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Chile: the right in power

Sebastian Piñera has ended two decades of centre-left rule in Chile. The new president now faces the tough challenge of creating a liberal and democratic right free from the negative associations of the Augusto Pinochet era, says Alan Angell.

Alan Angell
2 February 2010

Chile was governed successfully for the twenty years after 1990 by a centre-left coalition of three major parties: the Christian Democrats (PDC), the Socialists (PS), the Party for Democracy (PPD), and a smaller Radical party. The task faced by the Concertación (as the coalition was called) was immense. When it assumed office Augusto Pinochet was still commander-in-chief, and the new government faced a powerful business sector enriched by the previous economic policies. Freedom of action was limited by a restrictive and authoritarian constitution passed in 1980 and difficult to reform, yet the new government faced demands for justice for human-rights abuses, a huge problem of poverty, and an overheated economy.

It is to the credit of the Concertación governments that it faced up to those challenges with success. Consider the economic record. Chile grew at an average of 5.1% per annum during those twenty years. The proportion of the population living in poverty fell from 38.8% of the population to 13.7% in 2009. GDP per capita was $4,542 in 1989: in 2009 it was $14,299.

There were no free-trade agreements in 1989 – there were twenty-four in 2009. In 1989 there were 249,482 students in higher education – in 2009 there were 809,417. Chile was investing $7 million in health in 1989; by 2009 that figure had risen to $307 million. In infrastructure, the 27.3 kilometres of the metro line in Santiago had expanded to 94.5, and major roads improved. Minimum wages increased substantially, and the pension system was reformed to benefit poorer pensioners. Chile in 2010 became the first South American country to join the OECD.

The government of President Ricardo Lagos in 2005 was eventually able to reform the constitution to make it more democratic by removing the non-elected designated senators, increasing the power of congress, and improving civilian control over the military. On human rights, the government has a record that compares favourably with other countries. Since 2000 in Chile, some 779 former agents have been indicted, charged or sentenced for human-rights abuses committed during the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-90).

By the end of December 2009, 279 former agents of the military had been sentenced for abuses, of whom fifty-nine are serving out final sentences in prison; while most of the rest are still in the appeal process or have received lesser punishment such as house-arrest or suspended sentences. The fifty-nine in prison represent the highest number in Latin America.  (On the other hand, Chile has been slow to incorporate international human-rights legislation into its judicial codes compared with Argentina.)

In 2003, Ricardo Lagos created a commission to investigate accusations of torture and political imprisonment during the Pinochet dictatorship. Over 30,000 cases were investigated and the majority of the victims were awarded some form of reparation, though names of the accused torturers were not released. In January 2010, President Michelle Bachelet inaugurated a Museum of Memory in Santiago as a tribute to those who suffered during the dictatorship.

The Concertación government had an admirable record of political stability; it consistently gained 50% of the vote (or close to it) in the presidential and congressional elections held before 2009. Eduardo Frei, in his defeat by Sebastian Piñera in the presidential election of 17 January 2010, was the first incumbent president since 1990 to lose to a candidate of the right.

The right  – a combination of the Independent Democratic Union (UDI), a party of strict Catholicism, with strong roots in the Pinochet regime and pro-business economic politics, and Renovación Nacional (RN), a more heterogeneous mixture of democrats and old-fashioned nationalists – until the election never seemed to overcome the suspicion of the majority of the electorate that they were still not entirely democratic, represented the interests of the rich and powerful and still retained favourable memories of the Pinochet years. Yet as time passed these suspicions declined.

The right in the recent campaign formed the Coalition for Change, resolutely refused to revisit the debates of the past and promoted an image of a forward-looking, progressive force. Their candidate, Sebastian Piñera, a very wealthy businessman and former senator, stressed that he had voted against Pinochet in the plebiscite of 1988 and had tried to defend human rights. He courted the middle sectors with a liberal and centrist message (even featuring a gay couple on one of his electoral broadcasts). The Concertación drew attention to some of his questionable business dealings, argued that Piñera would govern in the interests of the rich and powerful, and that the nature of his coalition would mean a return to some of the features of the Pinochet past. But these arguments did not convince enough of the electorate to prefer Frei.

The right has not won a presidential election for fifty-two years, though it came close in 1999 in the first round. How to explain the defeat of the Concertación?

Why the Concertación lost

The Concertación lost only narrowly by a little over 3% in the second round. In the last two presidential elections this was more or less the margin of Concertación victory. The vote for the right in the 2010 elections was only marginally higher than the vote for the Concertación in 2000 and 2005, so the elections hardly represented a major electoral upheaval. Even if it lost the presidency the Concertación had a slight lead over the Coalition for Change (UDI and RN) in the elections for congress held concurrently with the first round of the presidential election. Hence it is in a position – along with two independent and three Communist deputies – to block legislation in congress. Moreover, the 1980 constitution demands more than a simple majority for important legislative changes, so that Piñera will need to broker agreements with the Concertación.

Nevertheless, even if it was by a narrow margin the Concertación lost the presidency. In the first round Frei (with 29% of the vote) did very badly against Piñera, but also in comparison with the maverick centre-left candidate Marco Enríquez-Ominami, a deputy who left the Socialist party to campaign for the presidency and won 20% of the vote. In a country anxious for change – and this mood was captured by Enríquez-Ominami – it is difficult to think of a candidate who more represented continuity than Frei; though the achievements of government under his presidency (1994-2000) were rather over-shadowed by the negative effects of the Asian economic crisis in 1999 on the Chilean economy.

