Elections are a regular entertainment, in part of course. The campaign speeches full of good intentions are usually a crashing bore but you can celebrate the speakers when they dry up. My own private celebration of a speech was, only once, to rush to the front of and vigorously shake hands with the politician involved, telling him how grateful I was to hear the last sentence. Given the man’s look of fury (the microphone was still switched on) I did not try that joke a second time. But, you see, in years gone by, after we had heard an outdoor speech it was again on one of the radio stations. And then they were really boring.
The other side of an electoral address is that it usually lacks in entertainment, there’s not much heckling. Nobody seems to be cracking a good quip any more. And there is almost no heckling for fear of a punch-up, which could be on the cards if the practice attracted a few.
Extended briefs from speeches only happen on Radio Colonia these days. Now, a majority of radio slots give minimum coverage to the political speakers and devote more time to what the radio hosts have to say about themselves, their relationships and the media parties they have attended, who has rubbed shoulders with foreign visitors or the TV stars present. On television, in what might be described as ‘social’ or ‘peak’ content, you have Todo Noticias (TN) which really should change its name to Pocas Noticias (PN), as it is not unusual to see prime time slots devoted to peak-hour traffic collisions. Or failing that, you can spend a night watching repeat footage of the scene of a robbery or a view of a wrecked car or van.
The part of elections that I found fun is that they happen here. It’s good to have them. That’s all: I just want them to happen. Argentina spent two generations cancelling elections by means of military coups, which were mostly the product of personal ambition. Two generations had to see their vote canned by the whim of the Armed Forces, or simply go without the vote. As a youth I seemed to get few elections, so now I want to go to all of them, go to clubs, trade unions, municipal votes and even the presidential elections. It was fun, at the start of a Sunday, to leave the house in Ranelagh and walk to one of the clubs or schools, to be able to vote.
My first presidential election happened in July 1963. Arturo U. Illia, a Córdoba country doctor, was the winner and I was very proud of my vote. My sadness was that just three months before the elections my father had died. He was not there, I could not show him my voting book (the Libreta de Enrolamiento).
That one would not be remembered as a great election. Dr Illia, candidate for the Unión Cívica Radical del Pueblo (UCRP) was elected by only 24.9 percent of the vote, the highest rating in an election in which 55 legally constituted groups took part. The blank vote cast by Peronists and their sympathisers reached 17.2 percent as a protest against a ban on their participation in elections. In October 1963, Illia received the presidential sash from José María Guido, president of the Senate. In March 1962 Guido had the constitutional right to succession after a bunch of generals had ousted president Arturo Frondizi, a brilliant leader and planner, who had been nearly four years in office.
The presidency became a free-for-all after that coup. Guido had snatched the sash at the last minute before it could be grabbed by the generals, who had objected to Frondizi having lunch with Che Guevara, an event that caused indigestion in the ranks, which were deeply anti-Communist. They accused the president of being a “fellow-traveller”, a label frequently used during the Cold War. When Arturo Illia had been in office just short of three years, General Juan Carlos Onganía, who had promised to respect constitutional rule, got a police officer to throw out the country doctor.
With that, Juan Carlos Onganía chose to be seen as among the worst of hypocrites in politics. There may have been worse, but I can’t remember them just now. Onganía told his Army peers that, thinking of Francisco Franco in Spain, he wanted to stay in office for 20 years. So his fellow-generals promptly threw him out, and he was succeeded by two generals before the 1973 elections were held, bringing Peronism back into the mainstream.
This might not such be a happy way of looking back on some, just a few, incidents in this country of mine in the 20th century. But not all people are as kind as I am, of course. Not a great distance from me was a person who, after brunch at Claridges in Buenos Aires, looked at the Saturday political headlines and said, “People in this country are totally mad, don’t you think so?” I hesitated, not in a mood to agree wholeheartedly because I was due to vote the next day (last Sunday) in primaries at home in Larroque, Entre Ríos.
However, you might want to build a picture of Argentine lunacy quite quickly. The indications, or clues, abound. A former colleague, who has become a survey analyst and works on the results of opinion searches of 40 pollsters up and down the country, remarked at a recent meeting that there are no clear indications about who might be the next president of Argentina: the man who has put more people on the street than ever before, the woman who should find her place in history as the country’s record holder in official graft, and the third possibility is a blank face. There is not a lot in that which you might call a welcome choice. The puzzle is like inverting the difficulties in choosing a Carnival queen, where beauty abounds. Here the conflict is to select something out of the least attractive.