The Argentine election rulebook: a guide to understand what’s coming

4th July 2019

By Ignacio Portes

The Argentine election rulebook: a guide to understand what’s coming

The convoluted nature of Argentine politics can make them hard to follow for any outsider. One thing that surely helps is to know the rules, but they are hardly ever spelled out anywhere even if everyone likes to play to their limit.

So now that the coalition-building season is over and the campaign for 2019 is truly underway, here’s our handy summary of the 2019 Argentine election rulebook and its implications. What positions are up for a vote, how the winners are decided, how many rounds of voting we’ll end up seeing and all the strategies built around Argentina’s voting laws.

</p> <h2><strong>What are Argentines voting for?</strong></h2> <p>Everyone obviously knows President Mauricio Macri is up for re-election, but there’s much more than the Head of State position in play.</p> <p>For starters, the full 257 seats of the Lower Chamber of Congress are up for renewal, as is the norm every four years. Though it is somewhat similar to the US House of Representatives, Argentina’s Lower Chamber (or <em>Cámara de Diputados</em>) allocates its seats somewhat differently. Instead of adjudicating one seat to each small district in the country, each province gets a number of seats roughly proportional to its population.</p> <p>That means the massive Buenos Aires province, for example, gets 70 seats in the Lower House. Based on their total vote tally in the election, coalitions get a fraction of those 70 seats using the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%27Hondt_method">D’Hondt allocation method</a>. Is that too much for BA province? They would argue it isn’t, as their 70 seats are only 27 percent of the 257 available, while they hold almost 40 percent of the country’s population.</p> <p>Then there’s the Upper Chamber of Congress, the Senate, where representation is much simpler: 3 seats per province, 2 for the party that finishes first and one for the runner up. Senatorial terms last 6 years, and one third of the seats are renewed in each election. So 24 seats corresponding to 8 provinces are up for renewal this year: Buenos Aires city (not to be confused with the province), Salta, Chaco, Santiago del Estero in the north, Entre Ríos in the east and Neuquén, Río Negro and Tierra del Fuego in the south.</p> <p>The 24 provinces (23 actually, plus BA city) also need their own governors, but a majority of them opted to hold their elections at a different time than the national vote, often to avoid picking a side in the national battle. But a few provincial leaders will get voted on the same day than the President: those of Santa Cruz, Catamarca, Buenos Aires province and Buenos Aires city (which technically picks a Mayor, but that has powers similar to that of a Governor).</p> <p>A host of other positions including hundreds of local mayors, provincial lawmakers, councilmen and even school district representatives are up for grabs, but you are probably not looking to go into that level of detail, although someone somewhere in the country certainly will.</p> <h2><strong>Primaries that aren’t really primaries</strong></h2> <p>We now know the <strong>what</strong>, so let’s move on to the <strong>when</strong>.</p> <p>There’s actually three election dates: the PASO primaries (Primarias Abiertas Simultáneas y Obligatorias; meaning Open, Simultaneous, Mandatory Primaries) on August 11; the General Election on October 27; and the presidential runoff, if needed, on November 17.</p> <p>So what do those primaries mean? Isn’t it already established that Macri will run as the government’s presidential candidate and that Alberto Fernández – Cristina Kirchner will be the opposition ticket, joined by other parties whose candidates we also already know?</p> <p>Well, yes. But that’s because all the coalitions agreed to a consensus presidential ticket, which isn’t always the case.</p> <p>In August 2015, PRO party’s Macri had to beat UCR’s Ernesto Sanz and Civic Coalition party’s Elisa Carrió to secure the nomination for the <em>Cambiemos</em> alliance. After eliminating his internal competitors, Macri ran against the other coalitions in October, came second to Daniel Scioli and then beat him in November’s runoff.</p> <h2><strong>A ‘survey’ with real consequences</strong></h2> <p>With no real internal competition this year, August’s primaries will in practice act as one giant national survey. But they will be far from meaningless.</p> <p>Voters often look at the primaries’ results and adapt their vote for October based on them. My candidate came fifth in August and doesn’t stand a chance? Then maybe I’ll vote for the one that came a close third and see if I can get him into November’s runoff.</p> <p>Markets will also start making assumptions based on August’s results, and load up on a certain asset if the candidate that looks likely to boost its return did better than expected, or dump it if it did worse.</p> <p>Macri fears a bad result in August could trigger a loss of confidence from the markets in his government, starting a financial snowball effect that could worsen economic conditions and, in turn, affect his chances in October.</p> <h2><strong>How to avoid a runoff</strong></h2> <p>After the primary results are clear, speculation is likely to turn towards whether someone can come up victorious in October, or if a presidential runoff between the two best-positioned candidates will take place in November.</p> <p><strong>To avoid a runoff, the best-placed presidential candidate in October will need to have 45 percent of the votes, or 40 percent plus a 10-point differential with the runner up.</strong></p> <p>That means that a 46 to 45 percent victory is just as good to secure the Rivadavia Seat in October as a 40 to 31 percent win. Conversely, a 44 to 35 percent or a 39 to 20 percent victory means the second-placed candidate still has a new chance in November.</p> <p>Importantly, these rules are different in gubernatorial races. In Buenos Aires province, the candidates with more votes in October is declared winner, disregarding the vote tally and vote differential, as runoffs are not written into the rules.</p> <p>In Buenos Aires city, by contrast, runoffs are fairly common. To avoid one, the winner needs more than 50 percent of the vote. Not an easy feat to achieve, although it doesn’t look beyond Horacio Rodríguez Larreta this year.</p> <h2><strong>Votes moving around</strong></h2> <p>As each electoral rounds passes, a few voters are likely to consider shifting their allegiances for pragmatic reasons. Those might be enough to decide key races, including the presidency.</p> <p>One inevitable instance of this will happen with the coalitions that don’t make it past the 1.5 percent threshold during August’s primaries. The coalitions that don’t gather at least that percentage of valid votes in a given category (a gubernatorial race, the presidential race, etc.) won’t have its ballot available for voters in October’s elections.</p> <p>So, for example, if pro-life right winger Juan José Gómez Centurión doesn’t make it past the threshold, a majority of those votes might migrate to center-right Macri in October. The same could apply to the Marxist Leftist Workers’ Front and center-left Alberto Fernández, or to other even smaller parties.</p> <p>Two months later, in October, middle-of-the-pack candidates like Roberto Lavagna or Espert are also likely to get eliminated. Macri’s camp thinks it is likely to ‘inherit’ a majority of those two candidates’ votes, so a small-margin defeat in October is unlikely to be seen like the end of the world in ruling coalition.</p> <p>Unless, of course, that small margin still doesn’t stop the Fernández-Fernández ticket from breaching the 45 percent threshold needed to win in October.

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Ignacio Portes

Ignacio Portes is The Essential's General Editor. Former Economy editor at the Buenos Aires Herald, he has also written for publications such as Naked Capitalism, NSFWCorp and Revista Debate.