Chile’s Winds of Change: The Real Thing or The Most Discreet of Nudges

On December 13th, Chilean billionaire and rightwing candidate of the newly formed “Coalition for Change,” Sebastian Piñera, won a striking plurality of 44%. The modestly center-left Concertación candidate Eduardo Frei won 29% of the vote, forcing a runoff slated for January 17th. Since replacing the country’s brutal military dictator Augusto Pinochet through a national referendum in 1988, Chile’s center-left coalition, La Concertación, has achieved significant progress on both social and economic fronts, reducing Chile’s poverty rate from over 40% to approximately 15%, while boasting the region’s most impressive growth tempo since 1990.

When considered in the context of La Concertación’s well-documented success, the state of the current presidential elections is somewhat surprising. The nation’s current Concertación coalition president, Michelle Bachelet, has an approval rating of 81% as she approaches the end of her term. However, Concertación’s present candidate and former president, Eduardo Frei-Ruiz Tagle, has failed to ride the surge of Bachelet’s popular support and galvanize the now-fractured Concertación after Socialist party candidate Marco Enriquez-Ominami (MEO) split from the coalition in September to run as an independent.

According to the most recent opinion poll, Piñera, has a one point lead over rival Eduardo Frei heading into Sunday’s runoff election, down from the six point advantage reported on Monday by Opina S.A. As Piñera increasingly hinges his campaign rhetoric on the promise of change, the question arises: what improvements do Chileans hope to bring about by electing the first rightwing president in over 50 years, and what do they have in mind? Although La Concertación has failed to modernize Chile’s profoundly unequal education system and effectively combat crime and narco-trafficking, its twenty-year rule has been generally marked by impressive GDP growth, and a successful series of social reforms. A swing to the right would bring a new approach to these pressing issues, but it would come at a high price for the quality and quantity of Chilean democracy.

Chile’s dictatorial past still stings for a large sector of voters, including Bachelet, who was tortured under the Pinochet regime and refused him a state burial. Moreover, Concertación candidate Sen. Eduardo Frei’s father, also a former president, is widely believed to have died at the hands of Pinochet’s secret police, the DINA. What separates Pinochet from the majority of recent military dictators in Latin America is the malignant specter of his influence that continues to linger over certain power-wielding sectors of the Chilean oligarchy. Many Chileans respect, even venerate him, if only for his one-sided development model, whose role they falsely credit or at least exaggerate in saving the republic from economic collapse. La Concertación has largely continued the neoliberal policies responsible for the rapid economic growth generated by Pinochet’s U.S.-trained economic team, the Chicago Boys, while increasing the social spending necessary to combat the resulting spike in economic inequality, which continues to grow to this date. The economic policies of La Concertación have appeased many moderate voters, but recently the coalition has been perceived by the electorate as running out of dynamic solutions the republic’s most persistent problems.

Moving On

The results from the first round of elections may signal that Chile’s anxiety over electing a conservative president has largely diminished, even one whose brother served as Pinochet’s labor minister, orchestrating pension reforms under the regime. Piñera has stated to the Sunday Telegraph that, “I was against Pinochet,” and insisted that, “I’ve always reinforced my commitment towards democracy and human rights. Now is the time to look ahead and innovate and reform the government, and obviously to fight against inequality.” Nevertheless, he kept silent during the years of the dictatorship while building his fortune, quietly exploiting to the hilt the fruits derived from the oppression of labor rights pursued by Pinochet throughout his reign. During the only debate between the two candidates on January 12th, Eduardo Frei was quick to question Piñera’s sincerity on the issue, pointing out that he supported amnesty for those who had committed or covered up abuses under Pinochet. Frei continued that, if the proposal had gone through, his father’s death would never have been investigated.

A Nation Divided

Examples such as these highlight the divisions still present in Chile stemming from the overthrow of socialist president Salvador Allende and the ensuing exceedingly brutal military dictatorship. Margot Charles, a Chilean university professor interviewed by COHA, pointedly declared, “A vote for Piñera is a vote for Pinochet.” Although Piñera is unlikely to replicate the harsh political and social oppression under Pinochet, once in office, the political rhetoric aimed at garnering support from the left is likely to end, and he will return to his native policies in the hopes of appeasing his conservative base. Most troubling for many moderates is the presence of the UDI party, one that represents the most entrenched elite and the incorporation of the radical conservative interests.

