New guest author! Jon Wheeler is an old friend who’s recently relocated below the equator and sends this update on how online tools are playing out in a very different political environment than we’re used to in the States.
The Internet and the Argentine Elections: The View From (Way) Down South
By Jon Wheeler
Six months ago my wife and I left our home and jobs in Washington, DC and headed off for a extended sojourn in the land of meat, malbec, mate (and her birth) — Argentina. Turned out to be fascinating timing for a political junkie like myself, as 2011 is a major election year in Argentina, culminating this Sunday with the national presidential election.
Perhaps not as exciting as it could have been, though. By all accounts, the incumbent, Cristina FernÃ¡ndez de Kirchner (or just Cristina, as she is either affectionately or dismissively called by her supporters or foes) is expected to win either outright on Sunday or a few weeks later in an unlikely run-off election. Still though, there have been some intriguing characteristics of this election — especially the use of the Web and social media in the campaign — that I thought Epolitics.com readers would find interesting.
But first, a caveat — this is written from the eyes of a recent transplant still learning about and getting accustomed to Argentine culture and politics, and trying to glean as much as possible about what’s going on with limited Spanish during heated conversations about politics at the weekend lunch table with my in-laws or with friends. Argentine politics is as richly textured as their steaks and as complex as a well-danced Tango, and better people than I have spent years studying it and still don’t quite understand. Apologies for any misunderstandings of what’s actually going on.
First, a primer to Argentine politics and relevant recent history. The fact that we are having contested elections at all and that — while her opponents may argue differently — Cristina and her former-President husband NÃ©stor Kirchner have led the country through 8 years of relatively stable prosperity is not to be taken for granted given this country’s history. Much of the 20th century saw periods of democracy followed by military dictatorships, the last and most brutal being from 1976 — 1983. Similarly, there have been regular, severe economic crises, the most recent being in 2001-02, when the strain of over-indebtedness during periods of both dictatorship and democracy and IMF-backed neo-liberal policies pushed the country to major default, devaluation and 25% unemployment. This significantly increased the poverty rate and led to a major social crisis, and many of the Kirchners’ policies have been enacted in response to this situation.
In 2003, NÃ©stor Kirchner was elected and is generally seen as having put Argentina on sound economic footing, at least for the short and medium term. After his four year term, he decided to throw his political support behind his then-senator wife while he focused on securing a base of power for them inside the historically dominant — but often fractured — Peronist party. He was then widely expected to run again in four years, and some feared that the couple sought (and that Cristina will still seek) to amend the Constitution to allow them to continuing serving indefinitely. Cristina, while gradually building up her own reputation in executive-level leadership (some praise her on policy but condemn her on personality, criticizing her for being confrontational, autocratic and unwilling to seek consensus and consult others) portrayed herself as merely continuing and expanding the policies that her husband started. That took an operatic turn in October 2010 when her husband suffered a fatal heart attack. While no doubt personally bereaved, she has also made utmost use of this tragedy politically, to great effect in a country that has been known to have a thing or two for martyrs.
Policy-wise, the Kirchners have pursued largely populist social and economic policies (or at least I’m going to describe them as “populist.” That’s a loaded term both in Argentine and US politics and we might need another whole post to accurately describe her center-left, Peronist agenda (not to mention to decipher what “Peronism” really is!), but I’ll stick with that shorthand for now). The economy has boomed thanks to Argentina’s bountiful farmland, and much of the social spending has come from heavy export duties placed on the China-bound product of “soy barons” (that’s right — an economy has large exports to China!). There’s also a fair amount of trade protectionism (it will set you back U$S1000 for a last-generation iPad) which helps keep a relatively thriving manufacturing sector going strong without being undercut by lower-cost imports.
Argentina (along with much of the rest of Latin America) also managed to avoid the worst of the 2008 global financial crisis. Perhaps having ruined their reputation with international creditors 7 years prior and running an economy where mortgages are virtually non-existent (home buyers show up at closing with thousands of US 100 dollar bills) made it very difficult to have a financial crisis based on personal and governmental over-leveraging. That’s also meant that, so far, the #Occupy movement hasn’t found any takers down here — they had it out with their bankers and 1%-ers in 2001-02 in massive, sometimes violent street demonstrations. However, many warn that the economy is running too hot — around 25% actual inflation per year (although the non-credible, official rate put out by the government’s statistics bureau is less than half that amount, another point of criticism) and some expect there to be a possibly disruptive correction (a “hard landing”) sometime following the election.
