30 June 2009

After the elections

The legislative elections are over, and if you're following the news, you'll be surely aware of the big picture: Néstor Kirchner has lost, the government's power in Congress has been cut down, and several presidenciables (that is, likely presidential candidates) are already lining up (or have been lined up by the media) for the 2011 election.

So I'll just concentrate on the small things and the analysis. First, let's get Kirchner out of the way... Néstor Kirchner lost to Francisco de Narváez by a handful of votes, a lot of votes actually, but only about two-and-a-half percent of the Buenos Aires Province vote. Of course, what happened is that the list of candidates headed by NK got a few votes less than that led by FDN; in formal terms it was a tie, but Kirchner's insistence on the paramount importance of this election worked like a self-fulfilled prophecy: almost everyone assumed positions as if it were the one and final battle of a war, and the election turned into an opportunity to bash the government. And bashed it was: Kirchner, who had achieved record levels of popularity during his term, lost to a group of the strangest bedfellows politics has inflicted on us as of late, led by a right-wing Colombian-born multimillionaire with an image constructed hastily by the media in a matter of months. Many of the so-called "barons" of Greater Buenos Aires, who rule the poorest and most densely populated parts of Argentina as virtual feudal lords and are keen observers of reality, betrayed their alliance with Kirchner, unnanounced.

In any case, after what must have been a very long night and a terrible day, Kirchner dutifully resigned from the presidency of the Justicialist Party. He released a short video accepting the defeat and I swear he looked mildly drugged.

Yesterday in the afternoon, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner gave a press conference. First she started out by reciting highly optimistic figures for the composition of the new Congress, and feigned not to have the exact numbers of her husband's defeat on hand (while, as everyone knows, she probably had the figures down to the least significant digit painfully etched in her short-term memory). Then she tried to turn the whole thing on its head, pointing out how an awful lot of people had still voted for the government's party. When a journalist pointed out that she'd gotten 45% of the vote when she was elected and now her husband got only 31%, she was upset and accused the media of having a double standard because they hadn't gone and asked that to Mauricio Macri and his candidate Gabriela Michetti (in the City of Buenos Aires, Michetti got 30% of the vote, only half of what Macri and her had gotten two years ago). She also resented the petitio principii of a journalist who asked about the manipulation of INDEC's figures of inflation — which did beg the question, of course, because the government has never admitted to that manipulation, although everyone, including some of the president's favorite economists, is certain of it.

At that point, approximately, I stopped watching the press conference. It was pointless. Either Cristina has learned nothing or she needs a few days to let it sink in, but based on previous experience, the latter is unlikely. We're left with the hope that she won't attempt something funny before December, when the new Congressmen will take their seats.

28 June 2009

I have voted

I've just come back from my old primary school, where I voted. My DNI (Documento Nacional de Identidad) now has one more stamped-and-signed square near its back. Now to wait until evening...

27 June 2009

Before the elections (III)

This is probably a breach of electoral law, but what the heck, these are littering the streets everywhere... This is my vote for tomorrow:

As you see, the ballot has two parts; on the left is the vote for the senators of the Progressive Front (whose major force is the Socialist Party, which rules Santa Fe Province since 2007 and Rosario since 1989), and on the right, the vote for the deputies (diputados, or what Americans would call Representatives). I'm mainly supporting Rubén Giustiniani for senator, and against the ghastly Carlos Reutemann. I don't care much about the deputies — on that department my vote is for the coalition rather than the candidates.

If I wanted to, I could vote for different parties, by manually cutting the ballots along the vertical dotted line; senators and deputies are formally separate elections after all. Or I could just vote for senator Giustiniani and leave the deputies' place blank (i.e. not placing any vote for deputies in the envelope I'll be given), but I feel it's important to strengthen the opposition in the Lower House.

I'll be voting at my old primary school, about four blocks from my house, probably just before noon as usual. Then we'll all have to wait until eight or nine in the evening to get the preliminary results. I'll blog about that as soon as I can.

26 June 2009

Before the elections (II)

I left out some details in my previous post about the upcoming legislative election, just to keep it short and avoid digression. I think I need to clarify some things, for those who don't live in Argentina and have no idea what's the voting system is like. Some general information can be found in the Wikipedia articles Elections in Argentina and Argentine legislative election, 2009, but here I'm interested in the little things that make fraud and deceitful tactics easy (or easier).

There are two kinds of problems with this election (and many past ones): what I'd call ethical problems, and systemic problems. The latter are technical details; the former are often allowed (or encouraged) by the latter. Let me explain.

