Digital Revolutions: Argentina’s Online Political Party Shakes Up City Government

Buenos Aires Congress horse

You’d never guess it’s a campaign headquarters. From the outside, its sturdy, chic door makes it look like another nightclub on Buenos Aires’s trendy Niceto Vega Street. Argentina’s midterm elections are under way, and today I’ve talked my way into an interview with the people behind what may be one of the most innovative political concepts in Argentina, if not the world: The Partido de la Red.

The door opens up, and I’m greeted by Agustín Frizzera, the party’s top candidate. He welcomes me into their headquarters, which I quickly discover is also the corporate offices of a tech firm called “Grupo Forty Two: Latin American Technology”. The place is decked out with more MacBook Airs than you could shake a fist at, and multi-colored 8 bit wall art.

“How are the results?” I ask.

“We’ll see at six, when the polls close,” he replies.

Agustín is tall, shaggy haired, and decked out in a smart aquamarine sweater with a sort of mini hood. On the verge of possibly being elected to the Buenos Aires city legislature, he’s understandably tense, smoking a sizeable quantity of cigarettes in the brief amount of time I’ve been with him. Trained in sociology and urban planning, he’s a man of many talents, and his passion for the project is clear. Since he’s too nervous to check news updates on his iPhone, he’s happy to talk with me instead.

Inside, Agustín introduces me to his significant other, Florencia Polimeni, and the few other party members who are there. Florencia used to be a legislator in the city government, today she’s the president of the party. She darts back and forth between grilling me with questions and shouting out news updates to the rest of the group. Her personality is warm but intense, like a kindergarten teacher on crack. She and Agustín make a perfect couple.

Democracy 2.0

The concept of the party is remarkably simple, so much so that it’s surprising people find it so revolutionary. The party has developed an app that lets people vote directly on each bill that is proposed in the city legislature. In order to vote, you have to register with the party with proof that you’re a resident of Buenos Aires, though non-residents will be allowed to comment. Every legislator affiliated with the party pledges to vote in accordance with the majority vote expressed on the app. Legislators also commit to reading the most relevant comments made on the system in their deliberations in the legislature. If the system goes down or is hacked, legislators will abstain from voting until it’s back online. Its leaders have named it “Partido de la Red”, which in Spanish elegantly implies that it is both the “party of the internet” and the “party of the (social) networks.” Party members just call it PdR for short.

Though Agustín and Florencia aren’t exactly expert programmers, many of the party’s other founders come from the elite class of Argentina’s most tech savvy. Among their ranks is Santiago Siri, a charismatic code cruncher in the same vein as Steve Jobs. Siri, in a TED talk given earlier, expounded on how forms of government are the inevitable results of communications technology. Democracies of the 18th century, his logic goes, were the inevitable result of the printing press. Today, the internet is making current democracy obsolete, and parties like this one will become more prevalent.

The party’s homepage cites a few parties in Germany and Scandinavia that have been organized around similar concepts, but notably absent from any attempts at internet-based parties is the center of the tech universe, Silicon Valley. Why haven’t the world’s top tech gurus tried their hands at politics? The answer can be found in the aloof, quasi libertarianism that pervades the US tech sector. As George Packer lays out in a detailed New Yorker article, Silicon Valley’s take on Washington, as epitomized by the late Jobs and other tech gurus like Elon Musk, can be summed up as “sit back, leave us alone, and let our genius change the world.” Though there are a few exceptions, tech elite in the US have generally turned a blind eye to political innovation, or worse yet, mobilized their wealth to launch insider lobbying campaigns, as recently happened with Mark Zuckerberg.

Though there are plenty in Argentina who share this attitude, the Internet Party is a step by the country’s tech sector to, instead of just wishing away structural political problems, to actively do something. And in a way, Argentina is the perfect place for this to happen. The political scene, marked by the country’s troubled dictatorial past and a peculiar link between politics and the famously rowdy Argentinean fútbol culture, seems to have been stripped of nearly any ideological or policy based guidelines and is driven by nonsensical loyalties to frequently flip flopping politicians – all of which cries out for a fundamental change. And thankfully, that’s what the PdR appears to be putting forward. By all accounts, if the well-to-do Internet Party candidates were part of a traditional party, they’d probably be as libertarian as their Silicon Valley counterparts – lest there be any doubt, their biggest critics love to point out that many members are associated with the website Mercado Libre: literally, free market. But instead of just playing the same game, the Internet Party is trying to change it.

A few bugs?

My first issue with this is, of course, how much we can really trust candidates to make good on their promise to vote how their constituents tell them to via the app. Agustín assures me not to just take his word on this. “We release the code to the public, so even our worst enemies will be able to track our every move. If we don’t follow through, they’ll take full political advantage,” he says.

