Chile’s inheritance struggle

The outcome of Chile’s presidential election is more open than at any time since its return to democracy in 1990.
Justin Vogler
8 December 2009

Among the few certainties in Chilean politics is that no one is going to win an outright majority in the country’s first-round presidential election on 13 December 2009. The most likely outcome of the contest to succeed the popular Michelle Bachelet is a second-round runoff on 17 January 2010 between the conservative multimillionaire, Sebastian Piñera, and the Christian Democrat ex-president, Eduardo Frei.

But here is where the uncertainties grow: for most opinion-polls have tracked a steady increase in support for the young rebel Marco Enriquez Ominami (“MEO”); the October survey from the Centro de Estudios Publicos (CEP), for example, gave him a 19% share of the vote against 26% for Frei and 36% for Piñera. Some polls have suggested a second-place tie between Frei and MEO, and most - including CEP’s, whose projections have proved accurate in the last two elections - project that the youngster would actually do better than Frei in a runoff against Piñera.

MEO was adopted as a child by Socialist senator Carlos Ominami, after his biological father Miguel Enríquez, the near-legendary leader of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (Movement of the Revolutionary Left / MIR), was killed in 1974 in the wake of the Augusto Pinochet coup. Marco has achieved great political prominence on his own account but has so far failed either to silence concerns about his ability to form a viable government or to deal Frei a knockout punch; and behind Frei is the formidable electoral machinery of the Concertación (the coalition of Socialists, Christian Democrats and Radicals) that has dominated Chilean politics since 1990. So, while it is conceivable that MEO goes through to run against Sebastian Piñera, the more likely contender remains Frei. 

Frei is a weak candidate with a strong political base. His presidential term (1994-2000) ended with his poll-ratings at 28%, making him the only Concertación president whose popularity fell during his tenure. He has been eclipsed during the presidential debates by MEO, whose clashes with Piñera make much better television. Both the feeble attempts to make a campaign gimmick of Frei’s large nose and efforts to project the 67-year-old as “a bridge between generations” in Chilean politics have proved risible.

Moreover, Frei’s campaign-team has been plagued by infighting. Most Concertación candidates for the concurrent parliamentary elections on 13 December have opted for campaign photos with the outgoing president, Michelle Bachelet, rather than with the man they are supposed to be campaigning for to replace her.

A tide of calculation

The predicament of Eduardo Frei’s three rivals is the opposite of his: they are all strong nominees handicapped by the parties supporting them. Jorge Arrate, a veteran Socialist and now candidate for the Communist-dominated Juntos Podemos Más, served as minister in the first two Concertación governments. Many regard the soft-spoken 68-year-old economist as the most knowledgable, likeable and ideologically coherent of the four contenders. But a huge majority of Chileans will never vote for the Communists, and Arrate will do well to win two or three percentage points more than the 5.4% gained by Tomás Hirsch in the December 2005 election. 

The rebranded Alianza por el cambio (Alliance for Change) combines the forces of the Renovación Nacional (RN; basically a club for Chile’s landed gentry) and the Unión Democrática Independiente (UDI; a dynamic party of former Augusto Pinochet henchmen with slightly fascist undertones and close ties to Opus Dei). Many in the UDI have never forgiven Piñera for voting against Pinochet in the plebiscite of 1989 (defeat in which precipitated the dictator’s fall); and only its sense that only he is capable of securing the presidency for the right keeps it on side. In fact, brawls between “rival” RN and UDI parliamentary campaigners in several districts hint at the simmering tensions between the two forces.

Sebastian Piñera’s challenge is to keep his reactionary backers united and on side while convincing middle-ground voters that he is not “one of them”. So far, it has gone relatively well. Piñera managed to deflect criticism thrown at him after he met retired solders and criticised “eternal trials” for dictatorship-era abuses; likewise, UDI wrath after a gay couple appeared in Piñera’s campaign slots was (mostly) kept private. 

