Chile always surprises

Justin Vogler
19 August 2009

The centre-left coalition of leftists, radicals and Christian Democrats known as the Concertación has dominated Chilean politics since the end of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. In my previous openDemocracy article on Chile I argued that the Concertación's ruling elite miscalculated badly when it nominated ex-president Eduardo Frei as its candidate ahead of the presidential election on 13 December 2009 (see "Chile: the politics of patriarchy", 1 April 2009). The dour, aging Christian Democrat simply does not represent today's culturally dynamic Chile. The backroom operators who wheeled him out have underestimated the progressive reformation spurred and personified by the hugely popular president elected in December 2005 - and limited by the constitution to one term in office - Michelle Bachelet

Justin Vogler works as a freelance journalist based in Chile, teaches political science in the socio-economics department of Valparaiso University. He spent twelve years travelling and working on development projects in southeast Asia and Latin America and is a regular contributor to the English-language daily, the Santiago TimesThe opposition has done little better. Sebastián Piñera, the multimillionaire rightwing contender who lost to Bachelet in 2005, has a bit more charisma than Frei; but little of substance separates the two. Both are pious, business-friendly men tied to conservative political bases. By the time of the election, both will be in their 60s. So despite the fact that Chilean electoral rules strongly favour a two-party monopoly, the door has been left open for a young political entrepreneur to lay claim to Bachelet's progressive mantle and attempt to forge a viable third presidential candidacy. 

Marco Enríquez Ominami is the biological son of Miguel Enríquez, the myth-drenched leader of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (Movement of the Revolutionary Left / MIR) who was gunned down in 1974 by the then dictator Augusto Pinochet's goons. The evident affection between the 36-year-old Marco and his adoptive father, the Socialist senator Carlos Ominami, is touching. He changed his name in 2000 in honour of "he who gave me life and he who saved my life". Marco's wife, and foremost electoral asset, is Karen Doggenweiler, a primetime television presenter. 

Marco was raised in exile in France, and worked as a documentary filmmaker before being elected a Socialist deputy in 2006. In parliament he earned a reputation as a discolo (disobedient), and frequently provoked Christian Democrats by proposing legislation on controversial issues such as therapeutic abortion and same-sex marriage. His radical stance offended many on his own side too, and both he and his father were forced to resign from the Socialist Party in June 2009. 

In June, just two months after declaring his candidacy, an opinion-poll projection by the conservative Centre of Public Studies (CEP), gave Marco 15% of the vote against 34% for Piñera and 29% for Frei. Michelle Bachelet's position as Chile's most acclaimed politician ever was confirmed: a staggering 73% of those surveyed endorsed her. The same poll made Bachelet's finance minister, Andres Velasco, Chile's second most popular public figure with a 50% approval rating; Marco Enríquez Ominami is third with 48%; Piñera is seventh on 45%, two percentage points ahead of Frei.

Among Justin Vogler's articles in openDemocracy:

"Michelle Bachelet's triumph" (January 2006)

"Small-country power: Chile and the Iraq war" (22 February 2006)

"Latin America: woman's hour" (17 March 2006)

"Ollanta Humala: a Peruvian gamble" (7 April 2006)

"Mapuche: the other Chile" (20 June 2006)

"South America: towards union or disintegration" (20 July 2006)

"Democratising globalisation: Joseph Stiglitz interviewed" (25 September 2006)

"Augusto Pinochet: chronicle of a death foretold" (9 December 2006)

"Bienvenido, Señor Bush" (8 March 2007)

"Argentina and Britain: the lessons of war" (3 April 2007)

"Chile: Pinochet's ghost, Bachelet's swamp" (8 October 2007)

"King Juan Carlos vs President Hugo" (13 November 2007)

"Bolivia nears the precipice" (17 September 2008)

"Chile: the politics of patriarchy" (1 April 2009)

The positive image of the Bachelet-Velasco duo - a humane progressive allied to a competent liberal economist - reveals a lot about political preferences in today's Chile. Marco Enriquez Ominami and his economic advisor Paul Fontaine have been quick to catch on and make the potent mix of progressive nonconformity with economic orthodoxy their own. Their economic plan proposes hefty tax hikes on big business and a massive increase in social spending. At the same time, they appease the private sector by promising to open up the remaining Chilean state enterprises to minority private capital. The approach distances Marco from the hard left, dampens private-sector criticism of his proposed tax reform, and helps him garner centrist support.

Indeed, while Marco is clearly splitting the Concertación vote, he is also filtering some votes from Piñera. It is therefore very unlikely that anyone will win an outright majority in the vote on 13 December, an outcome that would entail a runoff election on 17 January 2010. Piñera's place in the second round is more or less assured; it is less clear who his rival will be.

Piñera vs Frei

The most probable, but not inevitable, scenario is a January 2010 run-off between Eduardo Frei and Sebastián Piñera. To win, Frei will need to pick up most of Marco's first round votes and this involves him in a delicate balancing-act as he tries to beat off the young challenger without antagonising his supporters. Concertación parliamentarians, mindful of the dilemma and fearful that Marco supporters will opt to abstain in an eventual Frei-Piñera tiebreak, have been unscrupulously delaying legislation to make voting in Chile voluntary. 