Young people are clearly the most skeptical of Piñera, and although they were somewhat invigorated by the campaign of upstart independent Marco Enríquez-Ominami, they still did not come out in sufficient force in the first round of elections. Many seem poised to abstain or cast a null vote rather than support the old-world politico Eduardo Frei in the second round. Luis Zapata, a recent college graduate interviewed by COHA, reiterated that electoral apathy is nothing new among youths. In this case, he believes, it represents disillusionment with the democratic model now in effect, seen as furthering the interests of few, while marginalizing the needs of the many. Equally disconcerting for Chileans is the prospect of re-opening dictator-era wounds by appointing Pinochista cronies to prominent cabinet positions, something Piñera has pledged not to do. Regardless of political qualifications or a given individual’s prominence, any reminder of the brutal past couldn’t possibly benefit Chilean democracy.

In Search of an Attractive Candidate

Marco Enríquez-Ominami garnered a record 20% of the vote in the first round of elections as an independent socialist candidate. However, last September, he split from La Concertación after relations with party officials turned bitter over their refusal to conduct a referendum, allowing him to compete with Frei head on, despite being identified by virtually all opinion polls as favored in a run-off against Piñera. He is seen as being the linchpin to the second round of elections, with his supporters constituting what will surely become the deciding cohort of votes in the runoff. On January 13th he finally endorsed Frei publicly after erroneous speculation spread that he might remain neutral. He announced that, “Given the uncertainty that the right could block Chile’s march toward the future, it is my responsibility to contribute what I can so it doesn’t happen,” representing an indictment of the right more than a vibrant endorsement of the left. This theme was also present in MEO’s former political coordinator, Esteban Valenzuela’s, endorsement of Frei, who qualified his decision to support the former president by telling the conservative daily, El Mercurio, “the polls imply being pragmatic and opting to vote for that which is not ideal but closer to my political ideas: therefore, I am going to vote for Frei”. This indifference towards Frei has contributed to the reported 7% of voters who plan to make theirs into a protest vote. Conversely, Paul Fontaine, a close economic advisor to Enríquez-Ominami, has joined Piñera’s staff, and esteemed columnist, political scientist, and close Enríquez-Ominami supporter, Patricio Navia, recently made his endorsement of Piñera public. Although Enríquez-Ominami’s endorsement will give Frei a forward bump in this Sunday’s runoff, his ambiguous attitude thus far has clearly demonstrated to the public that Frei is not a candidate he enthusiastically supports.

Running Out of Steam

MEO’s rise in popularity and Frei’s slide can be directly linked to the disillusionment of a large sector of the La Concertación constituency and Chile’s left-leaning sector of the population, who feel the country is in need of a change. They view La Concertación as stagnant and lacking innovative ideas just when the country needs them most. Piñera has done well to capitalize on the perceived sluggishness of La Concertación and Frei’s lack of energy and charisma. While giving a speech at Santiago’s Catholic University, which served as the hotbed for the Pinochet era’s economic development decisions, Piñera claimed that, “Chileans know in their hearts that a long, long time ago, Concertación ran out of steam,” and that “the era of Concertación has passed.” He has endeavored to portray a more innovative and energized approach than rival Eduardo Frei, and a more experience-driven approach to substantive change than would have been implemented by the 36-year-old Enríquez-Ominami. He flaunted his business credentials and worked his charm to convince many voters that he is the only candidate able to both create new jobs (he promises a million of them over the next four years), while maintaining Bachelet’s more socially progressive policies, which are the core of her appeal. By wooing Mr. Fontaine, Piñera hopes to convince the electorate that his economic policy will not merely benefit the upper class, but also extend more opportunities to the middle and lower classes.

Misplaced Hope

Nevertheless, success in the boardroom will not necessarily ensure success in La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace. Piñera’s billions were made through timely investments, not the entrepreneurialism and job creation that Chile will need in the next four years in order to achieve his core goals: weathering the tail end of the global financial meltdown, achieving 6% annual growth, and bolstering an educational system which is severely lagging and remaining markedly unequal. Unfortunately for Frei, all he can offer is more of the same, a tactic that leaves a bitter taste for many left-leaning Chileans ready for change.
Piñera has successfully marketed himself as the candidate of change and the historical significance of his election would be undeniable; nevertheless, the divisions between the two candidates may appear to be starker than they are in actuality. A victory for Frei would also signal a slight shift to the right on economic policy. The platform of his Christian Democrat Party is fairly more pro-business than the current position of Bachelet and her Socialist Party-led coalition, as was the case of Frei’s previous administration. Piñera has questioned Frei’s economic prowess by emphasizing that his first presidential term was the least successful of the past four Concertación administrations in terms of job creation, though he did maintain a 6% economic growth rate while in office. The philosophical foundation of free-market capitalism has taken a hit since the global financial crisis; however, if Chilean voters are willing to accept Piñera’s economic stewardship, it follows that Frei’s more tempered version would achieve similar results. Unfortunately, he possesses neither the economic credentials that Piñera flaunts as his driving qualifications, nor the fresh approach brought to the table by MEO, reinforcing the notion that under Frei, Chileans will simply receive more of the same.

