Chile’s political turn

The result of Chile’s presidential election reflects less the achievement of the rightwing candidate than the failure of the centre-left coalition, says Justin Vogler.
Justin Vogler
20 January 2010

The news that the rightwing multimillionaire Sebastián Piñera had won Chile’s presidential runoff on 17 January 2010 with 51.6% of the vote left the centre-left Concertación coalition reeling. The coalition had performed poorly in the first round of elections on 13 December 2009, yet few among its supporters really believed that their candidate, Eduardo Frei - a dour Christian Democrat (DC) and Chile’s president in 1994-2000 - could actually lose (see “Chile’s inheritance struggle”, 8 December 2009).

The thousands of Sebastián Piñera’s supporters who poured into the centre of Santiago flushed with exhilaration seemed equally stunned. The victorious Piñera, flanked by his family, bathed in the vocabulary of democratic triumphalism long the exclusive domain of his rivals. “Today”, he boomed, “a strong clear majority of free men and women have opted for change, for future and for hope”. The exuberant, flag-waving “generation of Chile’s bicentenary” were entranced. For both victors and losers, something monumental was happening in Chilean politics.

The sense of a historic shift is inescapable. Sebastián Piñera is the first Chilean conservative to win a presidential election since 1958, and the first rightwinger ever to gain the 50% of the popular vote now necessary to win the presidency. Such an outcome - that the hugely popular and charismatic incumbent, Michelle Bachelet, would have to pass the presidential sash to a political opponent - had appeared inconceivable until virtually the moment of Piñera’s triumph. The Concertación - which had dominated Chilean politics since winning the no vote in the 1988 plebiscite on the rule of Augusto Pinochet - had never lost an election. The no camp had for two decades remained Chile’s silent majority, the camp - economically powerful but politically stigmatised - its resentful minority. When Eduardo Frei conceded defeat at 6.30pm on 17 January, Chile became a different country.

The wrong candidate  

How did the right do it - and how did Latin America’s most successful governing coalition come to this? Sebastián Piñera ran a good campaign and avoided mistakes. He followed the formula of conservative populists across the world by making seductive promises: “a strong hand against crime”, a “million jobs”, and spectacular economic growth, garnished with (often spurious) stories of his rise from rags to riches. Moreover, the alliance of his neo-liberal Renovación Nacional (RN), and the ultra-conservative Unión Democratica Independiente (UDI) kept its infighting private.

But for all Piñera’s efforts, he gained only 51.6% of the votes (against 48.3% for Frei), and in numerical terms only a few more votes in the second round than his coalition partner Joaquin Lavin received when losing to the Concertación’s Ricardo Lagos in 2000. A vital factor here is that nearly 200,000 citizens spoiled their ballots, and thousands more Chileans ignored compulsory voting laws and stayed away from the polls.

Some in the Concertación will blame the maverick independent Marco Enriquez Ominami (MEO), who won 20% of the vote in the first round. The second-round contest saw both camps frantically courting MEO’s voters and lobbying his advisors in search of his endorsement. Ominami insisted until almost the last moment that Piñera and Frei were “the same thing” before conceding that he would vote for Frei (without mentioning the candidate by name).

But the MEO issue is a ultimately a distraction, since most Concertacionistas accept that the nomination of the pious, lacklustre Eduardo Frei was from the start a huge mistake. The process by which he was eventually nominated was itself a circus. The real contest for the prize took place in 2008 between three Concertación grandees (Ricardo Lagos, José Miguel Insulza and Frei), and was won by Frei partly because it was the Christian Democrats’ turn and partly because Lagos and Insulza realised that without popular backing the nomination was a poisoned chalice. In April 2009, a sham primary was staged, from which MEO and others were excluded and which showed no attention to opinion-poll signals.

What Chileans saw, and what they rejected in the election, was a Concertación reduced to a clientilist network organised to divide the spoils of government. MEO understood this and his call for all the Concertación chiefs to resign struck a chord. Michelle Bachelet’s popular spokeswoman Carolina Tohá, drafted in as Frei’s campaign manager for the second round, summarised the lesson after the defeat: “This society requires more participation, more accountability, more transparency. We did it correctly in government. What was lacking was to apply these same standards to the way we did politics”.

