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OP-ED | 10-08-2023 23:39

A nation votes and reality bites

A brutal campaign brought the PASO primary campaign to a shuddering halt midweek – this black swan could end up resetting the central question of this election.

Tomorrow’s PASO primaries were always going to be an emotional vote, given all the frustrations stretching back a decade, but now stand to be more charged with emotion than ever after the tragic slaying of an innocent 11-year-old schoolgirl by motorcycle thieves – a black swan potentially transforming this election. Beforehand, a panoply of emotions ranging from anti-system rage to fatalistic apathy notwithstanding, these primaries seemed to carry a bottom line of “It’s the economy, stupid,” given such hard facts as three-digit annual inflation, poverty hitting almost 40 percent of the population, a parallel dollar hovering around 600 pesos and negative Central Bank reserves. But this brutal crime has brought the campaign to a shuddering halt in midweek, not only literally but otherwise.

Oddly enough, history is repeating itself from the last nationwide election day in 2021 – just the previous weekend (not the PASO primaries but the actual midterms this time) a news vendor was killed on News Vendors’ Day of all days in La Matanza, leading to a public uproar conditioning the results. Yet this cannot be taken as an exact template for what will happen now – there might be similarities but lightning never strikes twice in the same place.

Ahead of any specific voting preferences, this black swan could end up resetting perhaps the central question-mark of this election – turnout versus abstention (rage versus apathy). If it does galvanise the vote, its direction will not automatically be one-way traffic. A political class in a state of shock has largely avoided a blame game which would be counterproductive. Starting with the scene of the crime in the Greater Buenos Aires district of Lanús, where should eyes turn – to the governor of the province or the mayor of the district, two men on opposite sides of the political fence? In more national terms, votes could stampede towards law and order platforms or a more generalised anti-system rejection (for both of which there are various candidates and even if tactical voting would favour one in particular in both cases, emotion might sway the decision otherwise). But a victim belonging to the two-thirds of children below the poverty line in the Greater Buenos Aires heartland of impoverishment might prompt many voters to look to those roots of the tragedy – a perspective which would not automatically take that vote in any one direction because the accent could equally fall on seriously attacking social injustice or ending the underdevelopment perpetuating the poverty.

Yet all the uproar over the Lanús crime could also be sound and fury signifying little with more impact on politicians than the general public. If we look at the hard statistics, the La Matanza news vendor slaying of 2021 had almost no effect on a turnout of 71 percent, seven percent less than in the previous midterms of 2017, and five percent more than the PASO primaries predating that crime (when the difference between primary and final election turnout has always been four or five percent since the PASO system was created in 2009).

We thus cannot underestimate the force of an apathy leaving the most powerful impotent so the older arguments against abstention need to be presented after an electoral prelude with some pollsters reporting no response from three-quarters of their field, thus leaving tomorrow’s result clouded in mystery. The old maxim that people have the government they deserve is often taken as a reproach of flawed electoral choices but those who shun the vote cannot also escape the blame – the worse things are, the less excuse there is for not taking a stand. The facile argument that politicians are all the same is both ignorant and irresponsible, only favouring the bad along the lines of “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity” of William Butler Yeats. It is untrue for the very simple reason that no individual is ever like another and in this particular election some of the biggest differences have arisen between hopefuls sharing the same party label. Yet the disrespect implied by this simplistic equation of politicians cuts both ways with outdated and almost imbecile campaign messages insulting the intelligence of 21st century citizens – perhaps ending this mutual disrespect is the beginning of a solution. 

Any lazy refusal to sacrifice a small part of a day to fulfil civic responsibilities can change a country’s life for four years. For a single day the most powerful are at the mercy of the humblest – why not make the most of it tomorrow and vote?

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