Abortion divides voters as Argentina heads to polls

Young Argentine women voice their support for abortion rights at a rally in Buenos Aires on May 28, 2019.
Young Argentine women voice their support for abortion rights at a rally in Buenos Aires on May 28, 2019. AFP Archive

While the economy dominated the agenda in Argentina ahead of Sunday’s elections, abortion rights divided voters and the two main candidates in the presidential race.

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In the thick of the campaign season, Argentine women have donned green handkerchiefs, a symbol of the country’s abortion rights movement. They have dressed as Eva Péron, Argentina’s iconic former first lady, to commemorate the suffragette movement anniversary and put a spotlight on a feminist agenda. As Argentina goes to the polls on Sunday, the economy tops the agenda of voter concerns in a country that has slid into a recession. But the green handkerchief wave has proved that many female and young voters remain concerned about reproductive rights even if some of their politicians would rather steer clear of the acrimonious debates the issue sparks in Argentina.

Conservative, pro-business President Mauricio Macri, who’s running for a second term, could not risk alienating his traditional support base by bringing up the issue. His biggest rival, centre-left Peronist candidate, Alberto Fernandez, hoping to ride on the green scarf wave, has said he is in favour of legalising abortion in the long term.

But a little over a year after the country’s Senate voted against legalising abortion, the debate on reproductive rights is far from over in Argentina.

Green handkerchiefs have predominated rallies addressed by female parliamentary and local council candidates, including those by Ofelia Fernández, a 19-year-old running in the Buenos Aires city legislative race. "Abortion was not at the centre of the campaign but it overshadowed it constantly,” said Darío Rodríguez, an Argentina expert at the Paris-Sorbonne University, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Abortion in Argentina is only authorised for rape cases and if the mother’s health is in danger. A 2005 study estimated that between 370,000 to 520,000 legal and illegal abortions took place each year in a country of more than 44 million people.

A trailing Macri woos his base

With a recession of 2.5 percent in 2018, a 53.5 percent inflation rate in September 2019, and an official unemployment rate of 10.6 percent, incumbent Macri is in serious trouble in the presidential race. Polls show that Fernandez and his running mate, ex-president Cristina Kirchner, is very likely to obtain the 45 percent of votes needed to secure an outright victory in the first round.

In the August primaries, Fernandez snapped up 49.5 percent of the vote, compared to just 33 percent for Macri.

Polls indicate the Fernandez-Kirchner ticket lead has since grown.

In a bid to gain votes, President Macri has embraced his conservative base as the country’s powerful anti-abortion movement picks up steam, aided by a growing evangelical movement in Argentina and across Latin America. While the Roman Catholic Church -- which opposes abortion -- remains powerful in Argentina, the US branch of Evangelicalism in Latin America, has an immense mobilisation capacity via radio and TV stations. Their mobilisation against a bill to legalise abortion in 2018 -- which was approved by the lower house of parliament but rejected by the Senate -- also gave them added visibility across the country.

"This reorientation [of Mauricio Macri] is a question of strategy. He wants to broaden his base by reaffirming his support among traditional and conservative sectors," explained Rodríguez. "He’s trying to polarise the debate confronting Fernandez."

Macri has long been cautious on the issue of abortion. During the 2015 presidential campaign, he promised to allow a parliamentary debate while personally opposing its legalisation and leaving it to Congress to decide. It was a promise he kept in 2018.

An airport blessing

But on the campaign trail, Macri threw caution to the winds, publicly adopting the so-called "Two Lives" theory, that of the mother and that of the child.

"This turnaround is strategic and he does not want to lose his base,” Rodriguez explained.

During a massive October 19 campaign rally, a "Yes to Life" message appeared on the windows of a building overlooking the meeting scene, according to the French Catholic daily, La Croix. Earlier this week, when the president landed in the central Argentine city of Rosario, he was blessed by an evangelical pastor. Video footage of the blessing showed Pastor Norberto Carlini at the airport hall blessing the president and calling on God to “help him” so that, “on Sunday, we can see wonderful results”.

Some opposition candidates have seized on the issue of reproductive rights. During a debate between the six presidential candidates, Socialist Party candidate Nicolas del Caño bluntly stated he was supported legalising abortion "one hundred percent”.

Fernandez, the leading candidate, was more careful, saying he was in favour of decriminalising abortion in order to prevent women and doctors from running afoul of the law and that it was necessary to "move towards legalising” abortion. His running mate Kirchner meanwhile was a senator in 2018 and voted favor of legalising abortion. But during her tenure as Argentina’s president, from 2007 to 2015, she refused to open the debate.
 

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