Social policy has followed a similar course. While Argentina has one of the most solid middle classes in Latin America, there is also a fair amount of poverty beyond what we are used to in the US (and much of the middle class disappeared or was severely hit during the 2001-02 crisis). Although not to Brazilian favela levels, villas miserias, or shanty towns, sprawl on the outskirts of most large cities. Part of Cristina’s approach to address the poverty issue and attempt to reverse the cycle has been to provide universal child allowances (per-child subsidies) to eligible families in exchange for proof of school attendance and similar conditions. Some opponents have argued that this provides a perverse incentive for more children to be born into poverty, others say it is a band-aid that doesn’t deal with structural causes, and still others criticize the policy for not being inclusive enough. But it has also been part of her support among this large voting block (more on that later).
They’ve also put attention back on bringing many of the human rights violators of the 70s and 80s to justice. The Kirchners pushed to restart criminal trials against members of the military junta — for a variety of reasons, prior attempts to bring to justice those responsible for the disappearance, torture and murder of over 30,000 people by agents of the state were first halted and later resulted in amnesty. The Kirchner approach here is also not without controversy, however, as many point out that while those acting under the cover of state-authority bear special responsibility, there were also acts of excessive political violence carried out by left-wing revolutionaries leading up to the coup that are not being investigated with equal vigor. Others criticize the Kirchners for having appropriated the human rights struggle from long-standing political leaders and activists and taking sole credit for the current situation.
Perhaps my favorite pieces of what I refer to as populism revolve around two of ArgentinesÂ´ favorite pastimes. Cristina’s FÃºtbol para todos program has increased the number of televised soccer matches on public and cable channels. Politics and sports are also intertwined in the name of the past professional soccer season, Torneo “NÃ©stor Kirchner” Clausura 2011 – Copa Malvinas Argentinas, reminding Argentines regularly of their departed ex-President and their as-yet unsuccessful attempt to expel the British Empire from the Islas Malvinas/Falkland Islands in 1982. The “Carne para todos” program was also enacted to provide low-price meat to low-income Argentines, an attempt to counteract one of the biggest complaints of inflation as it threatens to cut into the approximately 2.25 pounds of beef the average Argentine eats per week.
So, what about the opposition? In a word, disjointed. In several, unable to provide a credible and coherent alternative political project. While they experienced a major victory in off-cycle legislative elections in 2009 after a major rejection of Cristina’s attempt to squeeze more taxes out of the agriculture industry, they’ve been fairly feckless this election cycle. There are 6 candidates running against Kirchner, from my understanding each mainly center-to-far left wing, including a socialist, a Radical party candidate, a left-wing workers front, and two candidates representing splinter movements within Kirchner’s own Peronist movement. Perhaps some stronger candidates were scared off by major May Day rallies by the unions, spearheaded by controversial leader Hugo Moyano (some refer to him as CristinaÂ´s confidant), who heads both the ConfederaciÃ³n General del Trabajo de la RepÃºblica Argentina (basically their AFL-CIO) and the equivalent of the Teamsters. But they have greater influence than counterparts in the US, as approximately 40% of formal workers are unionized in Argentina, and there is a history of strong labor mobilization (as well as corruption and influence-peddling). Most notably, it doesn’t appear that the party of Kirchner’s potentially strongest rival (and likely future presidential candidate), Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri, is running a candidate this year, perhaps because Macri saw how unbeatable Kirchner would be and decided to consolidate his power in the Capital Federal for another term.
The Online Campaign
Okay, now to why I’m writing this article on Epolitics.com in the first place — a look at how this election is being waged online and to compare it to what I’m used to, having worked in online political organizing in the US. To conduct my analysis, I looked at the online presence of the three leading candidates and their parties — Frente para la Victoria candidate Cristina Kirchner, Partido Socialista candidate Hermes Binner, and UniÃ³n para el Desarrollo Social candidate Ricardo AlfonsÃn.
