In the wake of change, Argentina has to push for more transparency

Mauricio Macri, president-elect of Argentina. (Photo credit: Wikimania20009/Flickr)

In a historic runoff, Argentina has just elected as the country’s new president Mauricio Macri, the leader of the opposition party Cambiémos (Let’s change) and former mayor of Buenos Aires. Sunday’s election day was historic for several reasons. It was the first runoff in the history of Argentine democracy: Never before have presidential elections been decided in a second round. It was also a historic moment as it ended 12 years of “Kirchnerism,” as Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has to step down this December after completing two presidential cycles. Cristina will end her presidency with the certainty that her Peronist legacy will not be continued.

Macri, who will be sworn in on Dec. 10, is the oldest son of an Italian-born tycoon, Franco Macri. With most of the votes counted, Macri won over the incumbent party’s candidate, Daniel Scioli, a former speedboat racer and vice president under former President Néstor Kirchner, 51 percent to 48 percent. This comes as a surprise: In the first round, Macri only got 34 percent of the votes while the governing Frente para la Victoria’s Scioli received 37 percent — a sign of how divided Argentine society is.

The quest for freedom of information

On the eve of the first round of the elections, Sunlight already looked at the complex relationships behind political activities, as we wrote about how personal and corporate contributions find their way into elections and politics, and how difficult it is to track these contributions. This time, we took a closer look at public funding to political parties and electoral campaigns and how the state gets involved in financing politics.

Many parties and new alliances each year

One of the biggest challenges of tracking campaign finances in Argentina lies in the country’s complicated electoral system: Parties gather in new coalitions each election year, making it almost impossible to find continuity in the data over the years.

This year, for example, the winning coalition of Cambiémos was composed of five different parties, including Macri’s Propuesta Republicana. At the same time, the broad coalition behind Scioli’s electoral alliance, the Frente Para la Victoria, included 12 parties, including Kirchner’s Justicialista, the Communist Party, and the Party for Victory.

Since the reform of political party funding introduced in 2002, anonymous private contributions are banned and stricter rules now apply to how parties have to manage their bank accounts. For increased transparency, the law also requires that institutional funding and campaign donations are kept in different bank accounts.

Besides corporate and private contributions, political parties are funded by Argentine taxpayers through a variety of government subsidies. As for public funding, political parties and alliances get specific amounts in each election year for campaign purposes and ballots production. In a way that may seem peculiar, the Argentine state gives an equal sum to each political party that participates in an election, to cover their costs of printing ballots. For campaign purposes, political forces on both the national and local level also receive an amount based on their performance in previous elections — this way the already better performing political organizations get more money, while the less popular and successful ones get less financial support from the state.

Apart from campaign funding, parties also get money for a broad range of activities to maintain their operations and promote their ideologies in off-election years. The Argentine Elections Chamber publishes detailed information on the funding of parties on its website, with data going back to 2011. (You can take a close look at their figures in our charts below.) The Elections Chamber is required to monitor all the details of the finances of political parties: how much state funding they receive, how much money they owe and what the outstanding balance of their bank accounts is.

Data formats alone tell a story about the evolution of disclosure: Information is published in separate files for each year; however, data is not consistent, neither in the format nor in content. Not surprisingly, as we go back in time, formats get less and less usable.

For instance, while in 2015 everything was published in machine readable CSV files, for 2014 and 2013 the Elections Chamber uploaded the same information in a machine-prepared PDF files, including charts, making the data difficult and time-consuming to compare with other years. For 2012 and 2011, the situation is even worse: Data is only available in scanned PDF files that contain photocopies, which requires manual data collection. And while most years contain data on the amount of funding going to political parties, for the years of 2012 and 2013 the only information available is the bank account balances of parties and no data on how much public money they have received.

Big parties get the big bucks

We took a look at how much state funding parties have received in the past years. The figures confirm that the already better performing parties in Argentina get the big bucks, while the potentially smaller formations get less.

Click here to view the data visualization in a new tab. (Note: The above titles for 2012 and 2013 differ slightly; while most years contain data on the amount of funding going to political parties, the only information available those years is the bank account balances of parties, and no data on how much public money they have received.)

That is especially true for the Justicialist Party, the most important political force in the Peronist movement and the party behind both Kirchners. In 2015, Justicialist received almost 3 million pesos (about $307,000 U.S. dollars), almost twice as much as the next recipient, Unión Cívica Radica. Macri’s Propuesta Republicana got a little over 700,000 pesos ($71,600 U.S. dollars). And even though data shows that the current president’s party has long been the top beneficiary of state funding, 2015 has been an outstanding year for even Justicialist: President Kirchner’s party doubled its state funding since 2014. Propuesta Republicana is closing a much better election year, too: In 2014 Macri’s party received less than 250,000 pesos ($25,500 U.S. dollars), which it managed to triple in 2015.

Looking at the combined amounts behind the two frontrunners, Scioli’s Frente Para la Victoria coalition received 3.8 million pesos ($389,000 U.S. dollars) in the elections, while the electoral alliance behind Macri, Cambiémos received more than a million less, 2.7 million ($276,000 U.S. dollars).

The future of a transparent political funding system in Argentina

In order to keep the financing of parties and elections retraceable, and thus the political system of Argentina clean and accountable, data on political funding needs to be published in consistent formats, otherwise there is too much room for errors and inaccuracies.

But is there hope for more transparency in Argentina? Thoughts are mixed. As the former mayor of the city of Buenos Aires, Macri worked to create a modern and transparent local government, and established a separate department for modernization — complete with an open data policy and a website to publish all the data the city collected.

Throughout his campaign, Macri also claimed that for the next elections in 2017, he would introduce electronic ballots to guarantee more transparency in election monitoring, replacing the current paper system which is now a fertile ground for misuses. The paper ballot (which is also a significant portion of the state funding that goes to parties’ electoral campaigns) is a democratic symbol for the Peronist movement with its roots in the 1980s: President Cristina Kirchner said she probably wouldn’t cast her vote if it would mean pushing a button. Shifting from paper ballots to an electronic system is part of a more complex proposal on electoral and party finance reform. Besides electronic voting, the package also includes stricter rules on party financing, the establishment of an electoral institution that is independent from the government and a simpler electoral calendar for the future.

Without knowing more about their future policies, however, it remains to be seen what the new government will able to get through Congress. Without enough seats, passing reform in areas such as electoral law or party financing will definitely require votes from the opposition — and reaching a compromise on these issues won’t be easy.