Chile’s Non-Eventful Presidential Runoff

• Of Latin America’s recent election slates, so far characterized by high profile triumphs for left leaning candidates in Venezuela and Bolivia, and strengthening populist movements in Peru and Mexico, Chile’s ballot is by far the least controversial and is not likely to result in sweeping changes.
• Current leader Michelle Bachelet, despite her formal Socialist affiliation, cannot be lumped with Morales, Humala or even López Obrador, as her political philosophies are unlikely to significantly differ from those of incumbent Ricardo Lagos, whose free market policies made him one of Washington’s favorite regional spear carriers and legates. As with Lagos, Bachelet’s differences from Washington will be more cosmetic than real.
• Bachelet’s predictably uninspiring policies, however, do not mean her possible ascendance lacks importance: her gender, free thinking religious orientation, and personal background combine to make her truly an aberration in controversy-averse Chile.
• The election coincides with an accelerating effort to prosecute former dictator General Augusto Pinochet, and while the question of Chile’s atrocity-strewn past has remained largely peripheral to the campaign, this Sunday’s victor will be forced to confront the country’s profoundly troubling modern history, both in court with Pinochet and in the legislature where reform is profoundly needed.

As Bolivia’s president-elect Evo Morales returns from a global tour where he hobnobbed with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, and Ollanta Humala gains momentum in Peru, it appears as though the Latin American election cycle is being marked by a pronounced turn leftwards of uncertain importance. One country not participating in this sea-change, however, is Chile. There, where a presidential runoff between Socialist Michelle Bachelet and center-right Sebastian Piñera remains slightly tilted in favor of the former, the shifts represented by this Sunday’s ballot cannot be seen as grand in scale, but rather subtle and complex.

What is not in play in Chile is the possibility of major policy shifts: Bachelet represents continuity with the popular but flawed Lagos government, and Piñera would be unlikely to make major changes to the country’s cautious economic strategy, which demonstrably favors the rich and upper middle classes. What intrigue does swirl around the election, arises from the prospect that the country is may install a president, in Bachelet, whose personal background would make her election a remarkable step forward for women and towards a resolution of the Pinochet dictatorship’s verminous legacy.

Runup to a Runoff

Early poll projections suggested that Bachelet might make history by winning an unheard of 50% plus majority in the first round of the election, thus eliminating the need of a runoff. Yet despite a crippling rift in the right wing opposition Alianza por Chile, which saw Piñera split from the more radical right wing candidate Joaquín Lavín, Bachelet and her Concertacion de Partidos por la Democrácia saw their aspirations trampled when she only managed to gain 45.9% of the vote on December 11. Notably, the two right wing candidates combined to tally 48.6%, with Piñera advancing to the runoff with 25.4%. Some blamed Bachelet’s poor showing on her lack of political experience, and on October’s presidential debate, which witnessed the last in a series of campaign misfirings and helped shave away her once commanding lead. With Lavín, and the left-wing Humanist Party candidate, Tomas Hirsch, now out of the picture, round two will bring a showdown between the two mega-personalities of Bachelet and Piñera. The former, a free thinking divorcee, who was tortured and later exiled under the Pinochet regime, and the latter a Harvard-educated economist, entrepreneur, and one of the country’s richest men.

Piñera, the dark horse in this election, was able to upset longtime conservative politician Lavín, after a initiating a controversial split among the right, yet was still able to attract enough support with his more moderate tone and respectable style to avoid handing Concertación an easy win. Though Bachelet is expected to capture Hirsch’s 5.4%, narrowly giving her the votes necessary to crown Chile’s first female president, current polls are contradictory, and the final result is certain to be tight.

Nevertheless, the Concertación’s showing in the legislative component of the December 11 general elections were weaker than desired, denying Bachelet the electoral backing for which she was hoping. Additionally, the defeats suffered by the most centrist party in the Concertación alliance – the Christian Democrats – have likely eroded the internal political coherence of the once strong bloc.

Contrasting Credentials
Even with Chile’s famed reputation as a conservative Catholic country marked by a divorce phobia against broken marriages, Bachelet’s credentials as a divorced mother with three children by two fathers, these have not seemed to damage her reputation, and she has still managed to achieve widespread popularity. Bachelet also has a personal history that gives her a unique credibility in a society that still hasn’t come to terms with its sordid past. She was the daughter of an Allende-allied military loyalist who was killed by the military regime upon its seizing power in 1973, during which she and her mother were also detained and tortured.

Bachelet has not run on a platform of the past, however, and instead has emphasized her approach to the country’s major problems involving poverty and inequality. Though she only has had five years of major governing experience under her political belt – serving as health minister under Lagos from 2000-2002 before being named defense minister – her appointment to the defense post defied the country’s deep seeded machista tendencies, while affording her considerable prominence.

