Nearing 5 a.m. on a recent Sunday morning, two parking garage attendants were carrying out their shift when 20 young men entered the garage doors in downtown Buenos Aires and demanded cash. They showed no arms but beat the workers until they were handed all the cash in the register: about $300.
"These things are happening all the time," says Gustavo Britos, an employee at the garage, who was not there but says that they are all on higher alert, day or night. "We see people crying on the street corner all the time because someone has stolen their purse or their cellphone. Two years ago it was not like this."
Crime, and the perception that it is rapidly worsening, tops the list of voter concerns as they head to the polls in mid-term elections today. So does job security and economic anxiety in general as Argentina's economy bears the consequences of lower soy prices, wary investors, and a global downturn. But national politics has overshadowed the electoral campaign, with former president, Nestor Kirchner, running for office and turning the congressional race into a referendum on the administration of his wife, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
"The election agenda is not set by typical mid-term election issues. People are voting to approve or disapprove of the Kirchner agenda," says Pablo Ava, a political analyst in Buenos Aires and vice president of Fundacion FINES, a social and economic research think tank. "It will be a victory or loss for the national government."
Today, Argentines head to the polls to vote for half of the members of the lower house of Congress and a third of the Senate. Mr. Britos says he is hopeful the results will bring about change and says the ruling Peronist party is best positioned to take it on. "They are supporting the poor, and helping with jobs, which will reduce crime," he says.
But voter apathy runs high. To protest all the political parties, many say they will not cast a ballot in the mandatory vote, preferring to pay a fine instead.
Sabina Ayala, who lives in the province of Buenos Aires where Mr. Kirchner is running, says she is undecided, because she says she has no faith that any of the candidates will address her top concerns: jobs and security.
Ms. Ayala recently returned home from Spain where she emigrated for work. Five months ago, she says her partner, a taxi driver, was shot and killed after a scuffle with another driver in the middle of the night. "The impunity here is terrible," she says. "If I believed that a politician would work to solve the problem, I would go to the polls with expectations and hope."
Some have expressed frustration that their concerns are being overshadowed by a political show. Oldina Masoneves, who works at a tourist information booth near the famous Iguazu waterfalls in Argentina, says that in her region job security and better schools are the main priorities but says little debate has taken place on either issue. "There is so much to be done, and no one is saying anything about it," she says.
Referendum on the Kirchners
Analysts say that Kirchner has turned the congressional race into a referendum, but the opposition has followed suit, particularly in the most important race in Buenos Aires province, where over 30 percent of the nation's eligible voters live. For example, Kirchner´s main opposition, Francisco De Narvaez, is hoping to capture votes with one dominating message, says Mark Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University in Houston, Texas. "He is saying, 'if you don't like Nestor Kirchner, vote for me.' "
In some ways, a race devoid of policy debate is fitting. While some of the actions of the Kirchner administration have cost her support, such as a confrontation with farmers last year, the nationalization of the pension system, and inflation, many pin her plummeting support – only 25 percent of the population approves of her presidency – to her personality, not her politics. "It is a saturation of the Kirchners more than the government of the Kirchners," explains Jorge Giacobbe, a pollster in Buenos Aires.
Ms. Masoneves, who supported Kirchner when he took over office, says that she does not support his wife – but she cannot name any specific policies or moves that changed her mind. "It is her personality, she is always combative," says Masoneves, furrowing her brow and tightening her fists. "She always has a bad look on her face like this."