Addressing political incentives for electoral debates: CIPPEC’s Agenda for the President 2011-2015

This post was jointly written with Agustina Sol Eskenazi, international relations student at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 2010, in preparation for the 2011 presidential elections, CIPPEC, in collaboration with other organizations, began to work on the project “Agenda for the President 2011-2015.” Inspired by other similar regional initiatives, the endeavor consisted of 15 Memos (short policy documents) on issues of national importance. These 16-page documents summarized more than 50 key public policies, with their fiscal costs and political feasibility, in addition to identifying for the would-be government the main challenges, the major dilemmas in each area, and the policies in place or recent achievements on which to continue building.

2011 marked twenty-eight years of uninterrupted democracy in Argentina. Although this period covers a total of six election campaigns, there has not been, to date, a debate between presidential candidates. Also absent during presidential campaigns is a public debate centered on strategic issues or on plans to reach the country’s development goals. Indeed, vague references are made to universally desirable aims (“improve education”, “reduce poverty”) without specifying resources, options, decisions and/or actual action plans to reach these objectives. These “empty” speeches have contributed to emphasize discussions on the personal attributes of each candidate, rather than on key public policy issues.

Against this background, CIPPEC set out to improve the content of the public and political debate – centering itCasa_Rosada_2 on issues of national importance- through a strong outreach and political advocacy campaign of Agenda for the President 2011-2015. To further strengthen the public debate and encourage candidates to take a stance on national issues, CIPPEC endeavored to organize a televised debate between the presidential candidates. And, through discussion and analysis of the Memos’ proposals between CIPPEC and major presidential candidates and their technical teams, social leaders, businesses and other key stakeholders, CIPPEC sought to raise the quality of public policies of the next government.

Although it employed several strategies and tools in order to meet its objectives, CIPPEC was unable to fulfill completely what it had set out to do. While it was effective in discussing policy recommendations with key stakeholders and building a pro-debate coalition that included the opposition candidates, CIPPEC was unable to organize the first presidential debate.

This “failure”, however, is mainly linked to the political dynamics of Argentina. The debate did not materialize because the candidates with the most favorable ratings in public opinion polls usually consider debates not as an opportunity to persuade more constituents, but rather as a practice that can jeopardize votes. Additionally, this particular election lacked real competitiveness, as President Fernandez de Kirchner led the presidential polls by a large margin throughout the electoral year, and her advantage over other candidates had already become evident in the primary election (held two months before the presidential election).

In turn, President Fernández de Kirchner had no incentive to expose herself to public scrutiny, while the opposition took a defeatist attitude given the large difference, and quickly abandoned any real intention of debating. On another note, public policy influence became very difficult as CIPPEC does not have very strong links with the current administration, which often prioritizes the proposals and opinions of organizations more closely aligned to its ideology.

Were the obtained results a consequence of a poor political context assessment? Actually, CIPPEC clearly saw and took into account in its strategies the lack of real competitiveness and incentives, yet, it did not explore some courses of action that could have helped foster the debate.

For instance, CIPPEC tried to solve the political dynamics and hence organize the debate by building a coalition of a wide variety of actors which would promote it. In this coalition, however, the citizenry was not involved. This might be seen as a deliberate decision, since CIPPEC prioritized bilateral meetings and a more “silent influence campaign” over a mass media and public visibility one. As such, it remains to be seen if involving the citizenry in the coalition and designing strategies aimed at sensitizing society on political issues could have increased the chances of the debate actually taking place.

Moreover, the coalition that was put together to boost the debate was not strong enough. To achieve the presidential debate, a comprehensive pro-debate coalition is needed. This coalition had to be independent and non-partisan in order to encourage the participation of all political forces. It should have also included other actors, such as the press, social organizations, businesses, and, most importantly, the citizenry.

Regardless of its tangible results, the experience and lessons acquired from the project are invaluable and only made CIPPEC an even stronger organization.