But it is too easy to lay all the blame on Eduardo Frei. Who else could have been the candidate? The Concertación simply did not renew itself sufficiently to come up with new and appealing candidates. Partly as a result of the electoral system imposed by the dictatorship, parties became rather closed circles of elites with limited contact with civil society and were perceived as elitist, and uninterested in participation. Several candidates half-announced themselves willing to compete but sensing little enthusiasm, withdrew, including former President Lagos - he was too tainted with the failure of the over-ambitious integrated transport plan, Transantiago, to be popular enough and he too would have been the candidate of continuity. The Concertación made a huge mistake in denying an open primary to choose its candidate. If Enríquez had been able to contest the choice and lost, then Frei would have gone into the election as the candidate of a united coalition.

Divisions hit the Concertación badly. The PDC expelled a senator, Adolfo Zaldívar, and five deputies of the party resigned in support. The Socialists at one stage had three candidates for the presidency (though all resigned from the party) – one withdrew, Enríquez-Ominami continued to campaign, and Jorge Arrate a former minister, joined with the Communists and other left groups as the candidate of the non-coalition left. The PPD lost two of its most prominent members and was in disarray. The Concertación initially a united coalition with a mandate to restore democracy and promote development was now seen as a divided and dispirited force with no clear policies for the future.

The Concertación had a reputation for technical ability and honest government but that too was dented with the problems of the Transantiago project, which led to travel chaos when initiated and did not improve sufficiently to erase memories of that failure. Corruption scandals – mostly the misappropriation of public funds for political and campaign use rather than personal benefit – grew in number and further damaged the Concertación.  Even some of its supporters thought that a spell in opposition was necessary for the Concertación to regroup and renew itself.

What difference will Piñera make?

It is too early to say what changes the new president, who takes office on 11 March 2010, will be able to make in policies and politics in Chile. His own aims are well-known but the parties and groups backing him differ on important issues and he has a difficult balancing-act to perform. His cabinet will not be announced for some weeks and that will provide some indication of his intentions. One pressing question is how far he will include members of the Pinochet government in his top-level appointments. This is a sensitive issue and Piñera is well aware of the need to draw a line under the past – but his most powerful ally is the UDI party, which has many prominent ex-Pinochetistas in its ranks.

Whatever Piñera might want to do, he lacks a clear majority in congress and the Concertación could mount a powerful opposition. The Chilean institutional structure imposes many limitations on the power of the president – legal, political and administrative. The Chilean president is far less powerful than a simple reading of the constitution would imply. Piñera has only one four-year term as president and may not stand for immediate re-election.

But Michelle Bachelet can stand in 2014. She left the presidency an immensely popular figure, with an approval rating around 80%. This popularity is personal to her and did not extend to the parties of the Concertación. Frei hoped to benefit from this popularity but it did not transfer, and in truth Bachelet was not prominent in her support for Frei at least in the first round. Bachelet was popular in part because of the compensatory social policies she introduced to mitigate the effects of the recession on the poor. It would be politically damaging for Piñera to reverse those policies – and indeed against his electoral platform.

Policy differences between Piñera and the Concertación at least on the broad lines of macroeconomic policy are minor and no surprises are expected. Piñera is unlikely to tackle Chile’s notoriously high inequality but the Concertación was not successful in reducing it more than a little (though the long-term effects of some of the social policies remain to be seen). Piñera promised to be tougher on law and order, but such promises are far easier to make than to implement.

Piñera’s party, RN, came a poor second to the UDI. The UDI expects to play an important role in the new government. This means a likely end to progressive policies on such social issues as divorce, abortion, gender equality and gay rights. There are unlikely to be changes to the privileged position occupied by private interests in the spheres of education and health. No progressive tax reforms can be expected and business anticipates doing even better than it did under the Concertación (when it did very well). It is unlikely that the resolution of human-rights issues will feature on the agenda, nor legal changes to better entrench the rights of indigenous groups such as the Mapuche.

To secure re-election of the right in four more years Piñera will have to demonstrate as effective a macro-economic policy as the Concertación while rewarding his supporters in the private sector and the UDI. He has promised to create a million new jobs and deal with crime, open the state-owned copper-mines (Codelco) to private interests, increase the rate of investment and reform Chilean bureaucracy. Four years is a short time in which to realise these promises and he will be uncomfortably aware of the shadow of Bachelet as the next election approaches.

In one sense the election of the right represents a further step in the consolidation of democracy as it shows that the political system can absorb a change of government without difficulty. Both government and opposition face important challenges. Piñera faces the test of creating a liberal and democratic right free from the negative associations of the past and responsive to a broad range of social groups. Given the ideology and power of the UDI that is not an easy task.

The Concertación faces two equally difficult challenges. The first is to renew the political parties so that they connect with the electorate and redress the growing political apathy and indifference of the population at large, and especially the youth. The second is to recreate the unity of the coalition based on a political project that can win back those disillusioned voters who gave their support to Marco Enríquez-Ominami in the first round, and switched to Sebastian Piñera in the second. Chilean politics looks interesting again.

I would like to thank Cath Collins, Sofia Donoso, Julio Faundez, and Juan Luis Ossa for their advice and criticisms

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