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Why Are Provinces Moving Their Elections Forward?

A look behind the trend of electoral "uncoupling" in Argentina.

By | [email protected] | January 15, 2019 1:53pm

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Happy Election Year everybody!

As you may be aware, in 2019 roughly a third of the Senate, half of Congress, our Vice-President and President are all up for election. What you may not know is that 21 of 23 provincial governorships (plus the City of Buenos Aires) and many provincial seats are also up for grabs. Argentina has set general and primary election dates that synchronize federal and provincial elections, and this year the set election dates are August 11th for the primaries, and October 27th for the general presidential elections.

However, this year, eight out of the 22 districts holding elections have officially announced that they will be moving the dates to earlier in 2019, away from the national elections. Talk about uncuffing season. Currently the remaining thirteen provinces (and BA) will be sticking to the national election dates of August 11th and October 27, 2019, or have yet to officially announce an election date change. Note, however, there are several of these, including Tucumán and the province of Buenos Aires, that have suggested, alluded to, promised, etc. to move the date but have not done so officially.

This means many provinces will have two sets of primary and general elections for provincial and national offices, which brings us to four elections, which, if we take second rounds into consideration, could mean up to six separate trips to the ballot box for some Argentines. Some provinces, such as Córdoba, have even suspended their Electoral Code in order to move their election dates earlier in the year. This isn’t a new concept either. In 2015, ten districts moved their elections forwards from the slated October national date, and it’s even become somewhat of a tradition, Clarín reported.

But why? Why go through all the hassle of changing the election date for a matter of months, or even weeks? There must be political motivation for provincial governors to uncouple their elections from the federal government, particularly those looking for re-election. Governors have justified the date changes in different ways, but we’ve noticed two main reasons why we’re seeing this new wave of provincial electoral independence.

First, with more distance from the national election, provinces have more space to focus on regional issues in the lead up to their elections. In 2015 (and in every election year since the beginning of time), national politics dominated media cycles. All we hear for weeks on end is what Macri had for breakfast and how that might influence the median voter, or where Kirchner was spotted buying groceries and the potential effects of that on polling numbers.

Río Negro Governor Alberto Weretilneck signs a debt compensation agreement with the federal government in Nov 2018.

There isn’t a lot of focus in media on the provincial elections, particularly in smaller provinces. And because all we do is consume media day and night, this means there isn’t as much space in our brains for provincial politics. As Perfil reported, governor of Río Negro, Alberto Weretilneck said (of his decision to move the election date) that provincial elections should be to discuss provincial topics, and not a national referendum on Macri-Kirchner.

So, in the interest of provinces, it makes sense to want to create distance from national elections. Earlier in 2019, there will be more airtime in media and also in the minds of voters to consider provincial candidates and platforms. Or at least more room to consider not what Macri is eating for breakfast, but María Eugenia Vidal instead.

Peronist governors in a meeting at la Casa de Entre Rios in Buenos Aires, Oct 2018.

However, the reasoning for moving election dates isn’t entirely wholesome considerations of regionalism. There is partisan interest at play as well, and a change in election date could be the difference between a win and a loss for some governors. Why? Because with the same election dates, it’s easy to conflate provincial and national politics, and provincial governors (and candidates) don’t want to be impacted by either positive or negative images of national candidates of the same or similar parties.

For example, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but President Macri’s polling numbers aren’t looking great right now. La Nación reported Macri is at a 39 percent approval rating in its December poll, which is up 7 points from 32 percent in November, which was his lowest of 2018. This gives provincial Cambiemos candidates (or candidates from other parties who have received Macri’s support) incentive to distance their provincial politics from what’s going on federally. It’s no coincidence that governors with Macri’s support seeking re-election, such as in Río Negro and Neuquén, have been among those who announced they will move their elections.

In the same breath, there is also motivation for President Macri and the national government to stop provinces from uncoupling their elections, particularly those with governors with which he’s associated. In fact, Infobae reported that Macri met with governors Gerardo Morales and Alfredo Cornejo of Jujuy and Mendoza respectively in his private residence over the holidays to dissuade them from moving their elections. Because the truth is, as much as it looks better on the governors to separate the elections, it looks worse on Macri.

President Macri (left) and Córdoba Governor Schiaretti (right)

The potential for conflation of national and provincial politics is illustrated in a recent interview with Sergio Ziliotto, a Justicialist (aka Peronist) candidate for governor in La Pampa with a local news radio station. During the interview Ziliotto speaks of how La Pampa has been influenced by (what he sees as) Macri’s “nefarious” politics, which is a tactic he is using to imply more that Zililotto’s running against Macri than his actual provincial opponents. Provincial candidates from all sides will use national polarization as a way to slander their opponents and gain support, particularly unpopular or less well-known candidates. Separating provincial and national elections could be an effort to move away from this polarization.

On the other hand, moving provincial election dates could be an insurance policy for governors seeking re-election for two reasons. An earlier election gives lesser-known gubernatorial opponents opportunity to gain support by a) allowing for more time, and b) by preventing association with national politics. For example, in Córdoba, Governor Juan Schiaretti doesn’t currently have strong opposition in his race for re-election, as there is a tight race in the Cambiemos primary. First, if Schiaretti waited until later in the year to have the election, that could give potential opponents more time to gain support, which is a challenge for those fighting against his name recognition as a sitting governor. Second, any of Schiaretti’s lesser-known candidates could benefit from association with national politics, and gain traction by being associated with a national party counterpart (for example, Macri or Kirchner).

Several provincial governors have even received criticism for the election date changes. For example, also in Córdoba, Governor Schiaretti has been accused of undemocratic behavior by one of his potential Cambiemos opponents, Mario Negri, on Twitter, “It’s embarrassing, the Córdoba Partido Justicialista’s management of the electoral system and the use of state resources in order to not lose government.” Negri’s implication is that the governor used the decision to move the election to intentionally give his opponents a disadvantage.

Provincial and federal representatives of the Cambiemos coalition at a summit, Sept 2018.

So, either for regional considerations, for partisan reasons, or for an extra edge in a tight re-election race, provincial governors are uncoupling their elections left, right, and center (see what I did there?). For now, it’s only been eight provinces that have officially announced their breakup from national elections, the most recent being Río Negro, but we can expect more in the coming weeks, particularly with Tucumán and Buenos Aires having announced intent to do so.

This could be a sign that simultaneous elections just don’t work anymore. This could be the governors’ way of saying “Macri, sorry but we’re just not that into you” and that they prefer to create distance from the media hellfire that is the national election. Maybe they’re just done with the polarization, and name-calling, and poo-flinging that happens around Casa Rosada during an election year. Maybe we’re done with it too.

Whatever the reasoning many Argentines will prepare for, count ‘em, one, two, three, four, runoff one, runoff two, carry the one, divide by zero and that’s six separate trips to the ballot box in 2019.

Who knew exercising democratic rights was so damn time-consuming?