Riot police suppress protests calling for new elections in Tucumán

Allegations of electoral fraud bring demonstrators out on the street in Argentinean province

Carlos E. Cué
Police confront the protestors in Tucumán.
Police confront the protestors in Tucumán.Miguel Velardez.

Tucumán has become the center of the Argentinean election campaign after thousands of protestors gathered outside government headquarters in the provincial capital of Miguel de Tucumán to call for new elections amid reports of widespread fraud during Sunday's gubernatorial vote.

After several hours, Governor José Alperovich, who has been ruling the region with an iron fist for 12 years, decided to break up the growing crowd in Plaza de la Independencia.

People ran, police on foot and on horseback charged against the crowd, tear gas and rubber bullets were fired and several injuries were reported.

At stake was the governorship of Tucumán, where Alperovich and his associates from President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's Front for Victory (FPV) coalition manage a $3 billion dollar budget as they please. If no new elections are held, his vice-governor, Juan Manzur, will soon take over.

At midnight, the crowd continued to swell and some climbed up the stairs, causing tensions to rise between protestors and police

As the skirmishes broke out, the demonstrators dispersed but many, mostly the younger ones, came back to the square once the police, who had come under pressure as a result of the images of their actions broadcast live throughout Argentina, relented.

At midnight, the crowd continued to swell and some climbed up the stairs of the provincial government headquarters, causing tensions to rise until an opposition senator began to mediate between the demonstrators and police. She calmed the most agitated elements in the crowd and then entered government headquarters to meet with four protestors who had been arrested.

The use of riot police – a routine measure in many other countries – has been an especially sensitive issue in Argentina since 2001 when President Fernando de la Rúa was forced to leave the presidential palace by helicopter after 28 people died during a violent police crackdown on protestors.

The governments of Fernández de Kirchner and her predecessor, late husband Néstor Kirchner, have expressly ordered the police not to suppress any demonstrations, except in extreme cases – a decision that has led to the frequent and unannounced putting up of road blocks on major streets in Buenos Aires by small groups of protestors, who are rarely punished for their actions.

Witnesses shared images from Tucumán on Twitter under the hashtag #tucumanazo, in reference to the Cordobazo, the 1969 civil uprising in the city of Córdoba that led to the end of the military dictatorship of General Juan Carlos Onganía. The scenes circulating on the social networks are in direct contrast to the order to permit free demonstrations in which the Kirchner camp has always taken great pride.

As the demonstration went on, some protestors left the square and marched to the home of Vice Governor Juan Manzur, the man set to succeed Alperovich, unless there is an unexpected turn of events and Tucumán decides to hold new elections. Police had anticipated the visit and placed guards at the residence.

The Kirchner governments have expressly ordered the police not to suppress any demonstrations, except in extreme cases

Though the province is the nation’s smallest, it has the fifth largest population and has now become the site of a landmark moment in this election season. According to preliminary results, presidential election favorite Daniel Scioli’s center-left FPV coalition won Tucumán by 14 points but this victory may cost him, with images of irregularities on the day of voting and other fraudulent maneuvers threatening to damage his standing.

There are photos showing that 40 ballot boxes containing votes were burned, while candidates also allegedly hired cars to transport thousands of residents from the poorest neighborhoods to vote and thanked them with bags of food. And now there is the police crackdown on the protest the next day.

The events all run contrary to the quiet campaign that Scioli had wanted in order to help rally votes from the center.

Scioli has tried to play down the importance of those irregularities and the government says only a few ballot boxes were destroyed, less than 1 percent. The Kirchner camp behind Scioli’s candidacy has called on his main opponent in the presidential race, outgoing Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri of the center-right Cambiemos (Let’s change) coalition, to concede defeat. But the opposition is refusing to accept the preliminary results and is calling for new elections.

It will be difficult for Macri to claim victory in the presidential vote on October 25, especially if he only earns a few votes in the poor northern regions. But his prospects may improve if he is able to polarize and mobilize millions of Argentineans to vote against the Kirchner camp by taking advantage of events such as the protest in Tucumán. The millions who watched the violence unfold live on TV are used to controversial elections, but not at the level seen in the province where thousands took to the streets to denounce the official results.

Translation by Dyane Jean François

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