Chile: A Fading Concertación on the Road to Losing the Presidency?

– The Concertación has never lost a ballot since 1999
– The coalition’s model is threatened by internal squabbles and an increasingly well-organized right wing movement
– An ill-portent for the moderate left throughout the continent?

Local Elections May Foreshadow Presidential Ballot

As the campaign for Chile’s December presidential elections now starts revving up, the ruling center-left coalition La Concertación finds itself in a very difficult position. Although the country’s economic situation is comparatively not that bad, it is now being adversely affected by a downward commodity market, the ruling coalition now seems to be incapable of presenting and defending a clear presidential profile, not to mention a compelling candidate. Meanwhile, the right-wing Alianza coalition, headed by Sebastián Piñera, is in a perfect position to win its first presidential ballot since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990.

In the middle of a crisis in the area of political representation and a huge controversy over President Bachelet’s approaching visit to Cuba in February, La Concertación is plummeting in credibility. The public is exhibiting skepticism over the coalition’s electoral model and is clamoring for political change. In April, the center-left movement will organize its first primary elections, provoked by profound disagreements between its ranking titans. There is today a risk of an acceleration of the disintegration of the coalition which historically has been based on a firm base of interparty agreements. Moreover, one can observe a significant shift in Chilean politics and a newly reformulated public opinion that is focused more on personalities than positions, while neglecting the traditional identification with political parties and an increasing amount of internal stress.

The Bachelet Era
During Bachelet’s term, Chile has strengthened its status as a ranking regional power as well as possessing a strong and stable economy. However, it seems that the Chileans do not consider the good economic health of the country as a sufficient reason to remain loyal to the ruling coalition. The first setback for the government was last October’s local elections in which La Alianza won several key cities and sent a deafening challenge, one year before scheduled presidential elections. The pressure put on La Concertación before the October elections was enormous. Weeks before the ballot, the media pointed out the lack of unity within the coalition and prophesied the first Concertación electoral failure in its relatively brief history. It has been maintained that with local elections being but a first step to the presidential ballot, the results of October’s elections would be a sobering clue for anticipating those of the pending 2009 ballot. It is important to remember that local elections may only portray particular electoral attitudes linked to specific set of expectations. Thus, it may be somewhat difficult to accurately extrapolate the total significance of a local vote in order to be able to predict the presence of a national trend. However, October’s ballot results ran so clearly against Concertación’s prospects that the government had to acknowledge the widespread popular discontent being registered through the country.

The Internal Implosion
After the Autumn electoral turbulences, January witnessed new divisions within the ruling coalition. First, the government introduced an important electoral reform aimed at ending the mandatory vote and implementing the automatic voting list registration. The government considered this to be a key project. It first gained Senate approval on January 5, but was never able to be moved over the measure to the lower chamber. The reform might have had a profound impact on Chilean politics as it would have, if successful, registered 3.8 million new voters. The Chilean deputies, however, expressed concern about the uncertainty of the voting patterns of the new voters and the effect that they might have on the overall balloting. One can observe here that the lack of sufficient dialogue and internal coherence at a crucial juncture within the ruling coalition became a decisive determinant. Eventually, enough deputies from Concertación switched over to the opposition to force the withdrawal of the proposed reform. Moreover, the reform seemed at first to be a step towards wider popular participation in the electoral process and more effective representation, but as the debate got stuck in political bickering, this no longer seemed to be the case.

Bachelet’s Visit to Havana
President Bachelet’s visit to Cuba further sharpened the divisions within the coalition. Chile was to be the honored guest of the Havana International Book Fair which was taking place this February. Santiago then announced last August that an official delegation would be coming, led by the President herself. The visit would represent an immense political symbol in Chile since it would be the first presidential trip to Cuba since thirty-seven years before, when President Allende had made the journey. The proposed trip drew harsh criticism from the Chilean media and much of the political community, including some Concertación members.

