BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Debate began in Argentina's senate Wednesday on a proposal to lower the voting age from 18 to 16, while another battle heated up over efforts to bring politics into the public schools.
Sen. Anibal Fernandez, who is sponsoring the voting measure, said it's "stupid" to think 16-year-olds aren't mature enough to vote. A hundred years ago, Argentina set the voting age at 18, and Fernandez argued to his fellow senators that people have advanced enough since then to lower the age by two years.
Sen. Gerardo Morales, who leads the senate's largest opposition party, the Radicals, said his bloc is "clearly in favor of expanding rights" and will support the measure, which is now destined for congressional approval in October.
Other opposition figures have alleged that giving younger teenagers the vote is an attempt by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to swing the next elections and maintain her hold on power. They point to a recent effort by La Campora, a pro-government youth movement, to lead political discussions inside public schools.
"I'm convinced that the government isn't inspired by the work of increasing the rights of the children," said Luis Naidenhoff, another Radical party senator.
Numerous polls have said that Fernandez's government finds its strongest support among 18- to 25-year-olds. Younger teens haven't been polled, because until now, their opinions haven't mattered.
Opposition lawmakers presented a report Wednesday documenting 40 incidents in which they said La Campora indoctrinated children using a game based on the historic literary figure of the "The Ethernaut," a character in the graphic novels of Hector Oesterheld, who was kidnapped and killed during Argentina's military dictatorship. In the game, the enemies are the president's leading opponents: the newspapers Clarin and La Nacion, as well as wealthy rural landowners.
"La Campora is invading the schools with its banners," complained Deputy Eduardo Amadeo.
Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri said such partisan politics have no place in public classrooms. Several teachers were disciplined, and Macri's education minister set up a toll-free line parents can call to report alleged efforts to use public schools to improperly influence young people.
Pro-government lawmakers asked a judge to shut down the number as an attack on the free speech rights of teachers and students, and rock musician Fito Paez stirred the debate by saying in a radio interview that "these people would have been turncoats during the dictatorship; they would have turned people in."
Paez's pro-Kirchner sympathies are well-known: He generated weeks of headlines when he said "half of Buenos Aires makes me sick" after Macri won election.
Still, in a country whose 1976-1983 dictatorship killed as many as 30,000 suspected "subversives," his reference to the era's turncoats touched a nerve. Daniel Lipovetzky, a city lawmaker with Macri's PRO party, gave Paez until day's end Wednesday to retract his words or face a libel suit.
Both sides have appealed to free speech rights in the battle for the youth vote, but neither side has been immune to excesses.
Government opponents cite the case of a 16-year-old in provincial Cordoba who was disciplined by his school last month after writing "this is disgusting" in a visitors' book during a class field trip to an exhibit honoring Evita Peron. The iconic first lady's populist legacy is celebrated by the current president, but many still blame the late wife of Gen. Juan Domingo Peron for fundamental problems in Argentina.
The teenager spoke out Tuesday after his parents complained and the provincial education minister removed the disciplinary warnings from his file. "They shouldn't punish me just for having a different opinion. I didn't kill anybody or anything," Walter Dominguez told reporters in Cordoba.
Associated Press writer Debora Rey contributed to this report.