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Midterms: doing things by halves

President Mauricio Macri and Governor of Buenos Aires Province María Eugenia Vidal head a timbreo political canvass event in the city of Lobos, 98 kilometres from the capital, on April 22.
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By Marcela Valente
IPS

Vice-President Gabriela Michetti, among others, has floated the idea of altering the Constitution and moving the midterm elections so they run concurrently with the presidential vote. Is this biennial exercise a refreshing democratic renewal or just an obstacle to whichever goverment is in power? Is it time to move the midterms? And what would it take?

The upcoming midterm elections, which have their own overture, the PASO nationwide primary voting on August 13, constitute a decisive battle for the opposition, which is seeking to recoup its losses from the presidential elections of 2015.

Convinced that the electorate will punish austerity, the opposition is seeking to convert the vote into a sort of plebiscite on the government.

In response to this challenge, pro-government sectors — who apparently are not too sure whether their performance will improve in the short term — are envisaging a scenario whereby the midterm elections no longer exist, a hypothesis which would be impossible to turn into reality any time soon without constitutional reform.

The first to run up this idea up the flagpole was Vice-President Gabriela Michetti.

The VP — who is far removed from liberal political thinking — considered that when it comes to structural change, “(electoral) competition is destructive.” For Michetti (and the government) “the most efficient thing” would be to change the rules established by the 1853 Constitution “for a while” and hold congressional voting at the same time as the presidential vote, every four years. This idea might have been no more than an anecdote if it had not been endorsed in one way or another by the political scientist Vicente Palermo (a member of the Consejo Presidencial Argentina 2030), the PRO deputy Daniel Lipovetsky, his Radical colleague Mario Barletta, the socialist Alicia Ciciliani and the director of Poliarquía pollsters, Alejandro Catterberg.

Following a 2016 marked by parliamentary negotiation and the construction of consensus between the government and the opposition, in this electoral year the ruling coalition has gone for a strategy of greater confrontation, in order to open up more distance over its rivals and possible tactical partners in Congress.

Under this new and tougher plan, Michetti’s proposal to prolong the famous dark tunnel by taking away the chances to vote starts looking less far-fetched. In any case, it’s worth dusting over the constitutional text and submitting it to exegesis in order to be forewarned.

Once they have painstakingly explained that midterm elections can only be eliminated via constitutional reform (which would require a special majority inconceivable in today’s context), the experts and political scientists consulted for the purposes of this article refloat the reasons behind constituent assembly delegates adopting the criterion of legislative elections every two years.

They also examined the arguments for and against making this vote concurrent with the presidential elections, placing their focus on a precedent from recent history, which few remember but is highly revealing — when a military government amended the Constitution on its own account, eliminating midterm elections at a stroke among other changes.

That experiment did not end happily. A year after there should have been midterm elections came the 1976 coup d’état.

Why vote every two years?

Constitutional expert Daniel Sabsay reminds us that our Magna Carta is inspired by the United States version, although not without some changes.

“We copied the model of elections every two years for greater control and greater participation. Every two years the government thus takes society’s temperature in order to see if what it has been doing until then is OK or not. Our only difference with what was resolved by the Philadelphia Convention drafting the United States Constitution in 1787 was that the House of Representatives there was to be wholly renewed every two years. In contrast, we do it by halves,” he said.

On the other hand, Sabsay explains that the authors of the original text found simultaneous elections for the different authorities to be inconvenient.

“The people do not really know what they are voting for and there is a considerable ‘coat-tails’ effect,” he expands, referring to the contagion of results. In other words, to avoid a capricious, arbitrary or demagogic decision all at once.

For Marcelo Leiras, professor at the Universidad de San Andrés and researcher at CIPPEC (Centro de Implementación de Políticas Públicas para la Equidad y el Crecimiento (CIPPEC), there were two main motives for deciding in favour of midterm elections with partial renewal.

“One is for the elections to permit an evaluation of the government’s performance. Having the possibility of a consultation which is relatively frequent and institutional (i.e. as opposed to opinion polls) in order to bring governance closer to the preferences of the electorate,” he underlines. “But the most important motive was to avoid changes of mind in the electorate since these tend to be drastic and volatile, impacting directly on the make-up of the Houses. That is why there is only a partial change. It was very common back then to believe that the electorate could be very easily manipulated so they thought up a mechanism whereby voters could express themselves, but with a certain filter or delay.”

