Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1994-2007).
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
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.