In the 2005 election it was the right's ticket that was split between Piñera and the extremist, Joaquin Lavin. The right learned its lesson, and its main vehicle the Alianza por Chile is today firmly behind the moderate. Piñera's successful European tour - he was received by Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron, and Josè Luis Rodriquez Zapatero - underlined the advantages of a candidate not associated with the Pinochet dictatorship. "This is the first time in twenty years that an Alianza candidate has been received at this level in Europe", observed a wistful Lavin. 

Piñera is a quintessential neo-liberal, who pledges four things: a more "efficient" state, the upholding of traditional (Catholic) values, a firm hand against crime and increased economic growth. Chile under the Concertación has become sluggish, he argues, and needs to return to the 7% annual growth-rate of the late 1980s if it is to join the ranks of the first world by 2020. 

Tactics are increasingly dirty. The Piñera camp for weeks exploited Frei's presidential pardon of a drug-smuggler, and any hint that Bachelet or her ministers are entering the fray is met with accusations of "electoral intervention". Frei responds by accusing his counterpart of "scandalous financial intervention" and "wallpapering the country with electoral propaganda". His team seized on accusations by a Pinochet-era judge that Piñera avoided prison for fraud in 1982 thanks to intervention from the military junta. Most Chileans seem to believe Piñera when he says that this is a set-up.

The first of three presidential-candidate debates will be held in October. In principle these should favour Frei. Piñera did not do well in the 2005 debates and the ex-president's huge political experience and aura of authority should compensate for his lack of charisma. Frei's attempt to cast his contest with Piñera in terms of the state versus the market is in keeping with the Zeitgeist. The problem is that this new narrative is incongruent with Frei's actual record as president from 1994-2000. Moreover, amid a likely pincer-attack from a technically savvy Piñera on the right and a media-savvy Enriquez on the left, he is unlikely to emerge unscathed.  

So while a Frei-Piñera runoff is technically an open race, Frei's position is not comfortable. He has acquired little of Bachelet's popularity, and he appears old and acerbic. With the prospect of some wounding encounters with the young Enríquez, there is a real possibility that 17 January will see the end of twenty years of Concertación rule in Chile. 

Piñera vs Marco

A second round between Piñera and Marco is a less probable, but more intriguing, scenario. Enriquez should not be underestimated. Early charges that he lacks substance were quickly silenced by a barrage of well calibrated proposals. Fontaine's artful economic pitch is complimented by plans to convert Chile's "super-presidential" constitutional order to a French style semi-presidential system, where president and prime minister cohabit. This idea has, over the years, received near-universal backing from political-science experts around the world. 

As Marco's campaign solidifies, important names jump onboard. As expected Carlos Ominami chose son over party and faces December's senatorial election as an independent. And despite the party's barbed threats many Socialists, including two members of the central committee, are openly backing the renegade. In July the former vice-president of the Christian Democrats, Marcelo Trivelli, left the DC to join the campaign.

Indeed, attracting members of the DC is vital if Marco is to compete with Piñera. In a runoff he can count on the socialists and the bulk of the left-leaning PPD and Radicals. However the man's parliamentary career was forged baiting Catholics, and his candidacy is defined against Eduardo Frei, so courting the DC will be a tall order. Some, like Trivelli, may heed his call. Many others will back Piñera and, if Enríquez does go through, the DC - and the Concertación with it - is likely to implode. And without the Concertación machine behind him, many Chileans may blink before handing the presidency to an untested 36-year-old. 

So Piñera would almost definitely prefer a runoff against Marco and Frei's campaign has been circulating rumours of collusion between his two rivals. The youngster's views on abortion reflect those of the majority of Chileans. His opinions on legalising marijuana and ceding a slice of Chile's pacific coast to Bolivia do not, and Piñera knows it. The conventional wisdom is that Piñera would easily cut down the young pretender, and that the majority of Chileans will suppress their desire to kick the old elite and opt for boring governability over experiments with cultural reflexivity. Chileans, it is widely asserted, prefer their presidents to be grey-haired, experienced administrators. 

But if Michelle Bachelet's election and subsequent popularity teach anything, it is that conventional wisdom provides a poor guide to contemporary Chile. Indeed, the Chilean trade commission's excruciating slogan, "Chile All Ways Surprising", may in the political arena at least prove to be astute.


Also on Chilean politics in openDemocracy:

Geoffrey Bindman, Juan Garces, Isabel Hilton, "Justice in the world's light" (15 June 2001)

Tom Burgis, "Arresting development in Chile" (14 June 2005)

Roberto Espíndola, "Chile's new era" (16 January 2006)

Jorge Larraín, "Pinochet's death" (12 December 2006)

Alan Angell, "The Pinochet regime: an accounting" (12 December 2006)

Carlos Huneeus, "Pinochet's regime: the verdict of history (13 December 2006)

Patrice de Beer, "Calle Santa Fé: between Chile and freedom" (16 January 2008)

David Sugarman, "The arrest of Augusto Pinochet: ten years on" (29 October 2008)


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