Argentina’s Elections Are Becoming Dangerously American

Last December, weeks after assuming office, Argentina’s far-right president Javier Milei presented the National Congress with a package of reforms in response to its most dire economic crisis in decades. Milei, a former TV pundit and self-proclaimed “anarcho-capitalist” who campaigned on a promise to “blow up” the system, was following through on a promise to take whatever necessary measures to fix it.

Milei has hardly been shy about what measures he has in mind. Under the guise of “a public emergency” in the omnibus bill, Milei intends to assume sweeping new executive powers that would allow him to bypass Congress on major policy issues. The reforms—from the privatization of major industries to the gutting of labor protections—are a radical attempt to restructure the Argentine economy. They are also a pretext for consolidating power.

Yet the provision most likely to tighten Milei’s political grip is also among the least obvious. Originally found in a few short lines tucked into the otherwise sprawling bill, and now potentially being considered separately, is a wholesale change to the country’s electoral system. Milei’s proposal would adopt the American electoral system for its lawmakers, known as winner-take-all, in place of its proportional system of representation. That could tilt Argentina’s political field in a way that weakens the opposition and strengthens Milei’s own hand.

Like most democracies worldwide, Argentina elects its lawmakers through a proportional electoral system, where a party’s share of seats in a legislature roughly mirrors its share of the vote. In the 2023 national election, Milei’s La Libertad Avanza (LLA)—a coalition of far-right parties—won 28 percent of the vote and, in turn, 27 percent of the lower chamber’s seats up for renewal. While proportional systems vary considerably in their design from one country to the next, as a general principle, all aim to ensure that seats correspond to votes. They do so by electing multiple representatives from each legislative district, and then allocating seats to parties based roughly on their vote share:      I     f a party in a six-seat district wins 50 percent of the vote, it would win three of the six seats.

Only a few major democracies, including the U.S., use winner-take-all, the main alternative to proportional representation. Winner-take-all systems instead use single-member districts, where dominant parties often enjoy an outsized advantage by securing seats out of proportion to their support. Consider a state like Massachusetts, where the dominant Democratic Party typically wins around two-thirds of the statewide vote but is awarded 100 percent of the state’s congressional seats. Republicans don’t constitute a majority in any of the state’s nine districts, so they are unable to win the single seat available—shutting them out from representation entirely. Nationally, it’s common for one party to win more U.S. House seats than their vote share would warrant.

Certain authoritarian leaders have picked up on the benefits afforded to them by the American style system. In 2011, new electoral rules in Hungary designed by Vik     tor Orbán’s Fidesz party introduced single-member districts for more than half of legislative seats. It then won 67 percent of seats with only 45 percent of the vote. In both 2014 and 2018, Fidesz secured supermajorities with less than half the vote. In El Salvador, Nuevas Ideas, led by Nayib Bukele (the self-styled “world’s coolest dictator”), recently slashed the size of its legislature from 84 to 60 members, making it more akin to America’s unusually small Congress—another way to produce nonproportional results—and has promised to adopt winner-take-all elections next in an effort to dilute the opposition. In 2009, as public opinion began to turn against Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, his party reduced the number of legislators elected under proportional rules. Chavez’s party safeguarded its majority in the legislature despite losing majority support, winning 57 percent of      seats with 48 percent of the vote     .

As Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris explains, winner-take-all systems “manufacture majorities” by design, exaggerating a dominant party’s electoral wins. In Great Britain—the system’s country of origin—postwar governments received, on average, 54 percent of seats on 45 percent of the vote. For a political party committed to democracy, a seat bonus may be harmless. But for one committed to dismantling it, it offers a dangerous leg-up. Changes to an electoral system can offer a veneer of democracy—elections still happen      and votes are still counted—while allocating      power to a party      out of proportion to its actual support.

Winner-take-all systems, unlike proportional ones, are also uniquely vulnerable to gerrymandering, amplifying the seat bonus effect. After the introduction of single-member districts in Hungary, Fidesz took the pen on map-drawing, and in 2014 won 88 percent of single-member seats with 45 percent of the vote. Milei intends to do the same. His proposal for switching to winner-take-all is coupled with language that hands responsibility for drawing new districts to the executive branch, led by him. Milei is likely taking a cue from the American experience with gerrymandering—but also from Argentina’s. In the 1950s, populist president Juan Perón briefly replaced Argentina’s proportional system with winner-take-all. Aggressive gerrymandering by Perón’s party followed, slashing the opposition’s seats from 47 to 14 in a single election—despite increasing its own vote share by only a couple of percentage points.

A switch to winner-take-all in Argentina could help the LLA to juice-up its electoral prospects without actually having to appeal to a majority of voters. But it could also make it structurally more difficult for the opposition to fight back. Proportional electoral systems typically give rise to multiparty democracies, like Argentina’s. Winner-take-all systems, by contrast, tend to generate two-party systems, like America’s. A switch to winner-take-all would almost certainly flatten Argentina’s multiparty landscape—shrinking the playing field of opposition and consolidating the right behind Milei.

Argentina’s politics are organized around coalitions of parties, and the two main coalitions—the center-left Peronists and center-right Radical Civic Union (UCR)—dominate. In 2023, the LLA, an insurgent coalition of the far-right, captured the presidency, but won only 15 percent of congressional seats, and combined with allies, one-third. Another third belongs to the center-right UCR and its allies. Under winner-take-all rules that encourage two-partyism, the LLA could pave a path toward consolidating the right—and around itself. Indeed, in the U.S., an insurgent far-right did just that, consolidating conservatives behind a new far-right leader within the only party available to them. It is unlikely that the LLA will jump from a minority to a majority anytime soon without some mechanism that forces the right to line up behind a single banner     .

As most of the democratic world trends toward proportional representation, Argentina’s reversal would mark a major step backward. But that, most likely, is the point. In democracy after democracy, multiparty coalitions have been instrumental as a bulwark against authoritarianism. Last year in Poland, for instance, a pro-democracy coalition put aside its differences to defeat the authoritarian-nationalist Law and Justice party—placing Poland on a path to reverse years of democratic backsliding. In 2015 in Finland, the dominant center-right party formed a coalition government with the authoritarian-nationalist True Finns, which abandoned its most extreme promises when forced to compromise with its more moderate partners. For now, Argentine politics is still a multiparty game, and the LLA—still a minority outfit—must contend with its country’s coalitional politics. But Milei is eyeing to change it.

In the lead-up to Argentina’s Dirty War, military governments turned to violence, coups, and outright bans on the opposition, then went on to kill more than 30,000 Argentinian     s. Milei appears sympathetic to Argentina’s decade of dictatorship, playing down the military’s atrocities as “excesses.” His vice president argues that both sides were to blame. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in response to the hundreds of thousands of Argentinian     s who have taken to the streets since his election, Milei’s reform package proposes that any “intentional and temporary congregation of three or more persons” be considered a demonstration and punishable by up to six years in prison. His security services are already cracking down on dissent.

Milei may yet flirt with this darker period of Argentine history. But there may also be less of a need. Electoral systems are a democracy’s software, humming quietly in the background and rarely paid much mind. It’s for this reason that tinkering with them can be appealing: They operate on outcomes subtly. They can generate a helpful seat bonus that turns a minority win into a majority one, or give a party the power to gerrymander, or make it all but impossible for other parties to survive—all done lawfully and without much fanfare. Manipulated smartly, they offer a quieter path to more power.

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