On the right, Piñera has wedged himself to a more centrist position than Lavín (at least to a certain degree), attracting a surprising degree of support and defying Chile’s historical deep right-left divide. While holding to conservative ideals, he worked hard at distancing himself from the hard right, particularly on issues such as crime where he does not go as far as Lavín’s “mano dura” tough talk rhetoric. Furthermore, Piñera has often played on the fact that, while still a conservative, he distinguished himself from others in his camp with his well-known “no” vote in the 1989 referendum on continued Pinochet rule.

Far from a Domino
While Chile’s election is occurring in the midst of what at first glance appears to be a regional leftist political flowering, both run-off candidates share next to nothing with such figures as Hugo Chávez, Néstor Kirchner, Evo Morales, Ollanta Humala or Andres Manuel López Obrador. Bachelet has professed her allegiance to the Lagos economic program, an economic approach best described as trade über alles. And unlike her eastern neighbor Argentina, she supports IMF-backed policies which have bolstered the Chilean economy, although arguably at the expense of a significant percentage of the Chilean people. Needless to say, Bachelet has no ambitions for major structural reforms, and seems far more interested in assuring continuity than promoting change on these matters. Furthermore, Bachelet has little desire to marshal Chile into the Chávez-led bloc of nations which are standing up to Washington, and is almost certain to continue Lagos’ near servile relationship with the U.S., based on the tyranny of trade.

A Eddy in the Pink Tide
But while Chile will not join the leftward movement, it cannot avoid the implications of the continental shift. To this end, it is Bachelet who has expressed her willingness to work with other democratically-elected leaders such as Morales, although they may differ on policy specifics. She has commented that she respects the distinct visions emerging elsewhere, and notes that there is no reason “to transform Latin America into a cold war, where some are good and others bad.”

Piñera is somewhat less conciliatory, fretting that the current tendency towards populism and the left “can produce problems.” In the event that he triumphs, he will join Colombia’s Álvaro Uribe as the region’s only major center-right presidents, and even Uribe has expressed both a willingness to work with left-leaning counterparts and a meager but promising capability to defy the U.S. A Piñera presidency could fast find itself in a very lonely place if it could only count on the highly conditional friendship of Washington.

Chile’s Isolated Position in Latin America
Relations with the rest of South America may increase in importance in the months to come as well, making tact a crucial trait for the new Chilean president. Chile’s proverbial arrogance and smugness has done much to alienate some of its neighbors, while historical tensions with Bolivia and Peru could conceivably come to a head under populists Morales and Humala. Morales especially faces a domestic constituency which has been particularly vehement in its insistence that Chile return Bolivia’s sea access at the lost part of Antofagasta. On the campaign trail in Peru, Humala has flaunted heavy anti-Chilean rhetoric. If Piñera triumphs and proves standoffish with his northern neighbors, this could be particularly thorny for the region, but it remains to be seen if even Bachelet’s softer touch can assuage the hostility to be found throughout the Southern Cone nations. Particularly after Santiago triggered what could turn out to be a major arms race with Argentina, Peru, and Bolivia, now that the Chilean armed forces has been equipped with U.S. supplied F16 jets.

Crawling Forward
While Chile’s presidential election is not characterized by the sort of large scale structural transformations marking the new political landscape elsewhere in Latin America, nonetheless, a Bachelet victory would represent an important transition. The election of a female president signifies an important development in a society so conservative that divorce laws were only passed in 2004 after years of struggle and controversy. Bachelet does not limit herself to simply championing women’s rights, but has extend her support to marginalized sectors from all corners of Chile’s self-satisfied middle-class dominated society, proclaiming that her campaign represents “a society that is more modern and progressive.” Chile’s change, then, could be a cultural one, signaling a transforming role for women and greater cultural openness in this notoriously closed country.

Equally notable is the possibility that Bachelet represents an opportunity for the country to confront its past, a task which her predecessors have, out of expediency, managed to uncomfortably shove to the margins. As prosecution of former dictator General Augusto Pinochet gains steam – he was placed under house arrest in November – Bachelet may be able to bring about a reckoning with Pinochet’s stygian legacy. This could encompass both a social and political approach. In regards to the latter, the antiquated binomial Pinochet era electoral system, which effectively guarantees disproportionate representation for the right, would require a 2/3 legislative majority to initiate the reforms necessary to overhaul it, a number which thus far has been unattainable. And while Bachelet would, like her predecessors, lack that majority, she may be able to be more aggressive in pushing for reform. And as many have pointed out, the new president will almost certainly have the task of determining how to officially manage the question of Pinochet’s disposal – both his body and his legacy – after his death, since the now 90-year old General appears unlikely to survive another six years.

Change of a Different Color
While neither Bachelet nor Piñera are in the position to begin their celebrations until the election on January 15, what is clear is that with either candidate Washington will be able to rest easy knowing that Chile’s next president will not be another thorn in the side of the Bush administration, but rather being one more in a line of Chilean presidents who are docilely willing to carry the U.S.’ tattered banner in the region. While a Bachelet victory will certainly not represent anything like the dramatic social upheaval of a Morales or Humala triumph, it would have great symbolic importance both for the advancement of women in a traditionally closed society and potentially for the country’s ability to confront its troubled past.