The main systemic problem in legislative elections is the fact that, for Deputies (the members of the Lower House), we use proportional representation, whereby you vote for party-approved lists of candidates, rather than single candidates. The more votes a list receives, the more candidates the party gets elected. This in itself is not bad, but in a very uninformed society like Argentina's, it means most people don't know who they're voting for, beyond the first candidate in the list, who's usually chosen to be as charismatic and well-known a character as possible. Most of our current representatives never have to do any campaigning besides standing next to the "poster guy", and get elected merely because they've secured (by whatever means) a place in the list.

Compounding this, there's another problem with the system: we use paper ballots as a universal means of vote, and each party or coalition is in charge of printing and supplying the public with their ballots. When you go to vote, you're let into a cuarto oscuro (literally, a "dark room", though of course it's not dark) where you face dozens of piles of ballots, each with different logos, party symbols, colors, etc. The ballots for each party have the party name and the first candidate in the list printed in large type; the second and maybe the third and fourth candidates in the list are printed somewhat smaller, and the rest are in normal type. There's nothing to stop the sensible, concerned citizen from reading and assessing the whole list, but as I said, Argentina's political culture is very primitive, so most people only know the first candidate and will vote for him or her without paying attention to the rest of the bandwagon, or simply look for the party name among the ballots and put that into the envelope.

The different ballots thing also enables a whole host of fraudulent activities. For example, pseudo-parties created with the sole purpose of having an extra ballot in the "dark room" and confuse the voters, either by closely mimicking the name and typography chosen by another party, or by suggesting there are alternatives where there aren't (in this case the pseudo-party might be a "mirror" of another party — different name, same candidates). There are (in)famous cases of parties registered only to have a first candidate with a last name very similar to a major candidate of another party.

The state must pay for the ballots so each party has an opportunity to participate even if it doesn't have a lot of contributors. In every election, many little parties pop into existence, ask the state for money to print their ballots, and vanish. Control is absent.

If the ballots for a party run out, they have to be replenished by the delegates of the party present in the election table. If the party couldn't provide a delegate, the ballots won't be replenished and some people might have to go without voting for the party they had in mind. So it's a very common practice in some areas for voters to be sent into the voting rooms to steal or ruin other party's ballots. People can be also sent in to plant fake ballots for a competing party, differring from the real ones by minor details that won't be noticed by the voters, but will be cause for voiding them afterwards, during the count.

It's quite clear these problems exist and could be easily solved by printing a single standard ballot, with the names of all the candidates in it, and having the voters mark them with a pen, as is done in other countries. It's also very clear why this hasn't been done — the party that most benefits from these tactics is the one in power, and wishes to remain so.

Some other problems with the system derive from the fact that the laws regulating the elections are lax, and moreover, nobody respects them, and the judges are unable or unwilling to do anything about it. But mostly the remaining problem is one of ethics. There's no law forbidding a person from running as candidate to a post he or she will never accept once elected (or will accept only to resign immediately), but in a normal society such dishonest behavior would be punished by public opinion; in Argentina, however, we have "testimonial candidates" at the top of the public's preferences.

The main offender in the ethics field is, no doubt, the Front for Victory, i.e. Kirchnerism. As is regrettably usual in Argentine politics, but taken to the extreme by the ruling couple and their allies, there's a confusion and merging of the conceptual limits of state, government and party. One sees Néstor Kirchner campaigning and can almost forget he's only a candidate in a given district — the full structure of the national government has been put at his disposal (funds, transportation, official coverage, the Cabinet, the President herself), even though it's illegal (and even more so because it's just before an election). We have no president, we have a ruling cabal presided by Néstor Kirchner, and Congress is virtually non-existent.

There are many who still passionately support the Kirchners because of their past achievements regarding human rights, the renewel of the Supreme Court, and the economic recovery, as well as the idea (unfounded in my opinion) that their ethical "rough edges" will be polished in time. Despite the fact that wealth inequality hasn't decreased and that the Kirchners show no sign of changing their friends' capitalism for socialism, many in the left still believe "the model" is an ongoing revolution towards a better country. Others don't have that faith, but refuse to position themselves against the Kirchners because they know the opposition is worse.

Despite all the problems with our system, I still hope we can all change this state of affairs. Right now the battle between Kirchnerism and opposition is a zero-sum game. Maybe after next Sunday, or next year (once the candidates have taken office) the politicians who haven't done anything but fight each other will find a way to discuss and, if necessary, compromise, so we can move on.

25 June 2009

Before the elections

It's only a few days to the legislative election, so this is a brief "state of the campaign" post. I'll refrain from emphasizing the appallingly low level of today's politics, if only because the post would turn into in a long, bitter rant if I tried to convey that.