Courting the Left

Piñera obviously has some advantage when it comes to economic electorability in the eyes of the Chilean public. Despite Chile’s alarmingly high GINI coefficient of .549 (a measure of inequality), the nation has warmed to the idea of a business-minded president. Currently the, the wealth gap in Chile is eclipsed by only Bolivia and Brazil amongst South American nations. Equally as important have been his astute attempts to make inroads to the left by marketing his domestic policies specifically toward social liberals and moderates. Piñera has done the same on a range of issues, including gay rights, environmental protection, and creating a dignified standard of living for the indigenous Mapuche population. Piñera was applauded by social liberals when he declared his support for a gay couple’s rights to inheritance as well as health and social security benefits. Furthermore, one of Piñera’s televised campaign ads included a gay couple holding hands and proclaiming, “People now accept us, but we still lack a government that respects us.” His support for such issues came only after the other three candidates already had done so and without any viable competition from the right. However, the act is unprecedented, since rightwing candidates rely on votes from the sizeable conservative Catholic population and radical UDI party to utilize its hostility.

During Monday’s debate, he reiterated his party’s newfound support for the availability of the morning after Morning After Pill, breaking from traditional right wing policy. He has pledged to protect his 300,000 acre swath of forested land in Patagonia in order to bolster his lagging environmental credentials. Nevertheless, he has not explicitly come out in opposition of the controversial Patagonian dam project or the Pinochet-era privatization of water rights, as Frei did during Monday’s debate, instead opting for a “wait and see” approach.

His bona fide support regarding the Mapuche cause is also similarly questionable. A pillar of his campaign has consistently been his call for stronger and more visible attitude toward law enforcement, an area in which current President Michelle Bachelet has received her lowest marks from the public: a meager 11% approval rating in the most recent public opinion poll. In the short-term, this could translate into the restriction of civil liberties and pointed civil repression, resulting in harsher crackdowns on protests, which already are allowed to be dispersed by riot-gear clad police officers, or carabineros, using tear gas and high-powered water cannons. A large number of public protests in recent months have stemmed from the Mapuche population’s calls for land rights and self-determination, and have resulted in deaths and widespread unrest. This build-up in the name of security will likely be linked to a general increase in police activity under the pretext of combating crime. These short-term solutions may quell conflicts on an individual basis, but will almost surely increase tension between the government and a restless Mapuche community. The concerns of Chile’s largest indigenous population would be more sustainably and reasonably addressed through constructive educational initiatives and more sincere efforts to foster a dignified standard of living.

These attempts by Piñera may simply have been shrewd political theatre on his part. Regardless of his sincerity, Piñera will find himself in a precarious position if elected. Will he follow through on the offers made by his rhetoric pitched to neglected sectors on the left, or be forced to kneel to the pressure of his staunch, power-wielding conservative base and renege on his campaign promises after being elected, if that proves to be his fate?

Regional Relations

Piñera’s most marked departure from Bachelet’s policy would most likely emerge in his approach to foreign relations. He is likely to temper his posture towards his leftist Latin American counterparts in the name of prudentialism. He has stated that he would craft his developmental model more along the lines of Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Peru’s Alan García rather than Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez or Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. However, it is difficult to envision the pro-business Piñera following closely in the footsteps of Lula, and his pro-union message; furthermore, his conservative diplomatic appointees predictably are likely to may revert to their far from moderate instincts.

