The community members of Villa Soldati, a slum on the southwest end of Buenos Aires’ sprawling outskirts, are stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, nearly half of the residents live in decrepit public housing developments and find themselves victims of rising unemployment and phantom welfare benefits. On the other hand, support for the ruling parties — that are in part responsible for the systemic economic subjugation of communities like Villa Soldati — continues to run deep. This paradox is in part a consequence of Argentine clientelism: the payment of material benefits such as food, clothing, and cash by political parties to poor citizens in exchange for their votes. In the densely populated region of Tucumán, 800 miles northeast of Buenos Aires, two candidates for local office were caught in the act of vote selling this past August. As they doled out herbal tea to community members of Tafí Viejo, they added, “Let’s make a trade…vote for me.”
Contemporary clientelism is just one manifestation of Argentina’s unconventional fall from grace over the course of the 19th to the 21st Centuries. Widely dubbed the “Argentine Paradox,” the country’s unprecedented economic boom during the first three decades of the 20th Century — when it was one of the only Latin American countries to experiment with democracy and one of the ten richest countries in the world — gave way to economic stagnation and turmoil, sparked by a 1930 coup d’état. Another coup, this time in 1943, gave way to the ascendance of the storied populist Juan Perón and his wife Eva. Their populist reign rearranged much of Argentina’s society and politics not just around their party, which survives to this day, but also around their magnetic personas.
Perón’s grip on the country’s politics was cultivated in part through deep ties to the working classes. These ties often involved doling out benefits to the poor in an effort to engender a feeling of inclusion, garner political support, and ultimately co-opt the working class into their authoritarian hegemony.
But the practice also laid the foundation for generations of vote buying. Clientelism continued throughout the 20th Century, long after Perón’s fall from power and the collapse of statism. In fact, the implementation of neoliberal policies and reforms — reducing trade barriers, privatizing state-owned sectors, and cutting back on welfare programs — only deepened clientelism. The policy inversion from a socialist welfare state toward a free-market economy cut many welfare benefits for the working class, strengthening the reliance of low-income voters on party handouts. To compensate for Argentina’s neoliberal shift, parties stepped in to provide basic material goods that were once covered under welfare programs in exchange for votes. And as clientelistic practices continued to proliferate, the Argentine government became less incentivized to provide alternative social programs or effective economic policy reforms, as this would lessen the effectiveness of clientelism. “In Argentina,” as Daron Acemoglu of MIT explains, “institution-building [takes] the form of clientelist redistribution.”
The informal political economy of vote buying is estimated to have swayed as much as 12 percent of the nearly 32 million eligible voters in the recent election cycle. However, while clientelism corrodes the democratic political system in the long run, in the short term it still performs an unintended economic role as a de facto social safety net. Until the government’s social welfare system actually reaches the estimated 30 percent of Argentine citizens in poverty, their socioeconomic status will continue to make them the targets of vote buying. This institutionalized incentive persists today and has contributed to Argentina ranking 107 out of 175 countries for corruption and finding itself in its lowest aggregate ranking of corruption control in the country’s history, as measured by the World Bank.
“The problem is poverty,” Margarita Stolbizer, a candidate for the Progressive Front, told the Argentine newspaper Perfil, adding that, “there are people willing to lose their voting freedom for a bag of food.” The most common handouts are food, but clothing, mattresses, milk, money, eyeglasses, and even chickens flow between party and patron. In 2004, more than one-fifth of low-income voters had engaged in clientelism and one-third of the electorate said that they would turn to a party operative’s handouts for help in dire situations. Low-level party operatives dole out favors in exchange for voters’ support in upcoming elections and have long served as the critical vehicles of a party’s vote buying strategy. Furthermore, this data comes from 2004, a year when the country — whose economy is heavily dependent on commodities like beef — was in the middle of a worldwide commodities boom and its citizens were reaping the benefits. A decade later, the story is one of plummeting GDP, rising unemployment, and rampant inflation, making it all the more likely that clientelism has further surged as the country’s economic fortunes have dipped.
Despite the intimate relationship between poverty and the political process in Argentina, no one is entirely sure just how many people are in the low-income category. Current Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — a member of the Partido Justicialista, or Peronist, party — boasts that the poverty rate is an incredibly low 4 percent. Meanwhile, Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina estimates the poverty rate to be a drastically higher 27 percent, while Argentina’s largest trade union places it at 29 percent. Widespread contestation of Kirchner’s inexplicably low poverty rate estimation — coupled with the admission from Economic Minister Axel Kicillof that, “ultimately, I don’t have the number of poor people. It seems to be a bit of a stigmatizing measure” — has legitimized widespread suspicion of Argentina’s government and administration.
The Peronist party has been shown to target low-income voters through hand-outs at higher rates than any other party, making it unsurprising that it remains the preeminent party in Argentina today. A study on Argentine clientelism found that, when asked whether they would turn to a party operative if a household head lost their job, 58 percent of low-income Peronists replied yes, compared to 45 percent of all low-income respondents and 36 percent of all respondents.
However, President Kirchner, like her late husband and former-President Nestor Kirchner, has implemented substantive social welfare reforms during her term. The Kirchners passed ground-breaking laws enabling the transition of transgender people and broadening access to health care and education. In fact, Kirchner claims success for continuing to lead Argentina’s longest-running period of democracy, now at 32 years and counting. Still, New York Times writer Jonathan Gilbert reminds us that, despite these progressions, “progress has been undermined by a resilient culture of vote buying that is most rife within the Peronist movement.” This reality effectively undermines Argentina’s future prospects for ongoing democracy and casts doubt on Kirchner’s record of democracy. If elections are systematically bought via clientelism, they are neither free nor fair.
On November 22, Argentines cast their votes to determine a runoff election between Daniel Scioli, the Peronist candidate and former vice president to Kirchner, and reformist candidate Mauricio Macri. At press time, analysts were collectively ambivalent as to whether the Kirchnerismo brand of left-wing populism, which hoped to reintroduce social welfare benefits and nationalize industry while oppressing opposition, would be carried on to the next administration. What is clear, however, is that Kirchner’s welfare agenda, and those of populist leaders preceding her, serves not to lift people out of poverty, but rather to complement an authoritarian hold on politics and ensure the transcendence of clientelism.