First, my home district, Santa Fe. Here the senatorial race is the major one, because we have two great contenders: former two-time governor Carlos Reutemann, and Rubén Giustiniani, backed by current governor and former two-time mayor of Rosario Hermes Binner. Both candidates are already senators and both are sure to be reelected; the real issue is, first, who will win (even by one vote), and in a distant second place, which party will get the third senator.

Reutemann is a well-known, wealthy, conservative Peronist who for some reason (certainly not his charisma or his performance when in office) has consistently captured over a third of the vote in every election. Giustiniani is your typically neat low-profile militant of the very moderate (almost European-like) Socialist Party who ran (big mistake!) as candidate for the vice-presidency next to Elisa Carrió in 2007. Reutemann is playing the anti-Kirchnerist card, an attribute he earned by positioning himself against the ruling couple on the issue of Resolution 125, even though he barely did anything but raise his hand on command on all other issues. Since half the population of the province barely knows Giustiniani, until a few months ago Reutemann took his triumph for granted, but since governor Binner stepped into the campaign, Giustiniani has come close to his opponent, to the point that the predicted result is very close to a tie.

The leading candidates for the Chamber of Deputies are almost completely unknown; they're only getting votes because they'll be on the same paper ballot as their respective senators. Ironically, the only candidate everyone knows is the one heading for the distant third place: Agustín Rossi, by now politically disgraced in his own home turf due to his complete, unwavering submission to Néstor Kirchner.

In the Province of Buenos Aires, well... you have a contest of unscrupulous millionaires, a huge, impoverished clientele, well-oiled political machines with their filthy cogs obscenely in view and no-one doing anything about it, the government doing campaign for its party with state funds, the opposition wipping up the visceral hate for the Kirchners of the mostly right-wing citizenry, and no government proposals whatsoever except for "it's us or chaos". It's sleazy. So you'll forgive me if I refuse to take one more step into that crap.

Several problems with this election and with the system in general: first, the ballots printed by each party with their own candidates (instead of a universal ballot where you have to select what you want), which leaves ample space for fraud and many borderline illegal practices; second, the use of (linear) proportional representation in a country like Argentina, with a ridiculously skewered population distribution, which makes it possible for a party to win an election just by concentrating their efforts on a few hundred square kilometers crammed full with very poor, very influentiable people; third, the lack of political awareness of most of the citizens, understandably tired of anything to do with politics, which makes it easy for opportunists to flourish and for the unscrupulous to "disappear in the crowd".

I feel fortunate that I inhabit a district where, at least, the choices are clear-cut and the fight has not turned dirty beyond words. I won't vote for Reutemann, the love child of Carlos Menem and completely deprived of ideas besides his own plans to maintain influence; I won't vote for Rossi, a mouthpiece of the Executive Branch who would bring its own province to its knees to further the Kirchnerist agenda of centralized control; I'll vote for Giustiniani, who has some ideas I like and belongs to a structured political project that's going in the (general) right direction.

21 June 2009

Finally back from vacations

First of all, I'm very sorry! I haven't found the time to update this blog for more than month, including the week I was away on vacation. Secondly, I promise I'll try to post at least once a week, even if it's only a very short post.

I took a lot of pictures (and many many notes) on my trip to and from the Iguassu Falls. For the travel chronicle I posted on Sin calma, I just transcribed the notes, and added some pictures, but even so, it was a lot of work. You'll forgive me I don't translate it all into English here.

It was a packaged tour, unlike all our previous trips: everything (almost) was arranged and paid for in advance. Although both Marisa and I prefer the flexibility of self-made tours and hostel accomodation, for this particular destination, and with these particular time constraints (one week off work and not a single day more), a package was both inexpensive and comfortable.

Of six days, we spent two on the road, with frequent stops. We visited San Ignacio Miní (which I visited a couple of years ago) and the semiprecious stone mines of Wanda (a tourist trap if I ever saw one). Then we crossed into Brazil, where we lodged at a hotel in the city of Foz do Iguaçu. From there we were taken on succesive days to the Argentine and Brazilian sides of the Iguassu River (Iguazú in Argentina, Iguaçu in Brazil) to see the falls from different angles. It wasn't difficult to see why the Iguassu Falls are considered a natural wonder of the world.

Regarding the pictures, for the time being, I'll leave you with a slideshow of the ones I uploaded to Flickr. There are a few of each place we visited. Of course none of the photos of the falls do any justice to their majesty. You just have to be there to appreciate them, and even there it's difficult to take it all in.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.