The Argentine Elections and "Clientelismo"

Monday, October 10, 2005

Villa 20, a 25,000-resident shantytown on Buenos Aires south side

's congressional elections, coming on October 23, hold the appeal of a good, old-fashioned cat-fight. . The chief rivals are President Néstor Kirchner and former President Eduardo Duhalde, both of whom are “Peronists” in theory, although with Peronism being more of a religion than a political ideology, saying that they're both "Peronists" means about as much as saying that Bill Clinton and George Bush are both Christians. For those who don't know, Duhalde led a caretaker regime before the 2003 election that put Kirchner in power--the two apparently, were more or less allies--and since then the two have fallen out over control of national politics and the party machine. Duhalde now leads the traditional Peronist party, Partido Justicialista (PJ), and Kirchner runs a splinter group, El Frente para la Victoria (FV).

To give the current race the full Eva Peron treatment, the wives of the two—Chiche Duhalde and Cristina Kirchner—are running against each other, via their respective husband’s political party, for senator in the province of Buenos Aires. Cristina is ahead by 25% in the polls, pepole are comparing their opponents to Don Corleone, government destabilization pacts are ominously mentioned but never verified and now, less than three weeks before the election, a vote-buying scandal has exploded. Or, well, whimpered into view.

Just as Eva Peron was loved for handing out sewing machines to the poor, the two competing Peronist parties have been caught distributing appliances, building materials and checks in poor, hotly-contested precincts in the province of Buenos Aires. In a series of front page articles in La Nacion that began October 4th, the paper documented a “virtual purchasing of votes” whereby government representatives of the competing parties have recently delivered washing machines, construction materials, and checks for between 300 and 500 pesos (about $105-$170) in areas where candidates were campaigning. Checks were delivered by the provincial Senate, which is run by vice-governor Graciela Giannettasio (a Duhalde loyalist) and goods were delivered via the national Ministry of Social Development, which is run by the President’s sister, Alicia Kirchner. Those receiving appliances said they were given a menu and told to chose pieces valued up to 1,000 pesos, a middle-class monthly salary and a huge amount to the poor in a country where 38.5% of the population lives below the poverty line. Supposedly people in the neighborhoods laughed at the 1,000 peso figure because it was so high, and didn’t believe their lucks until beds, refrigerators and the like arrived. (Many appliances were apparently resold for cash.)

Inside Villa 20

Government representatives denied the existence of a menu and claimed that they’d been delivering appliances for ages—that this was not an election tactic—while residents in the areas contradicted this and said that they were offered checks and goods to attend political rallies and that appliances were delivered to those affiliated with the correct political party while those not affiliated watched from the sidelines and yelled. From my own visit to a shantytown inside the city, the process of “clientelismo”—where the poor become “clients” of a political party and sell their votes for aid—is common. In the Villa 20 shantytown, I was told that the “villa’s business was the villa”—i.e. it thanks politicians who provide investments with votes—and that the majority of the jobs inside were government-paid construction jobs. Argentina has long had a patronage political system and from one angle the current aid can seem natural, albeit cynical: the government helping the poor in a “grey” way. This angle is the one officials nervously take when forced to comment. And why shouldn't the poor vote for those who help them?

The more sinister side, made clear by the claims of cash-for-attendance and preferential donations, is what feeds the current scandal. Helping the poor is good. Yes. But buying your party votes with tax receipts? Spinning that into something palatable thrusts the citizenry far deeper into cynicism's smirking maw. No wonder no one pays taxes here.


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