Ana María Mustapic, an expert in electoral systems at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, reinforces the importance of frequency: “In the first place, (having) elections every two years responds to a basic principle of any democracy — a periodic consultation for making legislators accountable.”

The expert pointed out that when the issue was raised at the Philadelphia Convention, the option ruled out was annual elections — i.e. the discarded alternative was to vote more and not less often.

“Secondly, midterm renewal seeks to strike the right balance between public opinion and its representatives,” adds Mustapic. “Concerning this point it is necessary to touch upon a peculiarity of the Argentine case. In the US, the renewal of the House of Representatives is total. Here it is partial — half the deputies and third of the senators.”

In the political scientist’s view, partial renewal strikes a certain discord between public opinion and Congress, precisely because it leaves behind half a House representing the mood of previous elections. It might happen though that the results reveal the presence of a new electoral majority which is not institutionally equipped to carry out its agenda.

“If that occurs in a context of political polarisation, it increases the risks of government inaction,” she warns.

Even if the elimination of midterm elections was not among the core agreements of the 1994 constitutional reform (commonly known as the Olivos Pact), the experts did not elude that analysis. Some even weighed up the advantages with some adjustments yet they always preceded this by stating the prior need for constitutional reform.

Arguments in favour

In the eyes of Leiras, the best argument for eliminating midterm elections would be to allow presidents more legislative support, thus making for more consistency between his or her government and the accompanying Congress.

“It’s not a bad argument. But constitutional designs like to spread power around with systems of checks and balances. Thus adopting a rule which weakens the republican control required of the opposition seems somewhat inconsistent,” he warns.

Michetti had pointed out that in other countries midterm elections do not exist. That is true. Many other countries which also used the US constitutional model did not adopt the rule of renewal every two years. But this national peculiarity should not necessarily be seen as a deviation from virtue.

“It is true that other countries of the region vote all at once. Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, just to mention our neighbours,” recognises Sabsay. “That is to say, in a theoretical sense, it is very good to vote every two years. Although, of course, this complicates governance because consensus is thus renewed more slowly.”

“In the last presidential election, Congress was only partly renewed, which is why (the government) has so few legislators. In order to reach a majority in both chambers, the president either needs a lot of time or to win by an absolute majority,” he admits.

Macri did not obtain that absolute majority in the first round. If the Constitution were a wardrobe, it might be said that the norms for presidential election, which provide for a run-off, are a perfect fit for Macri’s government. In contrast, when facing Congress, that first-round weakness leaves him uncomfortable, having to adjust to the institutional design of checks and balances.

Mustapic recognises that one argument against elections every two years is that “coming so close together, they limit the horizons and timeframes of the political actors and that can affect the quality of policy.”

That would be a disadvantage for a government proposing basic change. But not for one which is only pretending to improve or correct something which does not work well.

To Eugenio Palazzo, Constitutional Law professor at the UCA Catholic University, the key lies in partial renewal.

“In 1853 — when our Constitution was drafted — there were several examples of the partial renewal of the Chamber of Deputies in other countries. But currently there are none within systems of presidential democracy, save in our country. Lower House renewal is always integral in presidential democracies,” he explains.

In this sense, he points out that Argentina’s system of partial renewal “responds to a scheme which seeks to drag out change.”

According to Palazzo, the US Constitution has found a healthy balance in renewing its Senate partially and its House of Representatives integrally.

“Of course, that renewal is every two years, a period which seems too brief,” he estimates.

In his view, “the most rational solution would be to renew the Chamber of Deputies integrally. That would be balanced by partial renewal in the Senate.”

And with what frequency?

“Well, given the convenience of renewing the Chamber of Deputies integrally, it seems right for the voting to coincide with presidential terms to make it easier to put their platforms into effect.”

A bad precedent

The specialists also point to the less fortunate reasons put forward for scrapping midterm elections.

“The idea that you can’t have long-term policies if you have elections every two years is a very poor argument,” considers Leiras. “That suggests that long-term policies must necessarily have bad results in the short term and I believe that if you have problems in the short term, that’s because the policies are not so good.”

In the view of the CIPPEC expert, “any argument that’s suspicious of the electorate’s opinion is not compatible with democracy.” In this sense, Michetti’s suggestion strikes him as being “opportunistic and inspired by a fear of losing.”

Leiras recognises that some of his colleagues share this belief, that when the electoral cycles are short, those in power think more of electioneering than governing.

“But we’ve already tried the long cycles — during dictatorship,” he reflects ironically, “for there to be a democracy the people must be consulted and it does not seem unreasonable to do this every couple of years.”