But there’s an even deeper issue: can we really trust the masses with this level of democratic control? Agustín seems a bit more worried about this issue, but he stands on principle. He will respect the will of the people, he says, even if it leads the city off a cliff. Drawing on his political background, he paraphrases De Tocqueville:  “The less people participate in the process of governance, the easier it is for a small group to take control.”

Switching to his urban planning side, he points out how city governments are the perfect venue for a party such as his.  Take, for instance, the new plan for a massive 12 story shopping mall that Buenos Aires bigwigs want to plop down on top of an abandoned rail yard a few miles west of the city center. It’s the kind of plan that business elite and legislators would easily rubber stamp. With plans like these, the lust for campaign donations transcends political ideologies, prompting both left and right wing legislators to back the project unless under enormous political pressure. The public has the exact opposite reaction: both left and right can agree there’s nothing in the project for them – aside from ruining a cherished, historic Buenos Aires neighborhood. By giving common people more of a say, the plan would be less likely to pass.

And other cities in Argentina are catching on as well. The PdR has sanctioned offshoots in Mendoza and Mar Del Plata, though they’re not connected with the organizational structure. “If we do well tonight,” says Agustín, “we’ll have the whole rest of the country coming to us to start a PdR in their cities.”

But it’s clear he’s not at all sure whether the PdR will in fact do well tonight. The party, despite the wealth of its individual members, lacks the heavy artillery of campaign financing that Argentina’s major parties have at their disposal. The country’s media is still treating them as something of an oddity. Nevertheless, they have managed to make inroads, with PdR posters popping up on billboards around town. And they turned heads by towing a model of their party’s mascot, a Trojan horse, across the city.

It’s almost six o’clock now. Florencia yells at us to come in. She blasts some eighties rock and asks us to hold hands and meditate as the clock strikes six, sending positive vibes toward the city’s ballot boxes. When that’s over, she wastes no time in whipping open the websites of major Buenos Aires media outlets to see what’s going on. I try to get in a few questions about her time as a legislator. She casually replies, not looking away from her MacBook screen, “I like it here because I care about this project so much more.” The results are taking a while to come in, so I decide to go out and get a bite to eat, and then come back. As I leave, I hear Florencia hollering in the room behind me. “My friend is counting the ballots and the first vote she saw was for us!”

The Results Are In

When I get back, the PdR headquarters is packed. An hour earlier it was just a political party, now it’s a different kind of party: a fiesta. Friends have called friends to tell them to check out this new thing happening on Niceto Vega. It’s Sunday and people have to work tomorrow, but that’s not stopping them from cutting loose a bit, cracking open beers and Argentina’s beverage of choice: Fernet. But with the high volume of tech nerds present, the vibe still feels a bit like an awkward high school party. I fit right in.

While people less closely connected to the party are enjoying themselves, it’s clear that Agustín and Florencia are tense, glued to their computer monitors, as is the party’s second candidate, Pia Mancini. Santiago Siri, the tech genius of the operation has arrived, but he’s taking things in stride. As I find out, his personality is a bit more Steve Wozniak than Steve Jobs.

At about ten o’clock, the results are in. Florencia belts them out, in a voice everyone is sure to hear. “Members of Partido de la Red, we are officially the ninth most powerful force in Buenos Aires politics!” She sounds positive, but in practical terms, this is a bit demoralizing. It means that PdR won’t get a seat in the legislature. To win one of the legislature’s 70 seats, they needed 1/70th of the vote, or 1.42%. They got 1.16%. Nonetheless, as she opens up the floor for people to give speeches of their own, the mood seems positive, though the speeches are a bit enigmatic; one woman gives a quote from The Lord of the Rings. Despite her earlier peppiness, Florencia sounds a bit downhearted as I say goodbye to her on my way out. But she wishes me well for the future.

So, at the end of the day, the PdR will have to wait until next time for its internet revolution to make it to city hall. But for those who would like to see a web-based transformation of politics in Buenos Aires (and maybe someday the rest of the world) there’s reason to hope. The group has launched an app  that allows voters to track legislation in city hall and vote on it, making the will of the people more transparent. And it has spawned numerous movements in other Latin American countries, such as Brazil and Mexico. Could this new trend one day move north to Silicon Valley?

Oddly enough, this election coincides with an important piece of Argentina’s history. 30 years ago this month, the people of the country overthrew the dictators and reinstated democracy. It’s not exactly been smooth sailing ever since, but the country has maintained its commitment to government by popular vote. As journalist Creusa Muñoz recently pointed out in reference to the 30th anniversary of democratic rule, “the solution to the problems created by democracy is more democracy.” And if the PdR does well in the next elections, that’s exactly what Argentina will get.

Drew Reed is an online media producer and community activist specialising in sustainable transportation. He lives in Buenos Aires.