Elections in Chile: a triumphing centre-left and a centre-right at the crossroads

If the Chilean centre-right is interested in surviving and continuing to be a relevant electoral force, it should hear those who promote ideological renovation and resist those who favour ideological entrenchment.

Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser
27 December 2013

Michelle Bachelet. Flickr/jose carvajal olguin. Some rights reserved.

As it was predicted by the polls, Michelle Bachelet won the recent presidential elections in Chile. She is an experienced politician, member of the Socialist Party and was President of the country between 2006 and 2010. Her comeback signifies the return of the centre-left coalition of parties that governed Chile between the reinstatement of democracy in 1990 and the triumph of Sebastián Piñera’s centre-right coalition in 2010.

Although it is true that Piñera will leave office with a good economic performance (during his administration the country has grown approx. 5 percent per year and unemployment has dropped to approximately 6 per cent), voters have an extremely bad image of his government. In other words, the economic performance of the country does not go hand in hand with the approval ratings of the president in office.

Evelyn Matthei, the main presidential candidate of the centre-right, obtained a meagre 25.03 of the vote in the first round and a 37.83 of the vote in the second round. In contrast, Michelle Bachelet, the principal presidential candidate of the centre-left, reached 46.7 per cent of the vote in the first round and a clear majority of 62.16 of the vote in the second round.

Crucially, in the parliamentary elections carried out concurrently with the first round of the presidential elections, the coalition of parties supporting Bachelet achieved very good results in the lower and upper chambers of the congress. In this way, the new government will have a clear majority in parliament to implement a tax and education reform, both of which constitute key aspects of Bachelet’s electoral promises.

How can we explain the massive defeat of the Chilean centre-right? Why didn't the good economic performance of the current government translate into a more positive electoral result for the centre-right parties? Many blame President Piñera’s communication strategy and others denounce the existent divisions within the centre-right coalition.

While the interpretations set forth are accurate, the main problem of the centre-right parties is programmatic. These political parties have not been able to adapt to a democratic Chile and they offer a perspective which is disconnected from the ideas and interests of the electorate. By now, it is an anachronism to strictly defend the neoliberal model imposed by the Pinochet regime and continue to oppose citizen demands for equity-enhancing reforms and a better functioning democracy. 

In many ways, Chile is a paradigmatic case of the fact that economic growth does not necessarily go hand in hand with better economic redistribution. Not coincidentally, voters have put forward demands for more limits to the free-market model and a stronger presence of the state in many policy areas as a mechanism to counteract inequality.

As the Latinobarometer surveys show, a majority of the citizenry assert that the free-market model is not the only system that can allow Chile to become a developed country. In addition, these surveys reveal that a majority of the Chilean electorate increasingly supports the idea that the state should be in charge of health, primary education and pensions. Finally, it is worth indicating that while in 1998 approximately 50 percent of the population was of the opinion that the privatisation of state companies has been beneficial to the country, today only 20 percent of the Chilean electorate share this idea.



Facing this tendency in public opinion, the Chilean centre-right has oscillated between a process of reluctant transformation and one of ideological entrenchment. For example, during the electoral campaign emblematic leaders of the Right argued that Bachelet’s agenda strives for the establishment of a socialist model in the country.

However, any reasonable analyst of Bachelet’s electoral promises soon realises that the aim behind the programme of the centre-left is to correct the neoliberal excesses and to gradually advance in instituting those universal rights that are characteristic of European societies. What many within the Chilean centre-right label “socialism” is nothing else that a set of public policies demanded by the citizenry and which have allowed European nations to combine economic prosperity with social equity.

By way of reference, the World Bank’s data reveal that Chile has a gross domestic product at purchasing power parity per capita of 21.310 USD (this is equivalent to a nominal gross domestic product per capita of 15.356 USD). Portugal is the poorest country in Western Europe and has a gross domestic product at purchasing power parity per capita of 24.770 USD (this is equivalent to a nominal gross domestic product per capita of 20.182 USD). Given that the economic prospects of the country are positive, Chile is very close to reach the same level of economic development than Portugal.

Nevertheless, economic inequality is much higher in Chile than in Portugal. Elisabeth Huber and John D. Stephens (“Democracy and the Left: Social Policy and Inequality in Latin America”, Chicago University Press, 2012) have demonstrated that this distance is explained by the implementation of different models of development: while deep neoliberal reforms have been undertaken in Chile, mild social-democratic reforms have been implemented in Portugal. Thus, the discussion about combining economic growth with more redistribution is one that the political establishment will have to address in the coming years.

Seen in this light, the Chilean centre-right is at the crossroads today. On the one hand, there are many who insist in opposing the demands of the electorate and argue that the public discontent with the development model is only a temporary phenomenon. On the other hand, not few have understood that the time has come to adapt to a new scenario and correct the shortcomings of the neoliberal model introduced by the military regime.

If the Chilean centre-right is interested in surviving and continuing to be a relevant electoral force, it should hear those who promote ideological renovation and resist those who favour ideological entrenchment. In fact, the low turnout of the recent elections (approximately 42 percent of the electorate in the second round) indicates that many voters do not feel represented by the existing programmatic offers.

There are plenty examples of centre-right parties in Latin America that have disappeared from the political space due to their incapacity to elaborate programmatic offers that represent large sections of society. The future of the Chilean centre-right will depend on its leaders’ capacity to promote ideological renovation and not so much on their ability to maintain a privileged access to the economic resources of those elites, who look with nostalgia at the years of Pinochet’s dictatorship.

To continue defending the free-market model by all means and impeding the reforms that seek to deepen democracy equates to rush towards the cliff. At the same time, the solution does not either relies on the rise of caudillos or technocrats, who believe to have enough charisma or intelligence to govern by themselves without investing energy in the construction of political parties. 

That said, the electoral collapse of the centre-right – would it continue to lose support – and the absolute hegemony of the centre-left is not something desirable, neither for Chile nor for Latin America. In fact, the parties supporting Bachelet, as well as many others Latin American centre-left parties, show clear signs of nepotism and have an alarming detachment from civil society.

A healthy democracy requires competition between political parties with programmatic offers that are attractive to the electorate. Moreover, the construction of stable democracies that are able to achieve economic progress depends on the existence of political parties with diverse ideological profiles, which represent the ideas and interests of the citizenry. The endemic instability of some Latin American nations is directly related to the absence of a stable party system.

In summary, the ideological renovation of the Chilean centre-right is a challenge not only for their own leaders and followers, but also for Chilean democracy. For the sake of the country and the upcoming government of Bachelet, we should hope that the centre-right will be open to undertake a process of modernisation and not follow, once again, the path of ideological entrenchment.

This article was originally published in Spanish at eldiaro.es

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