Michelle Bachelet’s election in January 2006 marked a “before-and-after” in Chilean politics. Frei was part of “the before”; failure to understand this has led the Concertación to the edge of a cliff. The candidate in the 2009-10 election was weak, the campaign shoddy and the team torn by internal conflicts. Thus in the end the election was won by default because the Concertación self-destructed.

Frei himself accepted defeat by calling on the “centre-left” to “maintain the unity we have achieved” and treat this as nothing more than a temporary “glitch in our path”. This looks unlikely. The alliance of Christian Democrats, Radicals and Socialists has always been a tense marriage held together by a mutual loathing of Augusto Pinochet (now dead) and avarice for power (now lost).  Even before the Frei debacle there were signs, the formation of splinter-groups to left and right among them, that the union was shattering. Carolina Tohá promises “reform and renovation”; but released from the discipline imposed by power, there is every possibility that the alliance will implode amid insults and recriminations.

The Concertación’s fate seems now to rest with two people who have conflicting interests. The first is Michelle Bachelet. If she is to make a presidential bid in 2014 she needs the alliance to hold; and she may be the only person capable of creating unity. The second is Marco Enriquez Ominami, the 36-year-old upstart who forged his political career denouncing the Concertación elites and baiting Catholic conservatives in the DC. His best chance of prevailing in 2014 is precisely if the Concertación breaks and progressives realign behind him.  

The right in power

Sebastián Piñera’s election has met with rumblings in the international press about the return of Pinochetism to Chile, a case illustrated by pictures of one delirious supporter waving a bust of the general. It’s true that the victor’s estranged brother was a minister during the dictatorship and many of his coalition partners in the UDI were Pinochet cohorts; and Piñera will have to reward the UDI’s support with key government posts. But Piñera was (famously) among those who voted against the dictatorship in 1989, and he knows that any association with Chile’s dictatorial past will damage his image externally and create huge problems internally.

Besides, most public figures who were prominent in the Pinochet era are now dead or retired (or occupying safe parliamentary seats). There is a convincing argument too that the democratic election of a rightwinger actually signals the end of Chile’s drawn-out transition to consolidated democracy. The tortured political cycle that opened with the military coup of 11 September 1973 that brought Pinochet to power may, in this view, at last be completed.

More plausible than the case that the election heralds the return of Pinochetism in new form is the view of Piñera - an airline magnate who also owns a television station - as Chile’s equivalent of Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Chileans traditionally prefer their presidents to be austere, and Piñera has already been obliged to counter criticism that his personal fortune makes him unsuitable for the post; and his promise to confine his financial interests to a blind trust does little to defray suspicions that he funded his own lavish campaign and that his interests are indelibly aligned to those of the super-rich.

In policy terms, two things can be expected from a Piñera presidency. The first is a retreat from Bachelet’s nascent social democracy towards a form of Thatcherite individualism. Piñera may have declared in his victory speech that “we will be a government that fortifies and extends the network of social protection”, but what followed felt like a rare admission of true intent: “But  I want to say with great clarity that we will be a lot more content when a Chilean pulls himself up by his own merits and efforts”.

The second is chaos in Chile’s public sector. The Chilean president has exclusive power to name 1,306 ministers and top civil servants, who in turn nominate hundreds of department heads and aides. This means that the Concertación cadres who have run the state machinery for two decades will be clearing their desks and making way for Piñera technocrats unfamiliar with public administration. This will particularly hit the foreign service where ambassadors are appointed by the president and key embassies are prized electoral booty. To add to the problem, the Chilean right has few contacts in a region increasingly dominated by the progressive left, and (Colombia’s Álvaro Uribe apart) fewer friends.

Michelle Bachelet’s great achievement in Latin America’s politics and diplomacy makes it hard for many in the region and beyond to understand why Chile is now swimming against the regional tide. The answer is that in reality the right did little to win the election; rather, the Concertación got complacent and threw power away. As a result, a new phase in Chile’s political history opens.


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