The Christian Democratic Party (PDC) declared it would not participate in the trip as long as President Bachelet continued to refuse meeting with Cuban dissidents on the island. These attacks quickly reveal how much the visit was being used as a pretext by the PDC to directly weaken Bachelet’s position and demonstrated how poisonous the political climate had been fouled within the coalition. One could argue that ignoring the dissidence would represent an aberration for Concertación’s political ideals, which had emerged over the years in response to the ongoing brutalities of the Pinochet dictatorship, yet the coalition was just too concentrated at the time on its own internal quarrels to realize the external consequences such developments might have on the upcoming elections.

The Piñera Model?
Concertación’s simmering internal battles led to the present situation. The Concertación is about to implode as the struggle for the presidency reaches a high tempo, with individual aspirations eclipsing the common grounds, to a degree that the center-left coalition has become a toxic alliance. Yet, this invidious personalization of ambitions which is now being witnessed is not peculiar to the Concertación. It echoes throughout Chilean society, especially since the country’s right wing leader, Sebastián Piñera, has emerged as perhaps the most formidable political figure in the country. His strategy is based on his absolute control of Alianza and possesses a relentless will to change the image of the political right in a country where ‘’right-wing’’ has rimed with Pinochet.

In order not to repeat his ignominious 2005 defeat, Piñera has concentrated his efforts on rallying not only the center right but also those who are showing disappointment with Concertación’s performance. Thus, there is a deep fissure occurring in the Chilean political landscape which poses a major threat for the left-leaning coalition. Piñera, a billionaire businessman, enjoyed an amazingly active year in 2008, launching his presidential campaign while he was leading the Alianza to victory in local elections. One of the greatest mistakes attributable to Concertación was not to realize the huge stake the local elections epitomized as a crucial formative step in the latter’s presidential campaign.

Piñera the Formidable
Piñera has played well in mixing the issues, morphing local concerns into national headlines and provoking a rejection of the very genetic structure of the Concertación. A January 2009 Market & Opinion Research International (MORI) investigation of the tendencies at work in the presidential ballot points out the fact that Piñera has enjoyed an image of irrepressible success during the past year. The surveys reveal he has a popular backing of 49% of all Chileans, who say that Piñera most emphatically represents their ideas versus 20% for Christian Democratic candidate Eduardo Frei. Yet, another consequence of this personalization of issues and candidates is that it also feeds a novel stream of populism, something unusual in a heavily structured country like Chile. For example, the president of the Senate, Adolfo Zaldívar, running for the leftist Regionalist Party of the Independents (PRI), declared that he would be ‘’the candidate of the people,’’ denouncing both Frei and Piñera as ‘’symbols of centralization and concentration of wealth’’ (Mercurio).

Besides the classic Latin American rhetoric, there are echoes of the prevailing winds of crisis regarding representational matters which affect Chile today. According to the MORI survey, 48 percent of those polled think that today there is no candidate who effectively represents their ideas. For several months now, the Concertación has not been able to effectively counter this lack of enthusiasm despite its wide and pluralistic base. Actually, the wholesale rejection of political figures in Chile today is one of the explanations for the multiplication of presidential candidates in the country, as well as one of the core destabilizing factors today operating in the coalition. As long as it is unable to propose a common message, people are turning away from what they see as the build-out of chaos in Concertación. In their stead some are now favoring more individual initiatives, making the coalition’s model less relevant. Associated with this development is the growing buzz newly going through Chilean political circles in favor of Heraldo Muñoz, the country’s ambassador to the UN and one of the most remarkable individuals in Chilean public life since the Allende era. Muñoz possesses a hugely favorable reputation for being a high-minded and ethical figure who does not pander to the nation’s power zones, so easily found in Santiago’s political circles. As a socialist, his eminent worthiness has tended to be drowned out by fellow socialist José Miguel Insulza, whose personal ambition was more than enough to dwarf the far-less self serving ambassador to the UN.

An Opportunity for Change
Beside from the current stormy political climate in Chile, one might argue that Concertación is just facing the normal amount of stress known to a democratic process, and which is currently involved in a battle for the alternation of power.After ruling the country for almost twenty years, there may well be a popular will for change existing in the nation. Moreover, the Concertación was the symbol of a democratic-presence in a post-Pinochet period, which presented itself as the guarantor of democracy and transparency. It could be time for Chile to end with this patently successful, but transitional period. The victory of Michelle Bachelet in 2005 symbolized a huge transformation for Chilean society. Bachelet represented a new generation and as a modern woman, a symbol of change. It is all the more disappointing to observe that today, only four years after her election, her impact on Concertación has been far less positive or dominant, because she, like Heraldo Muñoz, remains a person of enormous merit.

