- - Wednesday, November 14, 2012

CORDOBA, Argentina — President Cristina Fernandez has tightened her grip on the critical youth vote, as lawmakers signed off on her bid to lower the voting age to 16 in national elections.

With midterm elections expected next year, Ms. Fernandez is trying to solidify support among voters 30 and younger, who now make up more than 34 percent of the electorate and traditionally have broken heavily in her favor. No date has yet been set for the congressional elections, but most observers expect the vote in October.

The president has seen her popularity plummet recently amid chronically high inflation and unpopular currency controls, but Ms. Fernandez was beaming as she signed the voting-age bill into law Nov. 1.

“Today, there are Argentines who have more rights than [they had] yesterday,” she said, “So we must celebrate.”

The new law adds some 1.4 million young people to the electoral roll, who only make up about 4 percent of the electorate, but they will not be required to vote, unlike most Argentines ages 18 to 70. But Ms. Fernandez’ strategy is less about numbers and more about appealing to the key 30-and-younger demographic, which she carried with more than 60 percent in her 2011 landslide re-election, observers say.

“The youth has become a very important player,” said Ibarometro pollster Ignacio Ramirez.

Many who as children lived through the violence and chaos of Argentina’s 2001 economic collapse were drawn to the big-government model advocated by Ms. Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner.

“For many youngsters, their rebellion [now] consists in being ‘kirchnerista,’” Mr. Ramirez said.

For the most loyal among Ms. Fernandez’ youthful supporters, benefits can be downright tangible. Participation in La Campora, a youth organization linked to the president’s Front for Victory wing of the Peronist party, is said to pave the way to sought-after government jobs.

La Campora leaders include Deputy Economy Minister Axel Kicillof, who oversaw this year’s nationalization of the YPF oil company, and Mariano Recalde, head of the country’s state-owned airline Aerolineas Argentinas.

Ms. Fernandez decreed that La Campora members be given prominent spots on last year’s congressional ballot, which saw the group’s secretary-general, Andres Larroque, elected as a congressman from Buenos Aires City.

As the lower house of congress debated the voting-age bill Oct. 31, a fiery speech by Mr. Larroque so inflamed opposition lawmakers that they walked out in protest.

The new law adds Argentina to a handful of nations — including Austria, Brazil, Cuba and Nicaragua — that allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote.

Ecuador even enshrined the lowered voting age in its new constitution, adopted in 2008 as part of the “Citizens’ Revolution” of President Rafael Correa, a close ally of both Ms. Fernandez and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

Voting in Ecuador is mandatory for most citizens, as it is in Argentina, where failure to go to the polls carries a fine of up to $105. In both countries, minors are exempt, and only about 65 percent of Ecuadoreans younger than 18 voted in the 2009 general election.

Populist leaders such as Mr. Correa and Ms. Fernandez use their control over government handouts and public-school curriculums to bind voters to them from an early age, said Santiago Basabe of the Latin American Social Sciences Institute in Quito, Ecuador.

“The fundamental goal is indefinite re-election. That’s the underlying objective,” Mr. Basabe said.



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