* Senate to vote on bill to lower voting age to 16
* President has promoted young activists, courted youth vote
* Critics see government-led reform as electoral ploy
By Helen Popper
BUENOS AIRES, Oct 17 Argentina's Senate is
expected to pass a bill on Wednesday to lower the voting age to
16 from 18 in time for a crucial mid-term election that may
determine whether President Cristina Fernandez can seek a third
Fernandez, who backs the bill to extend voting rights, has
given prominent state jobs to members of a youth group founded
by her son, Maximo, and often praises young activists for their
Many young Argentines identify with the president's defiant
style and credit her unorthodox policies for a long economic
boom that coincided with them joining the labor market following
an acute 2001-2002 financial crisis.
But critics of the government say the reform appears to be a
thinly veiled vote-winning tactic aimed at bolstering waning
support before the legislative election scheduled for October
"We have a precedent of electoral reforms that have served
to increase the ruling party's chances rather than improve the
electoral system, so this bill leaves me with many doubts," said
leftist opposition Senator Norma Morandini.
Supporters, however, say the amendment will strengthen
democracy and bring Argentina in line with other nations that
have already extended voting rights to the young.
Austria, Nicaragua, Brazil and Ecuador are among the
countries that allow those 16 and older to vote.
"It's absurd to say this is politically motivated," said
Elena Corregido, a ruling party senator who co-authored the
bill. "They (opponents) always say it's not the right time or
that there's political speculation but in reality this deepens
the democratic process we're experiencing."
Some opposition lawmakers also plan to vote in favor of the
bill, which Corregido said should soon pass to the lower house
and become law next month.
Controversy over the reform proposal has been heightened
because of speculation over whether Fernandez could follow in
the footsteps of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez by trying to reform the
constitution in order to run for re-election in 2015.
Analysts say it is unlikely she would be able to secure the
two-thirds congressional support needed to convoke an elected
Fernandez has been coy about the prospect of running for
another term, even if permitted to do so, but any such plan
hinges on the outcome of the mid-term vote.
Most political analysts say lowering the voting age is
unlikely to have a major impact on results - no more than one or
two percentage points - although they agree that the government
and leftist parties stand to gain the most.
The change would likely increase the number of voters by up
to about 1.4 million voters depending on turnout. Almost 23
million Argentines voted in last year's presidential ballot.
"We're talking about a fairly small percentage and they're
not all going to vote for Cristina Fernandez," said pollster and
political analyst Graciela Romer. "In the last elections, her
youth vote was above average but it wasn't an avalanche either."
Fernandez's allies control Congress, but opinion polls show
her approval ratings have dropped this year due to a slowing
economy and middle-class anger over increasingly offbeat
policies like a virtual ban on buying U.S. dollars.
That means it could be difficult for Fernandez's allies to
push a constitutional reform even with the small boost expected
from extending voting rights to youths aged 16 and 17.
"People aren't keen on re-election," Romer said. "That's not
because they reject Cristina's re-election but because they
reject the concept itself."