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ARGENTINA | 09-05-2020 09:27

Congress enters 21st century with ‘virtual sessions’ set to begin next week

Chamber of Deputies and Senate carry out online trial runs, with contrasting results, as coronavirus pandemic forces Argentina to introduce videoconference law-making.

Baby steps for Argentina’s Congress as it enters the brave new world of 21st century technology. Virtual sessions enforced by the coronavirus pandemic are imminent – there was a successful dry run in the Senate yesterday but a semi-farcical fiasco in the Chamber of Deputies on Wednesday.

Perhaps the difference can be found in the numbers – just 76 people between senators and technicians participated in yesterday’s rehearsal, while 240 deputies voting at the same time proved beyond the current limits of the technology (the shortcomings here cannot be dismissed as Argentine because Canada for one has experienced similar problems) being tested.

The Senate’s first full rehearsal for next Wednesday’s videoconference session was held at noon yesterday, lasting for slightly over an hour. As with the deputies on Wednesday, there was no problem with the legislators speaking in turn but the crunch came with the voting by the connected senators (70 of a total 72). All men were asked to vote electronically yes and all women no to a notional bill and the system responded perfectly.

Throughout last week the system for this unprecedented Senate session via remote control had been tested – it has already been used for committee meetings but online voting had yet to be incorporated. 

The only people actually in the Chamber yesterday other than the technicians were Senate administrative secretary María Luz Alonso and Senate vice-president Martín Lousteau (Cambiemos-Federal Capital) heading the session. Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who will be chairing the real thing next Wednesday, carried out her own tests later in the afternoon without any senators.

In theory, in order to respect formalities, the senators were asked to tune in from their respective provincial assemblies but while some complied (e.g. in Mendoza and Neuquén), most linked up from their homes.

There will be a final dress rehearsal at 3pm next Monday, prior to Wednesday’s session, whose purpose is to legislatively endorse the 20 emergency decrees issued since the coronavirus quarantine began on March 20.

Since the session was requested by the Frente de Todos ruling coalition, there has been speculation that the Senate might start debating a wealth tax bill drafted by the Vice-President’s son, lawmaker Máximo Kirchner, but there is still no confirmation that the drafting of that bill has been finalised.

'Massapallooza' and May 13

Lower house preparations for their virtual session are far less advanced.  Wednesday’s rehearsal made a spectacular start with flashing screens all around the Chamber giving it every appearance of a disco – leading local wits to call it “Massapallooza” in reference to lower house Speaker Sergio Massa and the Lollapallooza rock festival (nixed this year by the pandemic) – but the wheels came off when it came time to vote with the message “error interno del servidor” repeated on every screen. A fresh attempt to establish connectivity will be made today.

Unlike the Senate some of the 240 participating deputies (out of a total of 257) were physically present in the Chamber – namely the caucus chiefs. Perhaps one problem was that, unlike the notional bill in the Senate aiming for a 50/50 vote, the system was tested on the basis of the 2018 bill against gender violence inspired by the femicide of Micaela García – presumably almost all deputies voted the same way on this issue.

Meanwhile, the Senate seems all set for Wednesday but previously the rules were a bone of contention with Vice-President Fernández de Kirchner’s protagonism resisted in some circles. Earlier this week she sought to have the last word by issuing a parliamentary decree on the prerogatives for the Internet session whereby only parliamentary secretary Marcelo Fuentes (Frente de Todos-Neuquén) and pro-secretary Juan Tunessi can be present in the chamber apart from herself with Senate provisional president Claudia Abdala de Zamora (Civic-Front-Santiago del Estero) and the vice-presidents Lousteau, Maurice Closs (Renewal Front-Misiones) and Laura Rodríguez Machado (PRO-Córdoba) elsewhere in the building on stand-by if needed to chair the session.

It was the vice-president who picked the May 13 date (clearly not superstitious) for the year’s first Senate session following negotiations with the opposition over the rules for virtual procedure. The ex-president had taken the Supreme Court’s April 24 ruling that it had no business in setting legislative branch rules as a green light to make her own.

Fernández de Kirchner had envisioned herself as the only person in the chamber orchestrating all the senators via videoconference from the legislative chambers of their provinces, but the Juntos por el Cambio finally scaled down her protocol to accept the presence in the building at least of other Senate authorities who might replace her.

In rejecting the vice-president’s protocol, the Juntos por el Cambio had demanded that the sessions be organised on the same basis as the lower house – i.e. with each caucus physically represented within the limits of social distance (around 15 of the 72 senators) with the remainder following via videoconference.

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