For his part, MEO’s greatest strength and greatest weakness is that he does not have a party base. But recent successes for independent candidates throughout Latin America reflect widespread disillusion with corruption and cronyism in political parties. Chile is not immune to this tendency, and like Ollanta Humala in Peru and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, MEO has benefited from “outsider” status and anti-establishment discourse. 

At this late stage, efforts are being made to mould MEO’s adherents into a party structure capable of governing and/or harnessing momentum for the future. But these have produced a schism. Some, led by the candidate’s father, want a progressive platform that would negotiate with the Concertación in the second round; others, like MEO’s political manager Max Marambio, a maverick millionaire and former bodyguard of Salvador Allende, advocate a platform open to left and right. Marambio opposes negotiations with the Concertación, arguing that closeness to the coalition would tarnish MEO’s independent credentials. 

A pre-election dance  

The majority of Chileans believe that Sebastian Piñera is going to win the election.  Everyone I have spoken to from the Concertación has been downcast; convinced that Chile’s most successful coalition is fielding a losing candidate. If Piñera is victorious, he will be the first conservative since Jorge Alessandri in 1958 to win a presidential election in Chile. 

Michelle Bachelet, against her own wishes, has been obliged to throw her weight behind Frei. The first argument in the government’s twin-track line is the mantra - constantly repeated by president and ministers - “it is important who governs”. Bachelet’s 83-year-old mother Ángela Jeria, who acts as a kind of “first-mum”, has become a fixture of Frei’s campaign and several ministers have been openly campaigning for him “in their spare time”. But the company of the spritely Jeria has only served to underscore Frei’s own age. Bachelet’s own approval-rating reached 80% in October 2009, but none of this popular acclaim transfers to her putative successor.

The government’s second tack has been to try and reach out to the Communist vote. The Concertación has sealed an electoral alliance with the radical-left, which is unfairly excluded from parliament by Chile’s “first-two-past-the-post” electoral rules. The vote on 13 December should see at least one (and maybe two) Communists elected to congress for the first time since 1973. Bachelet has gone out of her way to woo the party: she invited members of the central committee to La Moneda, and on 5 December 2009 made a conspicuous appearance at the funeral of Victor Jara, the renowned musician tortured to death in 1973 and at last reburied. She knows that Communist votes tipped the balance in her own second-round win in 2005; Frei too needs them desperately.  

So, despite vying with the Concertación for Socialist “hearts”, Arrate - who was the official spokesman in Frei’s first government - may have a pivotal role to play in ensuring Frei’s election. His call for a “minimum agreement” between the three progressives to block Piñera in a second round is very welcome to Frei, but MEO scorns the proposal; he labels Arrate “Frei’s campaign manager”, calls Frei and Piñera “the same thing”, and attacks the former president for representing the Frei government’s demand that Augusto Pinochet be returned from British detention in 1998-2000. But if Frei does qualify for the second round, Marco will face enormous pressure - not least from his own family - to back him.

A suspense story

If the right does take the presidency, Chile will be going against the regional trend. The second round of elections in Uruguay on 29 November saw José Mujica, a former leftwing guerrilla who served fourteen years in prison, elected (with 52% of the vote) to take the helm from his cohort Tabaré Vázquez; and on 6 December, Evo Morales won a landslide victory in Bolivia (with 67%) to secure a second term in office. But if Piñera is victorious, it will owe more to the Concertación’s limitations than to the candidate’s positive appeal.  

Moreover, such an outcome is still a big “if”. The electoral arithmetic in Chile does not favour the right, and a lot can happen between now and January 2010. Indeed, I have no idea what the thrust of my next openDemocracy article will be. Will it be a requiem to the Concertación; an attempt to find something interesting to write about a second Eduardo Frei presidency; or even an account of how Chile, a country lauded for its political and economic stability and poised to join the OECD, decided to elect an untested 36-year-old with no party base? 

“The future is not written”, said Adolfo Suárez, the first head of government in Spain’s democratic transition. “Because only the people can write it”. Nowhere more than Chile, which - as someone else has said - always surprises.

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