Everything electorally on hold with this second wave of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic gathering steam, but then again the PASO nationwide primaries do not exactly date back to the 1853 Constitution.
The PASO (a Spanish acronym for “primarias abiertas, simultáneas y obligatorias”) were a knee-jerk creation of late 2009, designed to head off any repetition of the midterm defeat only five weeks previously when the Victory Front slate headed by ex-president Néstor Kirchner finished 2.5 percent behind the Unión Pro list of businessman Francisco de Narváez in the Peronist stronghold of Buenos Aires Province with the Nuevo Encuentro splinter of the ardently Kirchnerite Martín Sabbatella garnering 5.5 percent of the vote – the whole aim of PASO was thus to create a filter weeding out any Sabbatellas in order to ensure a unified vote in the real thing.
This was not how Law 26,571 was presented to Congress, of course – the idea was supposedly to breathe new life into political parties via highly competitive primaries along the lines of that unfolding the previous year in the United States between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (repeated in 2016 between the same lady and Bernie Sanders). But that never really happened in a political scenario where personality cults outweighed party labels with unified lists generally being haggled out within the party headquarters of political machines – this was even carried to the extreme of current Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner shunning Peronism altogether in 2017 in order to avoid senatorial primaries in which she was sure to pulverise her ex-minister Florencio Randazzo.
In this columnist’s opinion, this general allergy to genuine primaries is rooted two decades prior to the creation of PASO in the emergence of the late Carlos Menem. In the presidential primaries of mid-1988 Menem seemed to stand absolutely no chance against Buenos Aires Province Governor Antonio Cafiero, a wily political veteran then riding the crest of the wave after recovering that key stronghold for Peronism in the previous year – Cafiero not only ruled the home of almost half the nation`s Peronists but had also lined up a running-mate from one of the two other biggest provinces (Córdoba) besides commanding the undiluted support of the trade union spine of the movement. A hirsute backwater governor accompanied by an obscure suburban mayor (Eduardo Duhalde, caretaker president years later) seemed to offer little more competition than Randazzo in 2017 but Menem embodied the anti-system politics which was already coming into fashion back then with hyperinflation just around the corner while Duhalde recruited several fellow-mayors in Greater Buenos Aires. Their ticket triumphed with 54 percent of the 1.5 million card-carrying Peronists voting in the primary, sweeping all but five provinces. After an upset on that scale even the surest major candidate would rather not risk advance elimination gratuitously.
Five PASO primaries down the road with little but routine rubberstamping to show for a cost estimated at over four billion pesos at the start of the year (perhaps five or six billion pesos by the time they are finally held, always assuming that they go ahead), the whole system now stands at a crossroads between postponement, suspension and even elimination. Neither the government nor the opposition speak with a single voice on this issue where public health realities are as much a factor as political preferences.
Pretty much all provincial governors across party lines (now joined by Lower House Speaker Sergio Massa) urge suspension but the alignment of their Peronist majority with the presidential wing of the ruling coalition does not make them the deciding voice. This belongs to Frente de Todos caucus chief Máximo Kirchner even more than his mother who opts for strategy over tactics, defining various key policy areas, and who generally gives priority to the judicial over the electoral front while seeing both as intertwined. But his deciding voice is also indecisive. When the PASO primaries first came into question, Máximo Kirchner was among their staunchest defenders, curiously echoing the opposition, since he saw internal voting as a grand chance for his well-funded La Cámpora militant grouping to duke it out with the municipal machines of the mayoral barons in Greater Buenos Aires. But more recently his drive for the Buenos Aires provincial party chair would seem to suggest that he seeks to impose the midterm candidates from on top rather than enter a beauty contest with the mayors in Greater Buenos Aires. Yet many La Cámpora militants continue to favour PASO as a wedge to seize control of the movement while even if their leader ends up dictating candidacies from the party chair, there might not be the La Cámpora proliferation which many people are expecting – the extremist wing of the coalition may have learned from the frustrating defeats suffered by ultra-Kirchnerite mayoral candidates in cities like La Plata and Mar del Plata amid their triumph of 2019, preferring to repeat their national strategy of that year by presenting more moderate faces up front.
The opposition defends the established electoral rules as a matter of principle even though the increasingly harsh realities of the coronavirus pandemic leave many of them open to postponing a midwinter PASO as well as the elections themselves. Statements of principle but also highly political calculations based on premises very similar to the government`s logic – namely, the later that voters go to the polls, the more of them will have been vaccinated while the economy will also have had more time to recover from last year’s collapse. The first premise is pretty irrefutable (there can hardly be less people vaccinated as the months go by) but the second is less certain – the short-term expedients to keep prices and the exchange rate in check might not have the legs to last beyond the six months to go before the scheduled midterm election date.
But rather than an uncertain future, the PASO primaries stand to be judged by their most recent past and this was truly disastrous – the 15-point lead established by Frente de Todos in 2019 shattered the last remaining market confidence in a slumping economy with consequences still felt today. If the PASO mechanism cannot offer voters a choice of candidates, then it might as well bite the dust.