Friday, October 25, 2013

The Southernmost Silly Season: Electoral Politics in Argentina & Chile

Anyone traveling to the Southern Cone countries over the next couple months will, unavoidably, experience the presence of politics. Some, perhaps, might prefer to forget the topic on their holidays, but the conspicuous congressional elections in Argentina and the presidential election in Chile certainly represent an improvement over the dictatorships that ruled those countries only a little more than two decades ago.

That’s not to suggest there aren’t shortcomings. Argentine politics is almost invariably polemical, and can bring out the worst on both sides. The government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is presently recovering from brain surgery, did poorly in the primaries and is widely expected to lose seats in Sunday’s election because of rampant inflation and corruption; one symbol of its failure is Buenos Aires city councilman Juan Cabandié, currently a congressional candidate for the government’s Frente para la Victoria (“Victory Front,” the currently dominant faction of Peronism). Cabandié’s only apparent legislative accomplishment is his support of a public monument for retired soccer star (and notorious bad boy) Diego Maradona.
Nevertheless, Cabandié has an absorbing backstory as the infant son of a young “disappeared” couple who was “adopted” by a federal policeman during Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship. Having recovered his identity, though his biological parents are still missing and presumed dead, Cabandié became a credible human rights spokesman but, recently, something went awry. About two weeks ago, video footage surfaced of a routine roadside stop in which the legislator threatened a traffic warden for asking him to produce proof of insurance, which he refused to do. The subtitles here are in Spanish, but his confrontational attitude needs no translation.

Worse yet, he apparently attempted to pull political strings to get the traffic warden punished and perhaps even fired, phoning an operative as he refused to comply with her request: “You think you’re in charge here. I’m the one in charge!” (My very rough translation of a difficult idiom). For a government already in electoral trouble, Cabandié’s outburst was another unnecessary distraction. It’stempting to say his campaign is a train wreck but, in Argentina, that’s not necessarily just a metaphor.

The worst of it should be over by Sunday, though recriminations could continue, but in Chile it may go on a little longer (if not quite so vituperatively). A few months ago, I wrote about the contest between former President Michelle Bachelet and her conservative opponent Evelyn Matthei as the first presidential choice between two women, but I may have spoken too soon. Bachelet remains likely to finish first in the November 17 election, by a comfortable margin, though she’ll probably fall short of an outright majority that would avoid a December 15 runoff.

Matthei is even less of a sure thing. As an emergency fill-in for the center-to extreme-right Alianza after primary winner Pablo Longueira bowed out from depression (perhaps anticipating a landslide loss to Bachelet), she has not quite suffered a public meltdown. Still, her persistent and gratuitous defense of the Pinochet dictatorship (her father spent 13 years as a junta member) and other missteps have left an opening for center-right independent Franco Parisi to face off against Bachelet.

Whatever the results, southbound travelers to the region are unlikely to be able to avoid campaign signs, sounds and rallies over the next couple months. There may be unruly moments but it’s better than things used to be and, in the end, it’s part of the experience. If driving, though, remember to carry proof of insurance.

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