Before going into specifics on their individual campaigns, there are some differences with how elections are waged here that are reflected in each of their sites, due to different political systems, technological architecture and economy. First off, voting is mandatory and held on a Sunday. Therefore, no focus on voter registration drives — you know most of the population is going to vote so the main goal is to convince them to vote for you. Hence much of the changes that many Argentines credit the Kirchners for having brought about (such as family subsidies, higher employment levels and stronger purchasing power despite rising inflation, as well as access to services and products that the poor were suddenly able to access post-2001) are expected to yield wide turnout among Argentina’s poorer classes, without the Frente para la Victoria having to worry about registering — and then turning out — those who might be considered marginal voters in the US.
Second, hardly any grassroots donations. Argentina is still largely a cash economy, with credit card purchases online just starting to become ingrained (perhaps largely thanks to the popular eBay-like Mercado Libre). But beyond that, there was no pre-Internet culture of direct-mail based political (or non-profit, for that matter) fundraising as we had in the US for campaigns to draw on. Previous elections have mainly been funded through larger donations from the wealthy and those with business interests before the state, but with weaker transparency laws that make it difficult to see where the donations are coming from… and where the money is going to. A friend’s (and now client) organization Poder Ciudadano (“Citizen Power”) has informed me that — although they won’t know for sure until after the election is over and they can crunch the data — it looks like in this campaign there is much less large money sloshing around, mainly because the campaign is much cheaper due to recently-enacted laws providing government funding for TV and radio commercials and forbidding any other advertising outside of strict time and payment limits. It will remain to be seen whether that has changed the nature of who is donating — and whether it has an impact on deeply ingrained political and business corruption in the country. In any case, if today there are a higher number of small donors, it doesn’t look like they are making those donations online to any significant extent.
Finally, no mass email campaigns (@Anne Lewis — want to work with me on changing that?). On no site did I see a prominent “Sign Up” form to receive email alerts (some had one, but not the “roadblock” overlay forms I’m used to on many US campaign sites). I think that’s a combination of culture and technology — there aren’t software firms down here like (former employer) SalsaLabs, Blue State Digital, NGP VAN and others to provide the fractions-of-a-penny-per-send email systems that are the lifeblood of online politics in the US. Also, there’s just not as much of a culture of subscribing to get info from political parties or interest groups, again something that was well seeded through direct-mail in the US before migrating online.
Instead, Argentine campaigns seem to have jumped over what’s been essential to online organizing in the US since the Dean campaign and have found a comfortable home with the tools of social media. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr were all core properties of the three campaigns I looked at. Perhaps the social nature of these tools matches one well-ingrained aspect of Argentine political culture — these people love their public protests. A population that is used to pouring into the streets to call for just about any kind of change (and are some of the most gregarious people on the planet) is perhaps more inclined to prefer the public nature of a tool like Twitter than the private nature of an email inbox.
Before I highlight the campaigns, one shout-out to a great resource that was developed during the campaign — Yo Quiero Saber, or “I want to know.” It is a project of Google Argentina staff and current students and alumni of two of the major university political science programs, with support from several prominent good government NGOs (including Poder Ciudadano). I met with them when they were launching their site, a portal for learning about the candidates’ position on 14 core issues and about newly changed voting procedures (similar to our Project Vote Smart in many respects). Thanks to some free advertising support from Google they received pretty good visibility on the web and a fair degree of traffic, and even managed to accomplish their goal of getting most of the candidates to submit their platform on the core 14 issues, something very new in Argentina. Conspicuously missing, however, from the run-down of platforms? Incumbent President Cristina Kirchner.
Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (Partido Justicialista/Frente para la Victoria)
Her website and other online properties are essentially solely vehicles to distribute online versions of her well-produced campaign commercials oriented around her ubiquitous slogan: Fuerza Argentina/Fuerza Cristina (Fuerza = strength, power, force, etc). To get an idea of the image she’s trying to project watch these two:
- “La Fuerza de Ã‰l,” featuring Cristina delivering a highly populist speech over images of her late husband as a popular leader.
- “La Fuerza de Ariel,” one of a series of powerful human-interest ads titled “La Fuerza de ____” featuring a different Argentine hero testifying about how Cristina and her policies have benefited them and Argentina. In this case Ariel is a champion of the Math Olympics.
What’s interesting is what is completely missing from her site. Aside from a bio, there’s no presentation of her platform, a discussion of the issues, an acknowledgment of any of her opponents, or any ways to get involved (aside from, in these final days of the campaign, an announcement of the mass closing rally for her campaign). Good style for a confident front-runner: broadly trumpet your accomplishments and how wonderful the country has been under your (and your husband’s leadership) and don’t get into any details on policies. Assume people are going to respond to the theme of more of the same.