Relations with Peru have been faltering at best; engendering goodwill toward Chile’s neighbor to the north might help to enhance trade between the two nations and also begin to leave old grudges in the past, while overcoming recent tensions after Lima lobbed accusations of espionage at Santiago last November. A victorious Piñera would be wise to cater to Brazil, the region’s emerging powerhouse, as this nation further expands its oil and natural gas reserves. Establishing closer trading ties now could prove a valuable pre-cursor to Brazil’s presidential elections slated for October which could bring right-leaning São Paolo governor Jose Serra to the presidency (he currently sits first in the polls). The sincerity of these efforts to foster amicable relations with leftist administrations in the region is still up for debate.

Aside from espousing some more indirect tactics, Piñera has been unequivocal in his support of the US-Colombian agreement allowing US troops to be stationed at seven military bases in the Latin American nation, a departure from the more sterile policy of the present Chilean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mariano Fernandez, who has declared that, “decisions that every country takes are sovereign and must be respected.” Moreover, if Colombian President Álvaro Uribe goes through with a proposed constitutional amendment to extend term limits or yields to a like-minded successor, Piñera may find a sympathetic ear in a region dominated by leftwing governments.

Regardless of what far-reaching changes a victorious Piñera might entertain as president, he will to some extent be handcuffed by his Congress, which after the December 13th elections left both houses at a near deadlock. Local-level rightwing candidates and deputies have been able to win elections since Pinochet’s resignation, and the current numbers show the country is evenly divided along party lines. After twenty years of secure democratic rule, it appears Chileans are just now able to stomach the idea of a conservative executive. The election of Sebastian Piñera would certainly not erase the country’s recollection of bitter old memories of dictatorship and disappearances, although he hardly stands for a return to Pinochet-era repression and human rights abuse. The more prudent question for those heading to the ballot box this Sunday might be whether he really represents the change Chile needs right now, or if he will merely abandon his newfound sectors of support in order to strengthen his traditional conservative social policy and hawkish foreign policy. There are pressing issues which need to be addressed either through significant change or a revamping of Concertación policy. Unfortunately, the candidate representing real change, MEO, and the candidate who Chileans would like to see attempt to revitalize Concertación policy and build on its past successes, Bachelet, will not be on the ballot this Sunday.

9 thoughts on “Chile’s Winds of Change: The Real Thing or The Most Discreet of Nudges

  • January 15, 2010 at 10:55 pm

    Small correction: Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, not Eduardo Frei Tangle.

  • January 16, 2010 at 12:09 am

    While there is indeed plenty to be cautious about given Mr. Piñera's history, I think there is also room for optimism. Here’s hoping Presidenta Bachelet does not disappear from the political scene though. I think that if the Chilean Constitution allowed for a second term, she would win hands down.

    Thanks for the article!

  • January 16, 2010 at 3:11 am

    This is not a particularly informative piece, and does not reflect a particularly profound understanding of Chilean history and society, in addition to containing several factual inaccuracies. For instance inequality has declined since 2006.

  • January 16, 2010 at 12:09 am

    Very informative article but I hope the fears about Mr. Piñera going back on his promises do not come true. It is very true that Chilean society is still very much divided over the issues relating back to the Pinochet era, but I see the pendulum of Chilean democracy from left to right as a positive thing. As you noted, Mr. Piñera appears to be catering to the other side of the political spectrum. If he indeed does win the runoff, and follows through with his campaign promises, I believe it will signal a growth of sorts as left and right become less entrenched.

    And you are very correct that part of La Concertación's base has been unhappy. I was able to witness the protests on the banks of the Mopocho River in Santiago's Bellavista during the early months of last year. These protesters were made up of Santiago’s poor, pleading for help with housing and unemployment. They had pinned up signs reading such things as "La Concertación is dead", etc. while living in tents and makeshift housing along the concrete banks.

  • January 18, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Look, even if you support a particular trend (like I do with the 'pink tide'), I mean, c'mon, be real — people aren't going to keep voting the same way forever.

    In Chile the same political trend was in power for 20 years. At some point, people are going to vote differently.

    What I would like to believe is that since over the past 10 – 20 years (depending on where you look), much of South America has achieved the first real independence and population-oriented development in its history, that even the right will work largely work within those saner parameters. I don't see too many examples of forces wanting to go back to the prior status quo.

  • January 18, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    Was interested to read Mr. Budinich's claim that Frei was a billionaire, I did some research and wasnt able to find him on any list of billionaires over the last ten years. Any chance you would like to let me know where you found this info? Moreover, not sure where in the article it claims that he isn't.

  • January 28, 2010 at 6:50 am

    This is a great article. It will be interesting to see what Mr. Piñera's does in his first few months.


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