Will letting 16-year-olds vote change Argentina?

Sixteen and 17-year-olds will be able to vote for the first time in Argentina's mid-term elections Sunday. Critics see the 2012 law that lowered the voting age as a cynical bid to bolster the leftist government, but others say it will bolster democracy.

Ignacio Cura, a floppy-haired high-school student, belongs to a new generation of voters that will cast some of its first ballots tomorrow in Argentina’s mid-term elections.

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s ruling Peronist alliance, the Front for Victory, passed a controversial law last year that lowers the voting age from 18 to 16. More than half a million youngsters in this nation of 40 million people have since opted to join Mr. Cura on the electoral roll.

Critics see the law as a blatant attempt by President Kirchner to harness extra votes in uncertain times for her leftist government, which is popularly believed to count young people among its most fervent supporters. But others say it is a tool for widening democracy and a political extension of Kirchner’s liberal social policies.

“This started as a government plan to capture a new mass vote,” says Sergio Berensztein, a political analyst at Poliarquía, a Buenos Aires consultancy. “But that vote is not homogenous.” 

The general consensus here is that views among young people are more nuanced – perhaps giving weight to the claims of Diana Conti, a Front for Victory lawmaker, who said the law was “neither opportunistic nor demagogic.”

Pro-Kirchner groups, for instance, have not been elected to run any of the student associations at the University of Buenos Aires, the biggest university in Argentina with more than 300,000 students. And Cura, who is 16, says he will not vote tomorrow for the Front for Victory.

In a recent Poliarquía poll, 49 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds across the country said they would vote for opposition parties.

A focus on youths

Kirchner has made youth participation a cornerstone of her political discourse, and pro-Kirchner youth organizations have flourished in recent years.

Young people, Kirchner said last year, are the “custodians of this political legacy.” She often refers to that legacy as “the winning decade,” a reference to 10 years of "Kirchnerism," interventionist rule by Kirchner and her late husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner.

“Kirchnerism has triggered an enthusiasm in young people,” says Julio Burdman, head of the politics department at the University of Belgrano.

There is a general consensus here that political debate and activism are at their highest levels since Argentina returned to democracy 30 years ago following a brutal military dictatorship – from 1976 to 1983 – that crushed dissent and “disappeared” an estimated 30,000 people.

“What we’re seeing now is similar to what I experienced in the 1980s as a teenager,” says Marcelo Ronco, discussing the elections with his 12-year-old son, Simón. “Today, young people are informed about politics; before, it was a ‘no-go’ subject.”

Divisive policies

Many here, however, complain that the pro-Kirchner youth organizations – capable of packing stadiums and plazas for the president’s speeches – implement a top-down, rather than grassroots, structure in an attempt to indoctrinate followers.

Others say a government plan that has seen nearly 3.5 million laptops given to high-school students – who say they come pre-loaded with Peronist propaganda – is indicative of short-term populism, rather than long-term educational reform.

But poorer students have benefitted from the program. “There are seven of us at home with just one desktop computer,” says 18-year-old Santiago Andreu, who will vote for the Front for Victory. “I can study better now with the laptop.”

Many young people identify with Kirchnerism because of social policies like child benefits, which poor families can receive if they ensure their children attend school. More than 3.5 million children are currently enrolled in the program.

Others are drawn by Kirchnerism’s record on human rights: Mr. Kirchner overturned amnesty laws that had protected the perpetrators of crimes against humanity during the dictatorship. They also laud the current president’s attempt to break up media conglomerates, as well as reforms such as a 2010 same-sex marriage law and a 2012 law that allows people to legally change their gender without prior medical or judicial approval.

“It’s a rounded model that promotes a better future,” says Soledad Prado, an 18-year-old medical student who is applying for a government grant to subsidize her living costs. She will cast her ballot for the Front for Victory, too.

'The end of the Kirchnerist cycle?'

But tomorrow’s vote – in which a half of the lower house and a third of the upper house will be elected – takes place against a gloomy backdrop for Kirchnerism. While it is unlikely to lose control of Congress, other political forces are budding. They have capitalized on widespread discontent with the government, especially corruption allegations and a perception that violent street crime is rising.

Sergio Massa, a mayor who was Kirchner’s cabinet chief for a brief spell in 2008 and 2009, is spearheading a breakaway Peronist alliance. He leads Front for Victory candidate Martín Insaurralde in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina’s most populous, by eight percentage points, according to Poliarquía. If he wins, Mr. Massa is expected to use victory as a springboard for a presidential bid in 2015.

“This is the end of the Kirchnerist cycle,” says Mr. Berensztein, the analyst.

Kirchner is a potent personality, but the Constitution bars her from running for a third consecutive term. And a government source, who preferred not to be named for fear of losing his job, says officials fear for Kirchnerism’s future without her. That leadership vacuum has become clear in recent days as Kirchner recovers from brain surgery.

Rival politicians also sense vulnerability. “Kirchnerism is in crisis,” says Elisa Carrió, an outspoken opposition lawmaker who is running for re-election.

Still, many young people here see Kirchnerism as the only guarantor of leftist rule. Older voters, meanwhile, are tired of Kirchner’s aggressive manner and crave a more moderate president, like Massa.

In a family in a middle-class neighborhood of Buenos Aires, that contrast is clear: Giuliana Pécora, who is 18, will vote for the Front for Victory. She believes it is the only party that will broaden civil rights and correct social injustice through the redistribution of wealth.

But echoing a view held by many in his age bracket, her father, Luis Pécora, feels that the welfare state is fueling a generation of indolence. He rues high inflation, which economists put at 25 percent, saying it is a symptom of deep-seated economic problems.

“A winning decade? I have my doubts,” Mr. Pécora says. “For Kirchnerism, Monday marks the start of the end.”

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