Gildo Insfrán, governor of Formosa, which many claim is a hotbed of clientelism

Yesterday, Peronist governors and FPV-PJ senators joined forces to reject one of the government’s most prized pieces of legislation, the electoral reform bill.

The bill, which aimed to “transform our electoral processes [to] meet the demands of a high quality democracy in the 21st century,” was approved by the House of Representatives in June, but foundered in the Senate, much to the chagrin of the government.

The senators who rejected the bill claim it wasn’t ready, citing the “high vulnerability of some of the proposed electronic methods.” However, Secretary of Politics and Institutional matters, Adrián Pérez, suggested that the opposition want to maintain a corrupt and “feudal” voting system that guarantees power to provincial barons.

Intriguingly, the decision to block the bill came about after a closed-door meeting with provincial governors Gildo Insfrán (Formosa), Sergio Uñac (San Juan), Gustavo Bordet (Entre Ríos), Sergio Casas (La Rioja), Rosana Bertone (Tierra del Fuego) and Carlos Verna (La Pampa).

What is the role of governors in blocking this bill and why did a handful choose to go against the government? Do they really think the bill isn’t ready or are there more ulterior motives at play?

Federalism and Voting

Some have suggested that the governors intervened to maintain an opaque and easily corruptible voting system to ensure they maintain “territorial power”. How does this work?

Governors exercise much more power in the Senate than they do in the House of Representatives. This is because of Argentina’s federal system. To ensure an equal distribution of powers between the states, each province has three senators, regardless of population. This means, for example, that Formosa, a province of some 126,000 people, exercises the same power in the senate as Buenos Aires Province, home to over 15 million people.

Argentina also has a rather unusual, and easily corruptible system of voting. As the electoral reform bill states: “In our country, clientelism through the use of voting ballots, or gaining advantage by stealing ballots, or the creation of fake ballots, is reported election after election.”

How does this occur? Voting ballots aren’t distributed by the State, but by political parties. What’s more, you don’t mark your choice on a ballot that includes all party options; instead, each party prepares their own ballot, which represents a vote for them. On the day, the parties distribute these ballots at the voting station. It’s easy to steal ballots or exchange ballots for bribes.

Via La Nacion
Via La Nacion

This is compounded by the fact that clientelism – swapping votes for favours, often at a grassroots level – is an endemic problem in Argentina. Take, for example, the puntero, a controversial figure in argentine politics so common as to be almost semi-legitimate. Punteros are politically aligned local power brokers who distribute services to poor communities in exchange for votes. Embedded in, and often adored by, the local community, punteros run soup kitchens and build infrastructure for marginalised argentines, financed by politicians who expect them to garner votes in their favour. 

Many claim this clientelism is played out at the provincial level, with governors employing punteros in local communities to win votes and stack the senate with allies. As Pérez argued in an interview with Clarin, “it’s a system that permits certain practices and which favours political apparatuses. If you have a big apparatus you can distribute to and in some provinces pressure election officials.”

Take, for example, the case of Gildo Insfrán, governor of one Argentina’s poorest provinces, Formosa, and one of the governors who used his influence to prevent the bill from making it through the senate.

The case of Gildo Insfrán

Gildo Insfrán was elected governor of the northern province of Formosa in 1995. He’s still governor today. That’s 21 years ago. When he assumed in 1995, DVDs hadn’t even been invented (and made obsolete).

How on earth is he onto his sixth mandate? Firstly, during his second term he changed the provincial constitution to enable the governor (him) to be reelected indefinitely. Secondly, many claim that he employs clientelism to ensure to stay in power. In 2012, La Nacion published an article entitled “Formosa, capital of disability as a tool of clientelism,” in which they exposed the collusion of “punteros, doctors and municipal and provincial authorities” in exchanging pensions for votes.

It’s a triangular relationship where everyone wins, except, of course, Argentina.