Some provinces in this series will owe their date of appearance to obeying the general criterion of ascending order of electorate magnitude, while others will be more opportunistic due to some recent or upcoming vote (as we have already seen with La Rioja) – with tomorrow’s provincial primaries, La Pampa today is a rare case of both criteria overlapping.
La Pampa began its provincial life in 1951 under the name of Eva Perón (which predictably lasted as long as the Peronist regime, until 1955) – in some ways a more accurate label for one of the five provinces whose elected governors have always been Peronist (note that with today we have already covered three of those five provinces, alongside Santa Cruz and La Rioja, among the four smallest electorates).
Its current name is incomplete since it should read La Pampa Seca – this is arid not fertile pampa, thus accounting for the sparse population. It is thus no coincidence that the main local newspaper is called La Arena (which means “sand” in Spanish, as well as arenas political or otherwise). Yet even La Pampa Seca would be misleading – apart from its sand dunes and salt flats the province also has its lakes, creeks, copses, hillocks and springs which make it a minor paradise for hunting, shooting and fishing, including superb venison from its herds of red deer. Quite possibly the main tourist attraction – my 1989 edition of the South American Handbook d e v o t e s exactly four lines to this province.
La Pampa sits bang in the middle of Argentina – so much so that nobody knows in what region to place it although it is often vaguely considered Patagonian. Should Raúl Alfonsín’s 1986 idea of moving the capital away from overcrowded Buenos Aires ever be revived (his choice was Viedma, Río Negro) to somewhere in the heart of the Republic, the La Pampa provincial capital of Santa Rosa would be the strongest candidate geographically.
With almost 350,000 inhabitants, La Pampa has the third-lowest population in Argentina by province, with the lowest density after Santa Cruz, but it contrives to have a slightly bigger electorate than La Rioja whose population is larger but also younger. The only city of any size other than Santa Rosa (103,000 people) is General Pico – founded in 1905 and named after the second territorial governor General Eduardo Pico – with 57,000. The only other five-digit populations are General Acha and the Santa Rosa satellite town of Toay, both with around 12,000. Almost half the population is thus rural or semi-rural, more than in many provinces.
Throughout almost all of some 86 centuries of human presence, La Pampa was firmly Indian territory with no ‘white’ settlement of any kind until 1882 (21 of its 22 departments retain indigenous names to this day). The fierce Tehuelches, who killed all Jesuit missionaries who came their way, would accept no compromise with outsiders and eventually became extinct, being displaced by even fiercer Mapuches from Chile. These were generally victorious against the infant Argentine republic to the north until around 1870 with their dreaded ‘malón’ raids devastating such frontier towns as Bahía Blanca, Azul and Tres Arroyos.
La Pampa was made a national territory in 1884 with its capital in General Acha. Santa Rosa was founded in 1892 by the Anglo-Argentine Tom Mason, who named it after his wife Rose Fulton (Mason’s ranch was suggestively called “Malvina”), only officially becoming the capital in 1904. Of the 24 territorial governors before 1951, seven were Army officers (curiously, six of them under elected governments). La Pampa has had just four governors since 1983, all of them multi-term except Néstor Ahuad (1987- 91) and all Peronist, of course. The wily veteran Rubén Marín (already lieutenant-governor 1973-6) dominated the first two decades after 1983, serving out four full terms. He was succeeded by the current Governor Carlos Verna in 2003 – in between Verna’s terms came Oscar Jorge (2007-15). Verna, 73 in May, will not be aspiring to a third term because since last year he has been stricken with prostate cancer metastasising in the bones.
The big interest in tomorrow’s primaries will be picking the main challenger to break this Peronist streak, since all strands of Peronism have united behind outgoing deputy Sergio Ziliotto as their candidate to succeed Verna in the May 19 provincial elections (although there are no less than six Peronist mayoral hopefuls for Santa Rosa). The two main pillars of President Mauricio Macri’s Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition will be squaring off tomorrow – Radical deputy Daniel Kroneberger versus the red-headed ex-Boca player and former Sports secretary Carlos Javier Mac Allister for Macri’s PRO. Six other parties are all running single lists. Of the 246,517 eligible to vote, only 39,939 are card-carrying members of a party.
Since La Pampa’s three senators (Peronists Norma Durango and Daniel Rovera and Radical Juan Carlos Marino) are not on this year’s ballot, there would be little interest at that level, were it not for the fact that recent sexual harassment charges against the veteran Marino make him the only Senate authority whose re-election next month stands in jeopardy. A three-term senator in the Upper House since 2003 – La Pampa politicians tend to go in for long stints as we have already seen with its governors – Marino has been the chamber’s first vice-president since 2010. It now remains to be seen whether the eruption of this scandal will have a political impact beyond the Senate.
Only two of La Pampa’s five deputies – Peronists Ziliotto, Melina Delu and Ariel Rauschenberrger and the Radical Kroneberger and PRO youngster Martín Maquieyra in the government benches – are up this year with the special feature that the two seats going vacant correspond to Ziliotto and Kroneberger, both of whom have tossed their hats into the gubernatorial ring and are thus not seeking re-election. Two seats inevitably mean an even split between the two sides under the D’Hondt system of successive division unless the top list can more than double the votes of its closest rival. Maquieyra, still aged under 30, is the Lower House’s youngest deputy but even this feat cannot compete with the football prestige deployed by Mac Allister when it comes to defining PRO leadership in the province.
Arguably Argentina’s most Peronist province among the five which have always elected Justicialist governors, except perhaps Formosa (since La Rioja and Santa Cruz have both given more seats to Macri in recent elections while San Luis has voted for one of the Rodríguez Saá brothers rather than the main candidate in the first round of some presidential elections), we shall see this year if La Pampa still lives up to its original name of Eva Perón.
#4 La Pampa
Electorate tomorrow: 246,517
Governor: Carlos Verna (Victory Front)
Deputies: Five (3 Peronist, 2 Cambiemos)
Senators: Three (2 Peronist, 1 Cambiemos)
On the ballot: Two of five deputies