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.

1 comment:

  1. maybe iran could help argentina straighten out its voting problems. then you really wouldnt have to worry who is on all these ballots.


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