Chile's new era

Roberto Espíndola
16 January 2006

The victory of Michelle Bachelet in the second-round of Chile’s presidential election on Sunday 15 January was in the end decisive. The result – Bachelet received 53.45% of the vote against 46.5% for her rival, Sebastián Piñera – confirmed opinion-poll predictions and the voters’ own forecasts. However, it came after a first round on 11 December where the two candidates of the right-wing Alianza gathered more votes than Bachelet, the sole nominee of the ruling centre-left Concertación, and after an expensive, negative campaign focussing on her and seeking to persuade voters that a woman – and a divorced, agnostic, socialist single mother, into the bargain – couldn’t possibly become Chile’s president.

Roberto Espíndola is senior lecturer in politics and director of the Centre for European Studies at the University of Bradford.

Also by Roberto Espíndola in openDemocracy:

Michelle Bachelet: Chile’s next president?” (December 2005)


If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

In the first round the Alianza put forward two candidates, having failed to agree on a joint one: the conservative economist Joaquín Lavín represented the hard-line Unión Demócrata Independiente (Independent Democratic Union / UDI), and the billionaire entrepreneur Sebastián Piñera the centre-right Renovación Nacional (National Renewal / RN). Despite UDI’s substantial support amongst low-income groups, Piñera’s dazzling campaign put him ahead with the second plurality at 25.4%, compared with the 23.2% reached by Lavín. At 46%, Bachelet was short of the required majority, giving Piñera the right to confront her in a second round run-off.

There was a fourth candidate in the December round, Tomás Hirsch, representing the leftist Juntos Podemos Más (Together we can do more), a coalition of the Communist Party, the Humanist Party, greens and other groups, who received 5.4% of the vote. This alliance came apart for the second round when Hirsch asked his followers to reject the two main candidates by nullifying their ballots, whilst the communists – after assurances on social policies and a reform of the electoral system – asked its voters to support Bachelet.

In theory this communist support should have sufficed to get Bachelet just over the 50% mark, but Piñera mounted an expensive campaign with two strategic aims.

The first was to compensate for that by attracting centre voters, those who would normally follow the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (Christian Democratic Party / PDC), and presenting himself as a “Christian humanist” and painting his opponent as “a communist-backed atheist”. Piñera spared no effort or expense to attract PDC members or supporters, with little success: just a handful of obscure PDC members endorsed the Alianza candidate, and their party promptly expelled them. As the results showed, the PDC vote remained loyal to the centre-left candidate. This strategy, however, shows a new face of a right that, less burdened now by its identification with Pinochet, will seek in future to compete for the centre, Catholic vote.

The second aim of Piñera’s campaign pointed at weakening the image of the Concertación’s candidate, casting doubts on her competence and implicitly appealing to the traditionally male-dominated nature of Chilean politics. That had some limited success, particularly with male voters in rural areas; but it seriously backfired with women – at 53%, the majority of the electorate – as Piñera was seen as aggressive and patronising towards his rival.

However, the main explanation for Piñera’s failure to retain the 48.6% that the Alianza candidates jointly gathered in December was that a proportion of UDI supporters didn’t vote for him. The opinion polls suggest that women from low-income groups who supported Lavín in December had shifted their vote to Bachelet; it is also possible that some hardliners preferred UDI to be the main opposition to a Bachelet administration than to be marginalised by Piñera’s forces.

The parties of the right will now enter a period of mutual recrimination. But there will be no shortage of volunteers to take credit for the success amongst the winners, especially as the victory margin of seven percentage points is decisive. Bachelet’s comfortable victory will give her some greater room for political manoeuvre. It may also help her that a constitutional reform has now reduced the presidential period from six to four years, prompting some of key Chilean politicians to see government service as essential to their 2010 ambitions.

The Santiago prospect

Michelle Bachelet will take office in March from her fellow-socialist, Ricardo Lagos, who leaves behind a legacy of economic prosperity and political stability, and has the satisfaction of ending his six years as president with an approval rate above 60%. She will, though, have a significant advantage over her predecessor, since Concertación gained a majority in both houses at the December parliamentary elections. Lagos had to contend with a senate that the right controlled thanks to former military chiefs who sat as “appointed senators”, besides “life senator” Augusto Pinochet. Both categories have been eliminated from the constitution, and in a fully-elected senate the ruling centre-left coalition now will have a majority of three (twenty to seventeen) over the right.

