Chile elections: why progressives will not win

Chilean progressives have achieved great cultural victories but are politically fragmented. Their crisis is deeper than it seems. And solutions are not just around the corner. Español

Claudio Fuentes Saavedra
18 October 2017
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Photo courtesy of Nueva Sociedad. All rights reserved. This article is being published as part of the partnership between Nueva Sociedad and democraciaAbierta. You can read the original article here.

The apparent fragmentation of Chilean progressives before the elections of November 19 is truly paradoxical. This is happening after a four-year government led by Michelle Bachelet, who was elected President for the second time in 2013 with the most progressive programme ever written or imagined by a center-left coalition since the return to democracy in 1990.

That second victory of hers came after the four parties that make up the Coalition of Parties for Democracy (the Party for Democracy, the Socialist Party, the Christian Democratic Party and the Democratic Socialist Radical Party) included in their coalition the Communist Party. The New Majority was thus established. After the victory at the polls, it was expected that the new government would significantly advance a progressive agenda. The coalition won 20 out of 28 senators (53%) and 67 out of 120 representatives (56%). If we add the leftwing independents, the totals were 55% and 58% respectively. As for the Presidency, Michelle Bachelet got 46.7% of the votes in the first round, and an overwhelming 62% in the second round. 

But soon enough, a split surfaced within the ruling coalition. Some sectors at the conservative end began demanding more market-friendly economic policies, a more gradual approach in general and a more aggressive agenda on growth. Others, at the other end, demanded a speeding-up of the transformative impulses. These divisions caused abrupt Cabinet reshuffles, the postponement of some projects, and tensions between the coalition parties. The institutional changes included in the government’s agenda were, among others, changing the electoral system to a more proportional one, reforming primary and secondary education, establishing free university education for the poorest sectors of society, decriminalizing three cases of abortion, establishing affirmative action for women in electoral competition, and starting a process to establish a new Constitution. 

The political fragmentation of the center-left has been all too evident

But the political fragmentation of the center-left has been all too evident. In fact, this will be the very first time since the return to democracy that the coalition’s Left and the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) will present different presidential candidatse. Independent Senator Alejandro Guillier will run for the Party for Democracy (PPD), the Socialist Party (PS), the Socialist Radical Party (PRSD) and the Communist Party (PC) and Senator Carolina Goic will run for the PDC. The coalition has also failed to set up a coordinated electoral list for the parliamentary elections, which has meant that the PDC will be competing in alliance with Citizen Alliance and the Broad Social Movement, two minor parties within the coalition. In addition, there are four other presidential candidates from the Left: Beatriz Sánchez for the Broad Front, Marco Enríquez Ominami for the Progressive Party, Alejandro Navarro for the Party País, and Eduardo Artés for the Patriotic Union.

The latest polls give a clear advantage in the first round for former President Sebastián Piñera (40-45%, depending on the poll), followed by Alejandro Guillier (16-22%), Beatriz Sánchez (12-19%) and Carolina Goic (3-5%). A closer result is to be expected at the second round, particularly if the contestants are Piñera and Guillier, and a victory for the former.

Ironically, the voters’ preferences for the centre-left are identical to those for the Right, but we know that those preferences just cannot be added. Given the cohesion of the Right around the figure of former President Piñera and the fragmentation of the centre-left into six candidacies, the most likely outcome is that President Bachelet will end up her term, for the second time, handing over the presidential sash to a leader from the Right. 

But how are we to explain why a cultural triumph that has moved the country’s agenda on issues of equality, rights and redistribution does not translate into a unitary progressive political project?

But how are we to explain why a cultural triumph that has moved the country’s agenda on issues of equality, rights and redistribution does not translate into a unitary progressive political project?

The answer has to do with three aspects. First, the inability of the parties to renew their practices, institutions and discourses. The social and institutional transformations have not had, as a counterpart, a change in the practices and the leadership of the traditional political parties – even less so in the parties of the Left. And the allegations of corruption involving all of the parties - except the PC and the emerging Broad Front – have increased the gap between citizenship and a political class that is perceived to be abusing their privileges. The expression "old politics" refers precisely to this issue: political actors who maintain practices which favour agreements at the top and preserve their share of power. Traditional parties keep on relying rely on their traditional leadership and do not generate a new political breed which could bring in a different view of politics. 

In Chile, progressivism has not produced an emerging alternative force as in other countries. At the 2009 elections, a presidential candidate, Marco Enríquez-Ominami - a former Socialist who managed to position himself in third place – created some hope but subsequently became mired in allegations of illegal financing. This time, what is new is the Broad Front which groups more than a dozen movements and emerging parties opposing neoliberalism. However, this grouping lacks a powerful nationwide territorial basis, and so it their electoral impact is likely to be limited, although it will probably win more than the three representatives it currently has. 

The third aspect has to do with programme. Today, Chilean progressivism is composed of three seemingly irreconcilable elements: a "humanistic-Christian" one, which is heir to the 1960s reformism, a "traditional social democratic" one, heir to the 1980s Socialist renewal, and an "anti-neoliberal" one, that questions the foundations of the development model and its institutional foundations. The great contradiction of the present time is the ability of progressivism to promote a transformative agenda and its inability to turn this into a coordinated political option capable of leading the voters’ preferences. 

The fragmentation produced among those same transformative forces is its great defeat

Since no party on the Left has been able to become a majority option, the only choice to promote political change is by forming government coalitions. This raises an essential question: is it feasible today to set up a cooperative framework of the different progressive worlds? The current political fragmentation and the different actors’ programmatic ambiguities make this scenario unlikely. Several critical leaders – from the Broad Front, for example– are unwilling to participate in a coalition with the more moderate sectors of the Left and political centre. At the same time, several PDC leaders argue that they would not form again an alliance with the PC. The trends currently predominating are for each party to seek its "own way", increase its vote flow and access power in the future.

To this should be added a framework of decreasing voter turnout due to the introduction of the voluntary vote. With less than 50% turnout rates, the parties have defined very limited electoral niches, where the lower socio-economic sectors no longer participate. Representative institutions are losing their value and streets– the stage for protests– are becoming the most effective mechanism to obtain social benefits. This political logic deepens inequalities to the extent that the groups which are capable of organizing can influence the political process more effectively than others. The poor, the indigenous peoples, the immigrants, the children and the old become sectors excluded from society and lacking political representation. 

The scenario is not promising for progressivism, for division takes precedence over agreement, and fragmentation over the building of social majorities, and dogmatism over strategic-electoral considerations for accessing power. The need to transform the foundations on which the neoliberal model was founded in Chile is the great cultural success of progressivism. The fragmentation produced among those same transformative forces is its great defeat.

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