically within his party and among the opposition by the results of the election, what could put him at more risk for an actual de facto manipulation on the part of Kirchner. This situation would indeed be a terrible one for Argentina but, fortunately, we are not sure if Scioli could even win first.
What is unquestionable, however, is that regardless of the election results, 10 December 2015 will mark the end of an era for Argentina and a much hoped-for turning point for the majority of its population. Even if Scioli ends up taking office, there will be change for the country. Argentinians will no longer be subjected to a constant abuse of power, nepotism and frequent plans for swapping presidential chairs among family members, and demagogy who targets those with the least opportunities when corruption allegations abound among those in power.
Argentinians will also perhaps have better chances of seeing a restoration of the credibility of institutions, such as the judiciary, and of a significantly deteriorated diplomatic relation with, well, the world. And so Argentina will be a better country as a result. It is just a matter of how much better.
And this exactly will be decided by its citizens this week, when they will choose alternation as part of a healthy democratic government system, not the "least bad" successor of the closest the region has had to a despotic monarch.
* Jesica L. Santos is Criminal Justice Associate at the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) in New York. A native of Argentina, she studied Law, Political Science and International Affairs in Buenos Aires, the United States and Europe. The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author on this article are hers alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of the ICTJ.