The venerable figures of the coalition like Ricardo Lagos (Socialist Party), Eduardo Frei (Christian-Democrat Party) or José Insulza (Socialist Party) are still running Concertación and there is no sign of new candidates with the necessary quality emerging. Muñoz could be this person if he took a careful inventory of its talent bank. Those figures who are now being heard from, seem to be fighting more for personal positions within the coalition than to help make it evolve. They are at the core of all of the internal fights which are weakening the movement and therefore opening the way to an effortless waltz to the presidency for Piñera and the right. It is regrettable that these experienced figures of the moderate left did not realize in sufficient time the need for change within the Concertación. After the ‘’Bachelet storm’’ in 2005, the crisis inside the coalition has brought back all of its historical leaders on the stage. As long as there is no internal renovation that has taken place, it should be expected that the most effective response would have to come from outside the party or from random individuals, rather than from a collective point of view. If the matter ever occurred to him, here is where Muñoz could have his opportunity.

Concertación Running Out Of Steam
But as has been said, the bad stretch for Concertación is not necessarily a negative blow for Chile and for the left in particular. First, it cannot be certain that the coalition will not win the next elections. According to MORI, the struggle is likely to be extremely tough between right and left. The tensions then could create a new dynamic that would encourage the different parties to propose new projects and innovative alliances, and add a broadness of space and influence to the Concertación, or even possibly diversify the local political landscape. Jorge Arrate, a historical leader of the Socialist Party, recently quit his post in order to present an independent project, outside the formal structure of Concertación. He declared that the coalition is ‘’exhausted’’ and its ‘’cycle is over.’’ Moreover, Arrate gathered with the Communist Party in order to present “a real candidate from the left.” The opposition to the Concertación and its Socialist figures is at the core of his action. The Socialist Party has become the most influential trend maker within the coalition. Lagos and Bachelet, both socialists, served as presidents since 2000.

The withdrawal of Arrate from the direction of the Party looks more and more like secession, dislocating the coalition even further. In a meeting on January 27, Arrate and his supporters, mostly from the Communist Party, declared that they would be “the great triumphants” in December. Yet, they nuanced their action by declaring that they “would consider an alliance with the Concertación for the parliamentary ballot, since the real enemy is the right.” Even though Arrate is trying to “serve two masters,” the coalition cannot be more divided than today, as every trend is presenting its own presidential project. On the other hand, the Christian Democrats are trying to avoid primaries by any means, even by urging Radical Party member José Gomez to withdraw from the race. The huge ideological confrontation that is going on among leftist leaders is undermining any possible call for unity.

There well could be a need for a transformation. The Concertación was able to provide a strong and stable base for the left as long as its coalition system was able to effectively function. The spread of personal initiatives might and did end up in a wider political chaos, giving power to contending factions, which is often the case in Latin American schisms. Chile is a reference point for the continent and it needs to keep on assuming its regional role for the area’s political system to work. Moreover, after the successes of different leftist parties which began to be recorded in all over the hemisphere in this decade, the fall of the coalition in Chile could be a signal for the region and its leaders that stagnation has its price.

La Concertación has been committed to achieving social justice through economic development, leading Chile to a very enviable position, not only in the continent but also on the international stage. Although Chileans might consider that the Concertación has worked well, its time is now over. Whichever party wins the next elections, it will witness a process going on in Chile that cannot be immediately reversed. This is the peculiar situation of Concertación: it is being criticized and most likely will be defeated even though it has had one of the best systems of checks and balances in the hemisphere. It is likely that the next few months will be crucial in order to convince its former backers that this inheritance is not only valuable, but deserves to be preserved, and that it still contains the necessary maturity to evolve in order to reach their expectations. But time is running out, the right seems to be in an advantageous position to defeat the so-called Concertación, unless the organization is able to effectively manage its own self-seeking components.

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