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Elections in Argentina before the passage of the Saenz Peña Law in 1912 were for the elites, principally the landed oligarchy. Decisions were often made by state political bosses. Coercion, bribery, and fraud were common. Whichever faction controlled the national government intervened in state politics, even removing elected governors, to impose its will. Most males could not vote.1 The working man and his middle-class cousins were largely excluded even though they tended to be better educated than most of the world’s population. They could organize into political parties but to no avail because so few could vote. The oligarchy, the cattle and wheat barons, feared them, in part because so many of them were immigrants, principally from Spain and Italy. Elections were the means of settling disputes within the oligarchy and the average person should obey what his “betters” decided. The Unión Cívica Radical, the middle class political movement led by Leandro N. Alem and Hipólito Yrigoyen, his nephew, tried to force the oligarchy to conduct fair elections either by shaming it with blank ballots or three armed revolts. The UCR was repeatedly suppressed.
Roque Saenz Peña
And then an odd thing happened; the oligarchy yielded when Roque Saénz Peña became president in 1910 and had the Ley del Voto Secreto, the Saenz Peña Law in 1912, passed. Moreover, Vice President Victorino de la Plaza, who succeeded when Saenz Peña, died, allowed the law to stand. The Law abolished property qualifications to vote; made voting compulsory; guaranteed the secret ballot; and tied voting to military service. Only natives and naturalized men could vote this excluding most of the working class. The new electoral system gave two-thirds of the seat to the party which got the most votes in a district; the second largest party got the other third.
Why did they change? Many conservatives were disturbed that they were staying in power through bribery, threats, and violence. Dishonesty bothered them. Most saw themselves as similar to the British upper classes and Britain had given voting rights to its middle and working classes long before. They also assumed that these new voters would follow their leadership. Put another way, they were self-satisfied to the point of over confidence.
Voting increased dramatically and to the benefit of the opposition. Prior to 1912, a good vote was 15% of the eligible voters; after 1912, it was 60% or more. This was significant because the total number of voters had increased exponentially. Yrigoyen’s Radical Party (the Unión Cívica Radical) was the principal beneficiary, willing at all levels, but other opposition parties won as well. Most important, Hipólito Yrigoyen won the presidency in 1916, the first election after the passage of the Saenz Peña Law.2
Yrigoyen was a good politician. He had taken charge of the UCR after his uncle’s suicide in 1896 and brought it to power in 1916. He was an austere, almost mystical figure who lived in a house he barely lighted. Wags called it “The Cave.” Yrigoyen called himself the “Apostle,” a quite obvious nod to Christian tradition. He did not campaign openly for the presidency, using the ploy that the people demanded that he be elected to be Argentina’s savior. Of course he was politicking in the background. His inauguration was a wild celebration of the triumph of “justice and morality.”
Conservatives thought he would be a terrible president; he was. He was a moralist who tried to abolish prostitution, gambling, and midweek horseracing (in a nation where horses were almost worshipped!). As president, he institutionalized the UCR by using political patronage to reward the UCR faithful. Nothing new there because the conservatives had used political patronage too. He intervened in the provinces to insure loyalty but he did it more often than anyone since 1852. He had severely criticized his predecessors when they did it. The state bureaucracy also became a way to help the poor. He favored giving promotions to loyal military officers, thus undercutting the nascent professionalism of the armed forces and politicizing it. He was a poor administrator who had trouble delegating authority and tolerating dissent.
Although working men had supported him, he was no friend of labor. The UCR was primarily a middle-class party. The UCR under Yrigoyen did pass some social legislation such as requiring wages be paid in currency, an eight-hour day in some places, some minimum wages, some compulsory arbitration of labor disputes, and lower rents in Buenos Aires. However, when unions launched strikes in 1918 and 1919 in the face of the hyperinflation caused by World War I, Yrigoyen crushed them. Workers never forgave the UCR for "La Semana Tragica" (The Tragic Week) in January 1919 when the military attacked striking metal workers. Although there were assertions that Bolsheviks caused the strike or Jews neither was true. Labor had no political clout and was suffering.
The First World War (WWI) produced riches for Argentine cattle, wheat, and sheep producers and businessmen for Argentina remained neutral, both out of nationalism and preferring to sell to all customers. And sell they did. The economy was based on free trade—the export of agricultural and pastoral products in exchange for manufactured and luxury goods. By 1900, Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world because industrialization and population increases provided ever-expanding markets. The War increased the markets as the two great alliances focused on killing each other in cities and on farm land instead of growing crops. Argentine labor didn’t receive its “fair share” of this largesse; it received lower real wages.
The War also encouraged nationalism and manufacturing. Manufactured good became harder to obtain and, thus, more expensive. Domestic production was stimulated when desired and needed goods could not be imported or in sufficient quantities to satisfy demand. Petroleum supplies could not be guaranteed; in 1922, the Yrigoyen administration created a government oil agency, the Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF) to insure that the nation would control its own oil destiny. Argentine nationalism was concerned with Argentina not the politics of the rest of the world.
Marcelo T. de Alvear was Yrigoyen’s choice as successor for the 1922-28 term; he was sure that Alvear would do his bidding; he was wrong. Alvear was a wealthy man with upper class connections. He had been in the UCR since 1890 and had participated in all three attempted revolutions but he was no radical. He was a moderate conservative who supported low taxes, aid to the landed oligarchy through cheap public land, cheap credit, and agricultural experiment stations. His regime instituted controls over immigration in 1924 in response to cultural conservatives that foreigners were overwhelming the nation.
Marcelo T. de Alvear
The military, under Ministry of War Agustín Justo, was reorganized and the lot of the common soldier was improved. As part of the modernization and professionalization of the military, it started factories to supply its needs. It built an aircraft factory to supply planes to the burgeoning air force. Because oil was critical for national security, an army colonel was placed in charge of YPF. Oil production increased. The military liked the power all of this brought. The goal of making the national military the strongest coercive force in the nation capable of defeating any state army was achieved.
As the election of 1928 approached and Yrigoyen was gearing up to get himself re-elected, Alvear objected to the personalism, the cult of personality, surrounding Yrigoyen not for his own sake but because it was dangerous to the nation. The UCR, the Radical Party, split into two factions: the Anti-Personalist Radicals supporting the Alvear faction and the Personalist Radicals supporting the Yrigoyen faction. Old-line conservatives rejoiced; after the military coup of 1930 they exploited these divisions.
Yrigoyen swamped won two-thirds of the popular vote and three-quarters of the electoral vote but never campaigned but would never finish the 1928-34 term. He was old (78 years old), senile, and manipulated by his aides. He was a symbol used by other. The military overthrew him in 1930.
1 Females gained the right to vote in 1947.
2 With the help of Lisandro de la Torre of the Partido Demócrata Progresista (PDP) of Rosario.
Donald J. Mabry