Elections and democratic resilience

Understanding how public opinion is shaped while political parties as we have known them cease to exist

Written by Paola Zuban & Gustavo Córdoba

Argentina will elect its next president on October 22. The emergence of candidates who are outsiders from the political system — and the amount of votes they obtained in the PASO primaries — has made it of special interest to understand the phenomenon, which certainly doesn’t happen only in Argentina. 

On August 13, voters’ choices were organized by the internal elections of the country’s political coalitions: La Libertad Avanza, the party that runs with Javier Milei in its presidential ticket, obtained 29.86% of the votes. Juntos por el Cambio got 28% between the two candidates that competed within the coalition, while Unión por la Patria got 27.28%, and ended up in the third place. A little further away was Hacemos por Nuestro País, which carries Córdoba governor Juan Schiaretti for president (he got 3.71%) and the Frente de Izquierda with 2.61%.  

In order to understand these results, we must pay attention to two key notions about the way public opinion is shaped in political and electoral terms: the zeitgeist, and the climate of opinion. 

The zeitgeist

The German expression zeitgeist refers to “a dominant cultural climate that defines a period of time in the world”. This notion stresses the compound of ideas, beliefs and values in a specific time and place, and reflects “the collective sense of a particular time”.

Ever since the second post-war period in Western Europe, conservative and typical social-democratic parties built a foundation of political consensus.   

That has changed substantially today. Parties are no longer interested in sustaining the welfare state created after the war, and the new groups that emerged have forged themselves with different features. Strong leadership styles appeared, featuring hyper-personalized leaders, intense political and social polarization and a rupture of party structures (the party is at the service of the leader, and not the other way around). All this ended up opening a path to political tribalization — with leaders who flout political correctness and social consensus — and a populist discourse that is strongly “dogmatic” and features ideologically radical rhetoric and notions, which have effects on their electorates.  

We can see this style in Trump in the US, Kurz in Austria, Erdogan in Turkey, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Meloni in Italy, etc. Their way of breaking the rules is completely exciting for their followers, according to Austrian political scientist Natascha Strobl.

These radicalization processes take place within the middle classes who, in critical social and economic moments, display authoritarian opinions they wouldn’t express during a time of stability. This alleged “cultural war” creates a sort of “us versus them” struggle, “the good against the bad”, mixing issues of identity and class.   

But none of these leaders fell out of the sky or were brought to Earth by aliens. They are the byproduct of political parties that haven’t lived up to citizens’ expectations, and start to be more a part of the problem than of the solution. They become obsolete. “There are new dilemmas, new problems, and new social classes,” says Brazilian political strategist Renato Pereira. 

Climate of opinion and the PASO results 

A Deutsche Bank report highlights two essential social issues if you wish to understand today’s Argentina. First, the deepening inequality caused by the pandemic: workers with more precarious jobs were more heavily affected than the rest. Second, the intergenerational gap: young people whose quality of life will be worse than their parents’ as they will inherit the great burden of accumulated public debt. This gap has manifested in political preferences all over the globe. 

That is how we can understand the general beliefs in Argentina. 

“What can we expect in the October elections?” is the most recurrent question these days. 

Javier Milei is holding onto the votes he obtained in the PASO primaries and gaining some more from other candidates. While his electoral potential has grown, the same happened with his negative image, and he will surely find his ceiling. The question is whether he will find it below or above 40%. He is voted mainly by young men and across all different social-economic levels. His campaign seems to move through simple mistakes and few important events. 

Massa manages to keep both his and his internal competitor Grabois’ votes, adding a few extra points. But the positive view he gets from the different measures he has taken to ease the economy will not necessarily translate into enough electoral potential to win the election. 

Patricia Bullrich has seen her poll numbers drop since the PASO. She couldn’t manage to keep all of the votes that went to Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, her competitor in her party’s primaries. Speculations over whether people who voted for Milei in the PASO could change their minds in favor of Bullrich don’t seem to hold. On the contrary, it is Milei who is capitalizing on Bullrich’s votes. The first round scenarios show that the differences that sharpened after the PASO are narrowing. If the trend continues, we will have a second round in November. 

It’s also important to consider that 40% of the country’s electoral register is made of people between 16 and 35 years old. They are the young people who every candidate wants to convince; people with an absolute certainty that they will not be in a better situation than their parents. The idea of upward social mobility was an aspiration of older generations which this generation doesn’t believe they can achieve. They believe that they will never get to own their homes and access credit, and that conquering rights was good but it didn’t improve their quality of life. 

And politics! Always politics! The provincial ruling parties detached their local elections from the national ones in order to keep their territories. Some governors managed to do so, others didn’t, but they turned their parties into political franchises. Now, they will need representation in Congress, and they are likely to work for the general election in a different manner from the PASO. Eight provinces are electing senators (Buenos Aires, Formosa, Jujuy, La Rioja, Misiones, San Juan, San Luis and Santa Cruz), and if the results are the same as the PASO, Milei will have 41 congress representatives and 8 senators starting December 11. It would be the first time the two coalitions would not have a majority in both chambers. 

This election will also be the first time the Argentine electoral past — which has been bipartisan, or bi-coalitional— will not be a point of comparison for today’s three-part scenario. It is, without a doubt, a historic, turning point moment.   

Absenteeism is the other issue that caused concern in the PASO and deserves the attention of political leadership: the people who didn’t show up to vote represent 30.4% of the electoral registry. They are the pond where every political party will go fish, and what currently keeps all political strategists awake at night.   

We must prepare ourselves for a consummated fact: the political system is changing its shape. Political parties as we have known them don’t exist anymore. “Democracy doesn’t work without political parties; but it doesn’t with these ones, either,” wrote Yanina Welp. It remains to be seen if they will have the tools for political resilience. So, what’s the way to go? This is the big question politics must ask itself, and look ahead.   

Translated by Agustín Mango


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