Last year's presidential debate, via Diario Movil

In a country that loves a good monologue — perhaps the twin influences of psychoanalysis and revolutionary leaders — the time for debate has arrived. With 152 affirmative votes, 38 against and 1 abstention, a bill making presidential debates compulsory was approved by Congress at 1:47am this morning.

The law, conducted via roll-call vote, mandates that there be two debates, one of which must take place outside of Buenos Aires. They must be held within 20 and 7 days before the election, and make it compulsory for all candidates who make it past the primaries to participate. In the case of a second ballot or ballotage (where no candidate receives the required number of votes at the first round of voting, a second round is held) another debate will be staged within 10 days of the election.

Theoretically, candidates can decide to not participate. But there’s a punishment: they lose the minutes of audio visual publicity assigned to them during the election season, which means they lose access to their voters. What’s more, during the debate, the seat they should be occupying on screen “will remain empty”, to underscore their absence.

While the government is celebrating this as a victory for democracy, some are more cynical. Victory Front legislator, María Emilia Soria, has questioned the “urgency” of the bill, which didn’t go through the standard committees, suggesting that it’s been rushed through to bolster governmental approval at a time when the government is performing poorly.

However, most are positive about the change. Margarita Stolbizer, leader of the GEN party and herself a former presidential candidate, was forceful in her statements: “Only a few people can be against [the presidential debates]: those who supported the candidate who didn’t show up for the debate, those who supported a president who, in 12 years, never once accepted a debate, and those who used lying as a pillar to stay in the government for several years.”

Until 2015, presidential candidates in Argentina never participated in election debates. Not once. It simply wasn’t a part of electoral culture, and the voting public didn’t really expect their leaders to debate.  On top of that, in a country where the political system is very polarised, the idea of a “neutral” space for the respectful exchange of ideas seemed impossible. According to Clarin Guido Braslavsky, “whoever was winning in the polls preferred to not run the risk of crossing with their rival.”

Then, in October of last year, after a push from various civic groups and NGOs, the first debate was held. But it was a little one-sided. Daniel Scioli, candidate for the Victory Front party, simply didn’t show, perhaps hoping to avoid gaffes or slip-ups that might compromise his lead in the polls. His seat sat-empty throughout the debate, and for many became symbolic of the idea of the “old Argentina,” where, according to then presidential candidate, now President, Mauricio Macri, the government used “authoritarianism to exercise power.” 

Presidential debate with 5, whoops, 4 candidates. Via Frontera.info Glaring Absence. Presidential debate with 6, whoop