On Twitter she has 663,000+ followers and posts several times a day. Most posts echo the themes of her commercials and (in very broad strokes) her socio-economic agenda, as well as mentioning new factory openings she is attending as part of her efforts to build the Argentine economy. On Facebook she has 268,000+ likes and very similar traffic — posts of her videos, attendance at plant openings, etc. prompting a loud “We love you Cristina!” chorus from commenters.
A great deal of those commenters and Twitter followers are probably members of La CÃ¡mpora, the youth wing of the Peronist party that the Kirchners have nurtured and turned into a militant group of volunteers for their campaigns. One reason so many of her commercials feature her speaking (dare I say Evita-style?) in front of cheering masses of supporters is because they’ve done an amazing job turning out supporters at rallies, and no doubt are mobilizing her voters through both offline and online social networks.
Hermes Binner (Partido Socialista/Frente Amplio Progresista)
While still being highly visual, as opposed to the issue-less site of the front-runner, Binner includes a prominent link to his (Scribd) party platform, clippings of media mentions and links to get involved, including the only prominent donate button I saw. (Donating, however, is a 3-step process that includes entering your national ID card number — no simple single-page donate pages like campaigns and consultants have perfected in the US). Videos are available but much less prominent than on Cristina’s site (although Binner’s not bad looking, Cristina clearly capitalizes on her good looks in everything she does).
On Twitter and Facebook he lags far behind, with 30,701 and 25,691 followers respectively. Here he uses video much more, including an auto-play message when you first hit his Facebook page. Otherwise his posts on Facebook are link-shares of his media messages and the dozen-or-so Tweets/day are short appeals to mothers (we just had Argentine Mother’s Day), mentions of other candidates on his ticket, etc.
Ricardo Alfonsin (Union Civica Radical/UniÃ³n para el Desarrollo Social)
Prominent photos of the not incredibly telegenic candidate capitalize on the fact that he is hoping people will associate him with his very similar looking father, RaÃºl AlfonsÃn, who was the first and widely respected democratically elected President after the end of the dictatorship in 1983. But then his site switches into a news feed of recent stories (his own releases) criticizing one of Cristina’s ministers for misusing an official plan or highlighting a recent endorsement he received. As with Binner and unlike Cristina, he has prominent links to his platform and media coverage. The rest of the main real-estate on his home page is a feed from his Facebook wall, and his blog.
His campaign commercials are pointedly confrontational of Cristina and her policies. One recent commercial features audio and sub-titled text from a television interview with the chief economic minister who claims that it’s stupid to say there is inflation in Argentina today, and if so it only affects small sectors of the population. That is overlaid with video of every day Argentines stating Que me pregunten a mi (“They should ask me”). Another spot is just the candidate confronting Cristina, criticizing her for not debating, stating that he and the country don’t trust her on her economic statistics, and saying that she won’t be able to change the Constitution to stay in power forever.
On Twitter he has 57,000+ followers and on Facebook a very low 11,000+ followers. As opposed to the others, he’s the only one I saw on Twitter using hashtags and mentioning other Twitter accounts of people he’s appearing with.
While it seems that Sunday’s election is a foregone conclusion, what’s not clear is where the country goes from here. I certainly hope that the economy is not built on a bed of sand, with short-term fixes enacted to keep the good times rolling until after Cristina secured another term and a painful correction soon-to-come. If things do go south (proverbially — you can’t actually get any further South), it will be interesting to see how social media is used, or if any #Occupy-like protest movement starts. I wonder if now that she’s proven that she can stand on her own, and that the country is behind the continuation of her husband’s vision, she tempers her style and decides to be a bit less confrontational and more inclusive with opponents both inside and outside her party. What I don’t doubt is that I’ll continue to find this country and its politics both fascinating and frustrating. Which I guess is required for me to be at all Argentine.
Jon Wheeler has worked for over 15 years at the intersection of politics and technology, beginning with managing a Congressional constituent database in 1994 when there was no such thing as online organizing. He currently consults on Internet tools and strategy for Netcentric Campaigns and PowerThru Consulting. If you want to find him online you might check here, here or here. Offline, check here.