Here’s why Argentina’s primary elections are so important

The way voting works means they can be a major predictor of the general elections. This is what you need to know

This Sunday, Argentines will head to the ballot boxes to choose each coalition’s candidates for this year’s presidential elections in primary elections known as the PASO. The general population has to vote and all candidates running for the presidency have to participate. This unique system makes the primaries a major date on the political calendar.

If you’re looking to understand how the primaries work, we’ve broken down the main features, to help you understand why these elections are so important in Argentina.

“In lay terms, primaries are elections that take place within the parties to select the most representative or electable candidates of the party, coalition or grouping,” said Dr. Ariadna Gallo, a political sciences researcher at Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council. 

After the primaries, the 2023 presidential election will be held on October 22. A candidate can win outright by gaining over 45% of the vote, or over 40% with a lead of ten percentage points over the runner-up. If neither of those conditions are met, a run-off is held within 30 days — this year, that’s scheduled for November 19.

Why are Argentina’s primaries called the PASO?

PASO stands for Primarias Abiertas, Simultáneas y Obligatorias, or Open, Simultaneous and Obligatory Primaries.

Primaries: The presidential candidate of each coalition is being chosen. The winning candidates still have to compete against each other in the presidential election to become the next president.

Open: The electorate as a whole can vote for any candidate they want: you don’t have to be a party member to participate.

Simultaneous: The elections take place on the same day.

Obligatory: in Argentina, this means both the candidates and the general population have to participate.

Argentina is the only country in the region where the primaries follow this specific format. This setup means the primaries can act as a strong predictor for the results of the general election because they tell us what percentage of the population voted for which coalition.

Coalitions have to participate in the primaries even if they’re only fielding one presidential candidate. For example, in 2019, current President Alberto Fernández and Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner were the only candidates for Unión por la Patria (known at the time as Frente de Todos). Then-President Mauricio Macri and his vice candidate Miguel Ángel Pichetto were the only candidates for Juntos por el Cambio. The Fernández-Fernández ticket came out 16 percentage points ahead of the Macri-Pichetto ticket — so it was clear who was likely to win the presidential elections. 

Who’s running in the primaries?

For UxP, the candidates are

  • Economy Minister Sergio Massa (President) and Chief of Staff Agustín Rossi (Vice)
  • Social leader Juan Grabois (President) and sociologist Paula Abal Medina (Vice)

Massa and Rossi are expected to win by a large margin.

For JxC, the candidates are

  • Former Security Minister Patricia Bullrich (President) and former deputy Luis Petri (Vice)
  • Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta (President) and Jujuy Governor Gerardo Morales (Vice)

Both tickets are viewed as competitive.

For La Libertad Avanza, there is only one presidential ticket:

  • Libertarian economist and deputy Javier Milei (President) and Deputy Victoria Villarruel (Vice)

Presidential hopefuls running in the primaries are called precandidatos in Spanish (“precandidates”).

To learn more about who’s running, see: Argentina 2023 elections: these are the candidates 

Why do Argentina’s primaries work this way?

The current PASO system was approved in 2009 and the first PASO were held in 2011.

Supporters of the system argue that it is more democratic for the people to choose each coalition’s presidential candidates instead of alternative systems, such as party leaders choosing them in a closed vote or presidents hand-picking their successors.

There was also a political motive for introducing PASOs: Peronism at the time was split and the new system made it possible for splinter factions to settle the debate via a vote, according to Gallo.

“What they were trying to do was create a mechanism that allows dissident sectors to reincorporate themselves into the officialist force by competing within it,” she said.

What are the disadvantages?

Politicians often express concern that pitting two of their strongest leaders against each other in a vote can threaten the stability of the party or coalition.

Paradoxically, the system can encourage candidates to compromise before the vote, meaning the electorate doesn’t get to choose between them, according to Gallo. For example, candidates have to present a complete list of candidates on their ticket ahead of time, meaning there’s no chance for the loser to squeeze in as the winner’s vice president.

There’s also the fact that opening the primaries to all means people from outside the party can tip the balance. “The selection falls to people who are external to the party’s will,” she said. These may include individuals who vote strategically for the candidate they would prefer to win within a coalition but do not plan to vote for in the general election.

This year, there are a record 26 candidates, Gallo pointed out. Realistically, voters will not be able to inform themselves about all of them.

What should we expect this year?

One of the key questions is who will win the JxC primary, since polls indicate that both Bullrich and Larreta are in with a chance.

We will also see what percentage of the vote each coalition gets — but bear in mind that this is not a guarantee for how the population will vote in the presidential election on October 22. For example people may vote strategically or change their minds before the presidential vote.

This Sunday, the Herald will be providing updates about the primaries throughout the day, so check back to see how it goes!


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