Following three-quarters of the 24 districts voting since March, the time has finally come for the entire nation to go to the polls for the first time tomorrow in the form of the PASO (the Spanish acronym for “open, simultaneous and obligatory primaries”). On the eve of this vote we will carry editorial neutrality and the electoral curfew to the extreme of not even naming the candidates and lists competing tomorrow – instead we will devote this space to explaining the institution of the PASO itself as it celebrates a decade of existence.
The PASO primaries were created by Law 26,571 in late 2009 during the first term of the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner presidency with both an institutional and a hidden agenda. The official aim was to rebuild a party system from the ruins of the total “begone with them all” discredit of the political class arising from the 2001-2002 economic meltdown – not necessarily along the lines of the old Peronist-Radical dualism from the 20th century but creating the basis for the emergence of new parties while avoiding fragmentation into countless splinters which would only complicate the electoral process hopelessly (not least the printing of ballot papers). Towards that aim a threshold of 1.5 percent of the PASO vote was mandated, in order to ensure the survival of an existing party or permit the recognition of a new one.
Yet the immediate roots of Law 26,751 were not so much political theory as the electoral experience of that year. Just four months previously the late Néstor Kirchner had suffered a humiliating (and to his mind unnecessary) defeat in the midterm elections, losing by just two points to an opposition list when a pro-government splinter had polled almost six percent. Yet Néstor Kirchner’s experience of fragmentation dated back to the very origins of his presidenc y – although three rival Peronist candidates drew around twothirds of the vote between them in the 2003 elections, Kirchner was inaugurated with a feeble mandate of 22 percent, even if he rapidly consolidated a strong and successful administration thanks to favourable internal and external conditions. The lessons of both 2003 and 2009 thus seemed clear – rather than allowing splinters to taint the final result, they should be weeded out by obliging them to contest a primary first.
If that was the original aim, it has been redirected in the course of the last decade. Contested primaries not only ran the risk of intensifying party infighting but also of the primary winner being outvoted at an individual level by those of other parties heading single lists. The original aim of making candidates the choice of voters as a whole, rather than of party machines, was laudable. But the PASOs have increasingly become a beauty contest of single lists defined by headquarters to be rubberstamped by the helpless voter – without going into details in the interests of editorial neutrality, this is true of much of tomorrow’s voting. This has led to some voices calling for the abolition of the PASOs as a waste of billions of pesos, but it would be equally valid to insist on these primaries serving their original aim – even without competitive primaries, the 1.5-percent threshold limits the presidential candidates and lists in the general elections to a reasonable number.
It has also been argued that the PASO dress rehearsal unduly influences voting in the real general elections as the most complete opinion poll of them all. Yet the PASOs’ predictive value is debatable. While it is true that the 2011 PASOs took all the suspense out of Fernández de Kirchner’s re-election, by giving her an absolute majority of 50.24 percent (increasing to 54 percent in the election itself), in 2015 the PASO results misled many pundits – with 38.67 percent Peronist Daniel Scioli was so close to the minimal 40 percent for first-round victory (although without a double-digit lead he would have needed 45 percent) that he was widely assumed to be the next president until the October election (which he also won more narrowly) left the November run-off within easy reach of Mauricio Macri. As for the midterms, the shock 2013 PASO government defeat in Buenos Aires Province led to it polling 10 percent less in the election than in the primaries, while in 2017 senatorial candidate Fernández de Kirchner won the PASOs but lost the election.
Last but not least, and despite any objections one may have to this democratic exercise, citizens are urged to vote tomorrow. However much single lists defined by party helms deny them choice, they will lose that choice altogether if they allow the PASOs to die.