The meeting room below our lodgings at the Centro Mindszentynum on Calle Araoz in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires hummed with excited activity last Sunday night. Clapping and singing drew me down to see what was happening. Computers and a television screen there provided the people gathered to monitor the biennial preliminary election for candidates seeking a seat in Argentina’s Senate or Chamber of Deputies.
Yes, indeed, some countries elect their senators.
Members of the lower legislative Argentine Chamber of Deputies hold office for four years with half their seats to be filled every two years. Senators serve for six years on their side of the legislature with a third standing for election every two years. The president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, elected most recently in 2011 for a four-year term, doesn’t have to stand again until 2015. This structural explanation is the simple part of figuring how their electoral system works.
Two members of La Campora, a youth movement supporting the party of the president, Frente para la Victoria, took time from their tasks around wrapping up the campaign to help me understand the results I watched coming in on the screen. Nineteen different parties ran lists of candidates in the city of Buenos Aires during this preliminary election. Other combinations of parties presented slates in the 23 outlying Argentine provinces from Chaco in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south.
Many voices presented their views in this preliminary electoral forum. I even saw a poster, plastered on a post on the busy Avenida Santa Fe, proclaiming that Elvis was alive and well living in Argentina and asking for people’s votes. However, as the young men from La Campora told me, winning a minimum of 50,000 votes determined whether or not a party’s list made it onto the final ballot for the election on October 27. By Monday morning it became clear that only six of the 19 parties won the right to field their lists of Chamber of Deputies’ candidates and seven for the Senate in the federal capital.
The Argentine electoral scene gets more interesting. My electoral guides gave me the candidate list for the district they had been campaigning in. It held two names for senator and 13 names for deputies plus a list of two and eight alternates respectively. Why so many names? Argentina has a proportional representation system. For Buenos Aires, whichever party captures the highest number of the votes in the October election wins two senate seats. The next nearest party in total votes gets the third available Senate seat. For the Chamber of Deputies the 13 seats up for grabs are distributed based on the proportion of votes won. Take 7.5 per cent of the vote and a party can have one of the seats. An established slate of party candidates provides the order in which a party would allocate the seats it wins.
Clearly the range of voices heard in the Argentine legislature exceeds the array offered in our Yukon or national “winner take all” systems. A greater diversity of policy alternatives debated could only enhance the vibrancy of a political system. More importantly, though, groups and individuals who feel that their concerns are left out of the political discourse would possibly have a voice and a reason to vote.
My guides also tried to explain to me what differentiated all the political parties that claimed the mantle of Juan Peron, the charismatic leader whose presence dominated the Argentine political scene for almost half a century. The complexity and nuances of the various tendencies defeated their efforts for my poor brain. However, the list of election issues, from increasing benefits to pensioners, and improving services for at-risk children, to more job creation could be more easily understood.
Looking outside ourselves at the lived experience of others can help us find ways to improve our own political system. For me there certainly was something new under the Southern Cross.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse.