There are still several months to go before the final electoral showdowns next spring but it might thus not be too early for a closer look specifically at the primary mechanism, which is at something of a crossroads.
While only isolated voices (such as Vicente López Mayor Jorge Macri) explicitly call for the abolition of the PASO nationwide primaries, the general political practice (or malpractice) of most parties is to convert this level of voting into a meaningless rubber-stamping of single lists for a maximal show of strength, instead of deepening democracy by making the candidates as well as the representatives the choice of the people. While the PASO primaries were introduced a decade ago, their true origins may be traced to the economic and institutional meltdown of 2001-2002 and the total ‘begone with them all’ discredit of politicians in those times. The only way to revive parties seemed to be to take the definition of candidacies out of the committee-rooms, leaving the final say to the ordinary voter. Yet with a logic far more typical of presidential than parliamentary democracies, politics have now become hopelessly personalised and polarised with parties weaker than ever.
At this stage the government’s spin doctors are the worst offenders within this general tendency – if in the previous midterm elections in 2017, Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was so averse to any contested candidacy that she preferred to abandon the historic Peronist label and create her own Civic Unity party rather than submit herself to the indignity of a primary with her ex-minister Florencio Randazzo, she is now showing more enthusiasm for a pan-Peronist primary in the hope of annexing estranged Peronist votes to the Kirchnerite core, even if the motives here seem more tactical than principled.
By way of contrast, the government maintains a ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ insistence on single lists, giving total priority to a negotiated consensus between politicians behind everybody’s back to any expression of voter preferences. The spin doctors do not seem unduly concerned about the PRO and Radical pillars of the ruling Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition facing off in La Pampa tomorrow, perhaps because the electorate is so small (under a quarter million). But they are having kittens over the gubernatorial confrontation looming between two Radical heavyweights in Córdoba (the key province clinching the presidency for Mauricio Macri in 2015) – Lower House caucus leader Mario Negri and Córdoba City Mayor Ramón Mestre Junior (the late Ramón Mestre Senior was also mayor, moving up to governor). Both Negri and Mestre have such important credentials that a popular PASO vote would seem the only way of deciding between them.
Yet that is not the only argument against banning alternatives. If the government were to allow such diverse fringe figures as José Luis Espert, Martín Lousteau or Alfredo Olmedo to compete with its preferences, it would obtain a very good picture of the balance within its own voters between ultra-rightists, centrists, progressives, marketeers etc. alongside mainstream conservatives – invaluable voter information as to around which issues to orient future campaign strategy without resorting to the likes of Cambridge Analytica. Furthermore, opinion polls show up to 60 percent to resist the polarisation between President Macri and his predecessor Senator Kirchner – more pluralistic primaries could tap into that vast field.
But if the insistence on single lists persists, then Jorge Macri is probably right – why waste billions of pesos on a mere dress rehearsal? Either the PASO primaries honour their original spirit offering voters the fullest spectrum from which to pick the finalists or contribute to eliminating fiscal deficit – anything would be better than the current travesty.