Elections in Argentina: Cristina’s Low-Income Voter Support Base

Cristina Fernández

Although Argentine First Lady Cristina Fernández is a well-heeled lawyer with an impressive track record as a politician, the front-runner for Sunday’s presidential elections is not favoured by her peers. Instead, her main support comes from lower income sectors, analysts say.

Cristina Fernández

(IPS) – Although Argentine First Lady Cristina Fernández is a well-heeled lawyer with an impressive track record as a politician, the front-runner for Sunday’s presidential elections is not favoured by her peers. Instead, her main support comes from lower income sectors, analysts say.

"At the lowest socioeconomic levels, people take a pragmatic approach to voting, and at this time their priority is the economy," Roberto Bacman of the Public Opinion Study Centre (CEOP) told IPS. "In poor, remote areas of the interior, Fernández notches up between 70 and 80 percent of voter intentions."

Argentine voters will go to the polls on Sunday to choose a president from among 14 different candidates. They will also vote for national and provincial lawmakers, and the governors of eight provinces.

Opinion polls indicate that Fernández could win in the first round. If she becomes president, she will be the first woman to have been elected to that office in Argentina.

The only previous woman president, María Estela (Isabel) Martínez (1974-1976) was elected vice president and took over when her husband, President Juan Domingo Perón (1946-1955, 1973-1974) died in office.

Senator Fernández is the wife of incumbent President Néstor Kirchner, who took office in May 2003. She is standing for the Front for Victory (FV), a centre-left faction in the governing Justicialista (Peronist) Party (PJ).

A CEOP poll released on Friday found that Fernández was preferred by 44.3 percent of respondents, while her nearest rival, lawyer Elisa Carrió, was trailing far behind with 15.7 percent.

To avoid a runoff, the winning candidate must take at least 45 percent of the vote, or 40 percent with a ten percentage point lead over the next candidate.

Bacman said that only 25.7 percent of middle and upper class voters support Fernández, compared to 38.5 percent of lower middle-class voters and 54 percent of voters with the lowest incomes.

The preferences of middle and upper class voters are distributed among a split opposition consisting of rightwing, centrist and leftwing candidates.

Analysis of the data by geographical area confirms these results. Fernández’s support in the largest cities is so low that she is almost tied with Carrió or other candidates, but she has strong support in the impoverished provinces in the northwest and northeast of the country, and in the crowded slums on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

"The breakdown of the traditional two-party system made up of the PJ and the Radical Civic Union (UCR) has destroyed the old party loyalties of voters," Bacman said. Today voters select candidates on a pragmatic and more volatile basis.

If Fernández is viewed as providing continuity of a model that ensures stability and growth, people will vote for her, he said.

In spite of having benefited from the economic recovery of the last four years, most of the middle and upper classes will not support the candidate of the PJ faction that is in power. "They prefer a different leadership style, are more swayed by allegations of corruption, and tend to vote along more ideological lines," Bacman said.

CEOP’s conclusions are supported by interviews with people on the street. "I still don’t know whether to vote for Cristina or for Carrió," Estela Esquivel, 32, told IPS. She works as a domestic employee and lives in La Cava, a shantytown of 8,000 people near San Isidro, on the northern outskirts of Buenos Aires.

"I would love to vote for a woman president, like Evita," said Esquivel, referring mistakenly to Eva Duarte, President Perón’s second wife. In fact, Evita never held public office, but she built up an unprecedented social leadership role as first lady in the 1940s and 1950s. It was his third wife who became president after he died.

Esquivel’s indecision between two rival women candidates less than a week before the elections illustrates the prevailing rootlessness, in terms of party identity, that only a minority of people displayed up to 20 years ago. Today, many are undecided between the two women who actually represent opposite camps.

But the word on the ground also shows that Fernández’s strongest support is to be found in poor neighbourhoods, where tangible progress has taken place, although there is still much to be done.

During the Kirchner administration, the proportion of poor people in Argentina has fallen from 57 percent of the population of 37 million to 23.4 percent, according to official figures. Unemployment has also fallen, from 18 to 7.7 percent.

"There’s much more work to be had now, and the housing situation has improved. I used to live with my husband and four children in a single room," Esquivel told IPS.

"Now we have a two-bedroom house with a living/dining room, which we will start paying for, according to what we can afford on our income, when we get the title deeds in about a year’s time," she said.

She acknowledged that there are still unsatisfied needs. Only 25 percent of the people living in her shantytown have become beneficiaries of the housing plan for low-income residents so far. But it’s a start, and there are prospects for the future, she said.

Aware of how the land lies, Fernández has chosen La Matanza, on the west side of Buenos Aires, for the closing rally of her campaign on Thursday. More voters live here than in all five of the Patagonian provinces in the south of the country, and most of them are from lower-middle and low-income sectors.

In Bacman’s view, "Low income voters have regained their confidence and trust in the government, which has brought about change and promises to continue to do so." In contrast, from the middle of the social pyramid to its apex, scepticism is the predominant attitude towards the government, he said.

In another twist, many voters feel free to choose other candidates since they are sure that Fernández will win. This has happened before in presidential elections, when voters, convinced that their preferred candidate will win, choose to use their vote to make a statement.

"I’m not going to vote for Cristina because I want to give my vote to a political group that is more committed to the issues that concern me," Silvana Gieco, a graduate in social communication from the central province of Córdoba, told IPS.

She said she will vote for film-maker Fernando "Pino" Solanas, the candidate for the leftwing Proyecto Sur. However, if there were a chance that Carrió or a centre-right candidate like former economy minister Roberto Lavagna might win, she would vote for Fernández, she added.

The economy has grown steadily for 60 consecutive months, after a long recession that triggered economic and political collapse in late 2001. At present, according to CEOP, Fernández has a positive image rating of 61 percent and Kirchner’s approval rate stands at 72 percent.

"The president’s approval rating remains high after four-and-a-half years in office. This is unprecedented in Argentina, and it helps Cristina Fernández’s candidacy," Bacman said.