When is a primary not a primary? When it goes by the name of PASO, the Spanish acronym describing the primaries as open, simultaneous and obligatory. Simultaneous they might well be (nationwide this coming September 12 after being postponed from August 8) yet anything but obligatory (turnout was just over three-quarters two years ago – can anything be called compulsory in Argentina, looking at the widespread disdain for pandemic precautions?) and even less are they open, given the closed shop the parties almost invariably present to the frustrated voter. The latter will be the central topic of this column.
The almost universal attitude that candidacies should be defined by political factions negotiating a single list rather than the choice of the electorate at large quite simply insults the citizenry of a democratic society. The guilt here is shared across the political spectrum and yet this is a rare issue where the opposition seems more at fault than the government. The ruling coalition would almost be contradicting its Frente de Todos label if it offered different alternatives – having taken the strategic decision in 2019 to end a decade or more of Peronist fragmentation and weaving the conflicting strands into one umbrella, thereby winning an election, anything other than single lists would be almost a surprise (which has not stopped the La Cámpora militants from defending PASO against a government bill to scrap them in the hope that contested primaries would enable them to replace Greater Buenos Aires and other local Peronist party machines with their own cadres).
No such consistency on the other side – the opposition take on PASO has been erratic. Having spent the first months of the pandemic pushing for their elimination on the grounds that spending billions of pesos on a glorified opinion poll was a criminal waste of funds in a disease-ridden and economically stricken country (a far from unreasonable argument), they began springing to PASO’s defence when their suspension became part of government efforts to postpone the electoral moment of truth. So much so that they granted the government an extra month to place its vaccination campaign on track and revive the economy – an electorally risky concession – in order to save the PASO primaries. But having made all that effort and sacrifice to salvage the primaries, the Juntos por el Cambio helm has rendered them meaningless with their bizarre mentality that anything other than rubber-stamping a single list is something to be avoided like the plague (perhaps future generations will change that phrase into “avoided like coronavirus”).
Time to turn to history to start disputing the prejudices against a mechanism which could potentially deepen and broaden democracy. Going back to my first newsroom year here in 1983, Raúl Alfonsín owed his presidential nomination to winning the Radical primaries – if it had been up to party headquarters rather than the voter, the Radical establishment would have picked Fernando de la Rúa. And the people chose wisely – if in the end neither man completed his presidential term, Alfonsín lasted almost six years as against two years and 10 days for De la Rúa.
If there were primaries great and small in the first years of democracy, the next game-changer came with the Peronist presidential primary in mid-1988 when La Rioja Governor Carlos Menem defeated Buenos Aires Province Governor Antonio Cafiero. Once again the choice of the party machine was rejected by the grass-roots once the issue was placed before the masses. Either candidate would undoubtedly have won in the hyperinflationary Argentina of 1989 but a Cafiero presidency would have been very different, for better or for worse (nothing as bold as convertibility, for a start). But the primary helped that win since the rivalry between the two governors triggered a massive turnout of some 1.6 million card-carrying Peronists, thus creating momentum from this impression of mass support (impossible with the big yawn of rubber-stamping a single list). Paradoxically enough, this contested primary also ended up cementing party unity behind the clear winner.
After a decade of Menem, the next decisive contested primary came in 1998 to define the Alliance candidate to oppose Peronism – between De la Rúa and Graciela Fernández Meijide (representing the FREPASO wing of dissident Peronists and socialists). Again placing the choice before the voters produced a unity which could never have been achieved by haggling between Radical and FREPASO party bosses – the lively primary created an interest which could never have come from a single list headed by De la Rúa, a self-confessed bore, while Fernández Meijide would have had problems gaining Radical acceptance without an electoral mandate.
The 2003 election was a primary in disguise since there were three Peronist presidential candidates and two major opposition candidates. This election had the effect of displacing primaries for a while but they then found a new use in the creation of the PASO primary process in late 2009. Their origin lay in the humiliating defeat of ex-president Néstor Kirchner in his main stronghold of Buenos Aires Province, where he finished 2.3 percent behind the Unión-PRO list of Francisco de Narvéz when Martín Sabbatella’s Nuevo Encuentro list allied to Kirchner garnered 5.6 percent of the vote – PASO was thus designed as a primary to weed out the Sabbatellas ahead of the definitive voting.
There have been five PASO primaries since then. Apart from several provinces having contested primaries within parties and fronts for parliamentary seats in 2013, the single list has generally prevailed with voters offered no choice within a party. PASO quickly came to be regarded as one gigantic nationwide opinion poll with fears that the parts might be confused with the whole if there was any internal contest, which also risked bad blood, it was argued. Yet the 2015 PRO mayoral primary between then-City cabinet chief Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and vice-president Gabriela Michetti undoubtedly created more interest than Mauricio Macri’s desire to rubber-stamp an uncharismatic technocrat (as Rodríguez Larreta was then seen) as his heir would have done while Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña’s rejection of any contested primary between Córdoba Radicals proved disastrous. At national level the PASO margin in 2011 and (famously) in 2019 was so lopsided as to produce a “game over” mentality, thus making the real elections almost pointless.
This allergy to genuine primaries seems uniquely Argentine – thus in the United States when did Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders or Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton ever say that the candidacies should be negotiated between them? Any primary which is not a multiple choice question is not a primary.