The candidates for Argentina’s October presidential election have been set for more than a month. So why are primaries taking place on Aug. 11?
Given that the vote will cost taxpayers around $91 million, it’s a question worth asking. But although a lack of internal competition means the upcoming election – called the Simultaneous and Mandatory Open Primaries, or PASO for its acronym in Spanish – won’t change the names on the ballot, it could have a significant impact on the presidential race.
Here are three ways that Argentina’s mandatory primary election could shape the election this October.
1. Narrowing the field
Candidates in the PASO need 1.5% of the national vote to move on to the general election, which keeps long-shot outsider candidates from joining the race.
Few major candidates have to worry about meeting the 1.5% mark, but it’s something that those polling under 4% will have to consider. That includes economist José Luis Espert, leftists Nicolás Del Caño and Manuela Castiñeira, and the religious right’s Juan José Gómez Centurión. If any of them are disqualified, their supporters could make a difference in the general election, especially since polls predict a close race between President Mauricio Macri and Alberto Fernández, who once served as the cabinet chief under his running mate, former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Shrinking the field of competitors is part of the PASO’s design. The primary became law in late 2009 after the large number of parties on the Argentine left weakened then-President Kirchner’s party in mid-term elections. Support that could have gone to her congressional candidates, who included her late husband and former president Néstor, went to smaller, less competitive parties on the left.
“What the Kirchners wanted to do was effectively reduce the number of parties in Argentina,” Nicolás Saldías, a researcher for the Wilson Center’s Argentina Project, told AQ. “The PASO and the rules that determine who participates and what thresholds candidates need to meet create incentives for them to join a larger coalition.”
In addition to consolidating the running tickets, the PASO also confirms which candidates may in fact have a chance, providing an opportunity for supporters of less competitive candidates to reevaluate their choices before the general election.
2. The strong get stronger
The process of coalition-building that happens before the PASO benefits electoral alliances that are already powerful. Parties and politicians must join coalitions two months before the vote, and they can’t switch allegiances after the primary.
Because nobody wants to be married to a coalition that turns out to be weak, there is a process of powerful candidates wooing smaller parties ahead of time in an effort to strengthen their alliances.
“The more parties they are able to get inside their coalitions the better,” said Saldías.
Again, this was by design. When devising the PASO, Néstor Kirchner “wanted to force everyone to make decisions a few months ahead of the election so he would be able to basically put pressure on these actors and make sure that his coalition was going to be the strongest,” said Sergio Berensztein, a political analyst and pollster.
Such was the case earlier this year, when Sergio Massa, the leader of the Renewal Front party, joined the Kirchner’s coalition after years of criticizing her – betting that her candidate and running mate Alberto Fernández would be the most competitive. Another Peronist politician, Senator Miguel Ángel Pichetto, made a similar calculation when he joined Macri’s ticket as his running mate. Both Pichetto and Massa had supported an alternative electoral front against Macri and Kirchner, but ultimately abandoned it.
The result is that competitive coalitions become even more competitive – significant in a country where the two chief political blocs are also highly unpopular among the general population.
In addition, the PASO results tend to give already-powerful coalitions a leg-up as they develop their campaign strategies for the general election.
“You have campaigns take advantage of the information about voting behavior when deciding where to allocate resources,” said Berensztein. “Macri’s coalition now has an advantage because his team of experts doing data analysis is superb and the opposition’s is not as good. So they believe the PASO may be very important.”
3. The markets are watching
Another reason the PASO matters? Investors are looking for signs that Macri will be competitive against Fernández, whose possible victory many fear would herald a return to the protectionist policies of his running mate Kirchner.
Because the primary vote is mandatory, investors are treating it as an official poll, said Martin Castellano, head of Latin America research at the Institute of International Finance.
“If the Aug. 11 primary doesn’t appease investors, it could be a destabilizing factor,” said Castellano.
A unstable economy would likely hurt Macri going into a general election.
And it’s not just foreign investors that are watching. The reaction of spooked Argentines could also be destabilizing, said Castellano.
“Last year, we saw $30 billion capital flight from residents,” said Castellano. “The outflow continued, but lower, and we could see a spike if Macri does not do well in the PASO.”
“The real threat is not so much foreign investors right now. It’s Argentines dollarizing their assets, as well as capital flight,” Saldías said. “The pressure is on Macri to ensure he’s competitive.”
O’Boyle is a senior editor at AQ. Follow him on Twitter @BrenOBoyle