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What Happens Next: All Eyes on the Senate

A third of senators have already signaled their opposition to decriminalization.

By | [email protected] | June 14, 2018 5:59pm

1528933207180613086All eyes will turn to the Senate now after the Lower House approved the decriminalization of abortion this morning. Picture taken June 13, 2018. (Noticias Argentinas / Damian Dopacio)
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After this morning’s historic vote in the Lower House approving abortion reform, all eyes will now be focused on Senate as the bill must now win over a majority of Senators in order to become law.

Campaigners will have to regroup their forces and make a push to reach the magic number of 37 votes that guarantees a bill’s approval. The Lower House has already sent the approved bill on to the Senate, setting into motion the second half of the legislative process.

A Bubble source in the Senate has indicated that the matter is not likely to be voted on in the near term. The start date for debate will be settled as part of discussions between the chairs of the various groups of senators.

According to Télam, 27 senators have already announced that they will vote against the bill, another 17 have said that they will vote in favor, and the remaining 28 are either undecided or unwilling to announce their intentions at this time.

Just a few meters down the hall from today’s vote, the Senate is a traditionally far more conservative chamber than the Lower House; each province has a proportionally much louder voice, as each jurisdiction has three members. In the Lower House, seats are allocated to each province according to population size and as such, densely populated centers like Buenos Aires province, the City of Buenos Aires, and Santa Fe have greater representation than smaller provinces like Tucumán or Misiones, for example.

The Senate also has a different mix of parties – and different relative strengths – than the Lower House, as the largest minority is Cambiemos (with 25 votes), followed by the Argentina Federal caucus that has 24 votes to its name. The Argentina Federal group broadly represents orthodox Peronist governors and is chaired by Senator Miguel Pichetto (Río Negro), who has both cooperated with and challenged the government according the matter at hand.

With 9 votes and under the leadership of Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the Frente para la Victoria – PJ group represents Peronists senators aligned with Kirchnerism, and tend to be the left of the Argentina Federal group.

Today, the group announced that its members – including the former president – will all be voting in favor of decriminalization. When in power, the Kirchnerite  administrations declined to push debate on abortion reform forward.

Small provincial parties make up the remainder of the seats.

Pichetto has mimicked the government and noted that senators in his group are free to vote their conscience.

Senators Miguel Pichetto (left, Argentina Federal) and Luis Naidenoff (Cambiemos – Formosa) at a Senate session this year. (Senate / Charly Diaz Azcue)

Support for abortion decriminalization and legalization is lower in the interior than in regions like Buenos Aires City and Buenos Aires Province – a trend already witnessed in the voting patterns of the lawmakers who voted today. Furthermore, Cambiemos and non-Kirchnerite Peronist lawmakers in the Lower House tended to vote against decriminalization (60 percent against for Cambiemos). If that pattern is repeated in the Senate, the bill will struggle.

However, in conversation with Clarín, Pichetto said today that “There will be an unstoppable effect and the law will be passed by the Senate. I am confident that the law will be approved.” His Cambiemos counterpart, Luis Naidenoff (UCR-Formosa), also suggested that the Senate has “taken on society’s demands and legislate based on reality.” Pichetto later told journalists that the Senate should quickly move to approve the legislation passed this morning in the Lower House.

Naidenoff is personally in favor of the legalization, but just like Pichetto, is chair of a bloc that is divided. Today in conversation with radio Mitre he said that any result was still possible in the Senate.

Working in favor of campaigners is the fact that the approval in the Lower House and the public support for the legislation will have created political momentum that senators will have to consider in their votes. Senators also know that the Executive has committed to not vetoing an eventual abortion law, minimizing the political risk.

As today’s dramatic events and changing votes demonstrated, advocates for abortion decriminalization are no strangers to overcoming adversity and will go into the Senate armed with a historic win in Lower House that seemed out of reach a few months ago. In that regard, the Senate is no different.