Sabsay also believes that our current system is not so bad. “Voting every couple of years ensures greater control. And nor do you necessarily advance more with a long-term project by voting less. During periods of ultra-presidential democracy, the presidents had majorities in both houses and that did not guarantee good governance either,” he warns.

Ideas of changing, reforming and updating enjoy a good press when linked to modernisation. But Mustapic turns to the recent past to show that Argentina has already experienced democratic governance without midterm elections. Without much of a happy ending.

“The 1972 Argentine Constitution under which (Juan Domingo) Perón and then (his widow) Isabelita were to govern had suppressed mid-term elections while unifying all terms as four years — whether for deputies, senators, presidents or vice-presidents,” she points out with reference to the reform pushed by the military government of Alejandro Agustín Lanusse. That regime’s “Fundamental Temporary Statute” had introduced many amendments into the 1853 Constitution without even bothering with a constituent assembly.

Even if illegitimate in origin, many of those changes were later incorporated into the legal text placed before the Constituent Assembly of 1994, such as a four-year presidential term with a single re-election, a third senator for the minority and the Council of Magistrates. Nevertheless, the Santa Fe reform did not adopt simultaneous elections, which remained forgotten by the wayside.

“It is indeed very difficult to speculate, within the complex context of Argentina in the mid-1970s, what would have happened if midterm elections had been preserved. Perhaps it would have opened up other possible strategies for democratic survival,” reflects Mustapic. “In defence of that democratic government, I have to say that coming after a military one, it had no choice but to stick to that legal framework.”

Sure enough, during the third Peronist government — bound by the Constitution manipulated by the military government — there were no midterm elections. And within that framework the coup burst onto the scene in March, 1976.

Lanusse’s Statute had its own shelf life. In the absence of any constituent assembly, the reform would self-destruct on May 24, 1981, according to its own text. Obviously in that year nobody was daring to talk about constitutions so that fleeting reform slid into oblivion.

In any case, the relevant thing here, again, is that many of the recommendations of that reform were adopted in 1994 — but not the idea of eliminating midterm elections, which the constituent assembly delegates decided to maintain, as specified in the original text of 1853.

Why discuss this now?

According to Mustapic, midterm elections “are a source of renewal which governments often need to confirm or modify their courses. But they also restrict the continuity of certain policies.”

“The vast majority of countries have gone (toward) unifying electoral processes, eliminating midterm elections or setting a single length of term. Yet that does not mean that the possibility of promoting structural change is thus ensured. This depends on the electoral results,” he adds.

“The president may or may not obtain a majority. Perhaps one might think that if the government lacks a working majority and the time frames are broader — let’s say elections every four years — there might be more incentives for legislative co-operation since the new horizon would permit confrontation to be postponed for further down the road,” she adds.

In any case, there is one irrefutable point. No change of this nature can be made without a constitutional reform which would require a two-thirds majority of the Legislative Assembly to call. So why make the proposal? To the political opposition it seems evident that the government is seeking to change the ground rules when they do not favour them. Leiras is more generous.

“These are healthy public discussions. Asking whether the rules are in order. Some arguments are good, others not. Yet this is not a government on the offensive but in waiting. It has no chance of reforming the Constitution,” he concludes.

Mustapic is not too clear why something so impossible is being proposed. This reporter insists. A trial or test? Justifying a possible defeat in advance? Or trying to chime in with a certain voter fatigue?

“This question being raised by the vice-president can certainly be seen as a signal to talk about this issue. In other words, among the alternatives you have raised, the most reasonable would be the ‘trial balloon’ — to test the reactions of public opinion. As a justification it does not seem very credible and I don’t buy the voter fatigue (theory) either, rather a permanent anti-campaign rhetoric,” she responds.

On this point, the majority of those consulted believe that Argentines like voting although some voters appear irritated by the proximity of the campaigns.

In the opinion of Leiras, “the idea of a certain voter fatigue is an assumption made by people who do not like democracy very much. It’s a delicate argument. Argentina’s democratic tradition is young and cost us a lot. Thinking that people are tired of voting could be dangerous.”

Mustapic does not have the impression that people are fed up with voting often either but “it does seem to me that they could be tired of the confrontational atmosphere surrounding electoral campaigns.”

But Sabsay admits that there are people “trying to get rid of their civic obligations, they’re not keen on participating — it’s a contradiction.”

 

@marcelavalente4

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