Another difference between the leaders is that Bachelet is identified with the left wing of the Socialist Party and comes from a more militant background than Lagos, an academic economist who remained aloof from party disputes between liberals, social democrats and socialists. This, however, will not entail a lurch to the left: Bachelet’s manifesto commits her to continue his predecessor’s policies, privileging economic growth and fiscal prudence.

That may not be a matter of choice as much as political necessity, since President Bachelet will be dependent on the parliamentary support of Christian Democrats, as well as on that of the more liberal legislators within her own party, to implement her programme. She is expected to secure that support by relying on senior Christian Democrats such as Andrés Zaldívar (former president of the senate, who ably managed her second-round campaign) and economist Alejandro Foxley (the first finance minister after the Augusto Pinochet years, who led the drafting of Bachelet’s manifesto). Both are likely to be key figures in her cabinet.

Also in openDemocracy on political change in Latin America:

Mexican democracy in peril” (April 2005)

America’s protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS” (July 2005)

Hilary Wainwright, “No end: the crisis of Brazil’s Workers’ Party” (September 2005)

Isabel Hilton, “Álvaro Uribe’s gift: Colombia’s mafia goes legit” (October 2005)

Celia Szusterman, “Argentina: the state we’re in
(October 2005)

Arthur Ituassu, “One hour with George W Bush” (November 2005)

Sergio Ramirez, “Nicaragua’s hijacked democracy
(November 2005)

Arthur Ituassu, “Farewell José, farewell 2005
(December 2005)

Nick Buxton, “Revolutionary times in Bolivia?
(December 2005)

Ivan Briscoe, “The time of the underdog: rage and race in Latin America
(December 2005)

The prospect for Chile’s foreign policies is also of little change. Bachelet’s campaign attracted considerable international enthusiasm: several politicians and artists made their way to Santiago to express their support, as did foreign politicians like the leading French socialist and possible presidential candidate in 2007, Ségolene Royal. That interest is certain to be enhanced now, particularly if she attends the 22 January inauguration of the incoming president of neighbouring Bolivia, Evo Morales. That may be an opportunity to discuss matters of common interest that include the territorial legacy of the 1879-84 war of the Pacific.

But if there will be no radical shift in domestic or foreign policy, neither will it be business as usual. The Bachelet administration will clearly be marked by the new leader’s personality, and therefore different in style; she has also undertaken to follow the example set by Spain’s socialist government and appoint equal numbers of men and women to the cabinet. Thus, there will be two different policy emphases.

Firstly, Bachelet will complete Lagos’s task of eliminating the legacies of the Pinochet period, including the reform of the disproportional electoral system that has had the significant effects of benefiting the right, excluding the left from congress, and distorting the centre-left’s representation. A move to a proportional system that would allow the participation in congress of representatives of ethnic minorities (including Chile’s indigenous Mapuche people) and small political parties (including the communists and greens) was one of Bachelet’s campaign commitments undertaken to attract second-round votes; it has also been a longstanding demand from main parties (like the Christian Democrats) that have been disadvantaged by existing electoral rules.

Secondly, Bachelet’s government will emphasise progressive social policies, especially those that encourage greater equality. She inherits a prosperous economy able to fund them: Chile’s economy, regarded as one of the five most open economies in the world, has been growing at a steady annual average of 6% for the last two years. That is a sound platform for social measures prioritising expenditure on health, education and pensions. A manifesto commitment, an ideological preference for redistributive policies, and the parliamentary majority to make them politically feasible, represents a strong foundation for the incoming government.

There is a final, wider lesson of Michelle Bachelet’s victory that is relevant to Latin America as a whole as well as Chile. She represents a new phenomenon in Chilean politics: the rise of a candidate from outside the male political elite. Whether the outsiders are women who stand as candidates in their own right or representatives of the equally ignored Amerindian populations, they are a further example of the emergence of new forms of politics in Latin America.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData