The epic dimensions being given to next month’s midterm elections might lend themselves to media and political narratives but how much do they atch what is actually at stake? In a highly presidential democracy the electorate will be renewing a third of the Senate and half the Lower House with no new majorities possible. The results can only influence the fine-tuning of the structural reforms being proposed by the Mauricio Macri administration, although these final tweaks should not be underestimated – the devil so often lies in the detail.
Elections are normally all about numbers but there is no respect for these in the frenzy of “grieta” polarisation – virtually all the attention is falling on Buenos Aires province, which (while by far the most populous in Argentina) accounts for only three of the 24 senators and 35 of the 127 Lower House seats to be elected next month.
Instead of issues, the campaign since last month’s PASO primaries would have us believe that democracy itself is at stake. Former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is the more explicit here – following the more bread-andbutter anti-austerity thrust of her PASO campaign, she has now switched from defending the poor to championing human rights in the belief that the Santiago Maldonado disappearance has given her the smoking gun to accuse the Macri presidency of trampling over citizens’ rights.
That supreme question without an answer: “Where is Santiago Maldonado?” thus replaces answering any questions.
Because there is no answer to that question it has gained control of the public agenda. But will it prove a gamechanger for the electoral verdict? The Macri administration has not played a straight bat in handling this challenge – especially in the trickle-down of details concerning the Gendarmerie’s (Border Guard) role – but even a more rational approach to such a deeply human tragedy is always going to look heartless. It would be entirely valid to point out that there are all too many missing people in Argentina, not just one isolated case, and that there are numerous cases of police brutality which would be far easier to prove – one could also argue that issues transcending single individuals such as mineral resource exploitation versus indigenous land rights are at stake here. But they are all drowned by that one simple question.
To give that perhaps overused word “grieta” a new function, one might say that there is a grieta or chasm of distance between yet another example of security force excesses in Argentina and proving a top-down conspiracy initiated at presidential level to eliminate a tattoo artist (a crime crucial to the defence of global capitalism, according to some theories).
President Macri thus remains “innocent until proven guilty” and the “Maldonadisation” of the campaign could prove to be an electoral boomerang – perhaps more importantly, it could prove counter-productive in terms of public opinion, missing the essence of the human tragedy at the heart of this case to reject the electoral abuse, throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
But rather less explicitly, the Macri propaganda machine is often equating Kirchnerism with dictatorship, implying that its return would take Argentina down the road towards Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela – again there is a grieta or chasm of distance in this simplistic comparison.
In conclusion, questioning the democratic credentials of either side is a waste of time. Perhaps the acid test of a democrat is not whether they hold elections but whether they accept losing them and both Mr Macri and Kirchnerism pass this test – even if not very gracefully, the latter bowed out of both national power and control of Buenos Aires province in 2015 while the president’s coalition had no problems losing 14 of the 24 districts in last month’s PASO (even an increasingly dictatorial President Maduro becomes a democrat when accepting the opposition’s 2015 National Assembly landslide or holding regional elections now). Any chasm has plenty of middle ground and isn’t that middle ground what elections should be all about?