Looking Back at the Defeat of Chile’s Concertación: The Death of the Moderate Left or Its Gross Failure to Mount a Credible Presidential Candidate?

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Presidential candidates in Chile running under the center- left coalition “Concert of Parties for Democracy” (Concertación de Partidos para la Democracia), had won every election since the end of military rule in Chile in 1990, with the recent exception of the 2010 presidential race. The reasons for the coalition’s defeat after 20 years of dominance of Chilean politics as well as the possible reemergence of the coalition with a winning presidential candidate for the 2013 election require a closer examination.

A general consensus exists that the 2010 defeat of Concertación was due to the electorate’s dissatisfaction with its candidate, as well as the electoral influence that presidential candidates tend to exert in Chilean presidential elections. Although Chile was under a Concertación government for 20 years, the power shift stresses the serious shortcomings of what turned out to be an unpopular candidate. The coalition’s unhappiness with its candidate, former President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, and the splintering of votes within Concertación created by competing first-round candidates, Jorge Arrate and Marco Enriquez-Ominami, was the final factor undermining Frei’s prospects.  However, the palpable strength of a popular opposition presidential candidate, in addition to critical mistakes made under Concertación’s power, significantly contributed to the coalition’s defeat.

Frei Ruiz-Tagle: A Doomed Candidacy

Concertación’s noteworthy domination of Chilean politics for two decades ended with the non-resounding election of Sebastian Piñera, the first right-wing president since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Although noteworthy, Piñera’s electoral win by a mere three percent of votes over Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle does not necessarily signify a rejection of Concertación by the Chilean electorate. More accurately, it illustrates the dissatisfaction among the coalition’s supporters with its presidential candidate. According to the 2010 National Survey by Diego Portales University, 27.5 percent of those surveyed believed that Concertación lost the presidential elections because they “presented a wrong candidate.”1 Frei, the presidential candidate for Concertación, presented a centrist, even conservative perspective that many leftist voters could not relate to. For many, Frei’s candidacy under Concertación was a step backward for the coalition. The percentage of votes gained by Jorge Arrate, backed by the Chilean Communist Party, and Marco Enriquez-Ominami running as an independent (20.12 percent and 6.21 percent respectively) exemplify the electorate’s dissatisfaction with Frei (who attracted a 29.62 percent share). Arrate commented that he believed that Frei “was probably the candidate to which many people within the United States with a liberal view or leftist perspective [would find] difficult to vote for. Although Frei is a good person, he was not a good candidate.”2 Arrate’s perception of Frei illustrated a common view that the latter represents a centrist perspective that did not necessarily appeal to the bulk of the electorate.

Frei’s candidacy was a source of dissatisfaction among the younger members of the Chilean electorate due to his unappealing political persona. Marco Enriquez-Ominami explained that in Chile, “There is a large appetite to see new faces; we have 20 years of the same politicians.” Enriquez-Ominami, an elected member of Concertación who split from the coalition and resigned from the Socialist Party and his congressional seat to run as an independent, found support from those who desired change among younger segments of the electorate. Despite Enriquez-Ominami’s polarizing figure among older Chileans and among the loyal Concertaciónistas, he had a good deal of support from young voters due to his youth, fresh face appeal, and his relatively unsullied image in comparison to older elected officials.

The growing desire for new faces in Chilean politics extends beyond young voters and helps to explain Concertación’s loss as well. Many loyal voters of the coalition like Maricarmen firmly believe Concertación’s biggest mistake in the election was selecting a candidate who did not represent change and “was not a new face as opposed to the previous election [of Michelle Bachelet].” Speaking about his candidacy and what he believes was the electoral explanation for why Concertación lost, Enriquez-Ominami maintained that, “I take away the young vote, a critical vote that is not from the left or from the right, a vote from the center that wants change but that does not see change in Frei.” When asked why Concertación went down in defeat, Maria Jose stated that she believed, “Clearly, it was dissatisfaction with the Concertación but with the candidates as well, particularly Frei. He was a bad candidate, a candidate that did not draw the people, who is not charismatic, who does not have big proposals.” Maria Jose continued to add her perceptions of Frei: “To me in particular, his program seemed good but he was not.” Clearly, the responses of the interviewees express the lack of appeal of Frei as a candidate. Unlike the previous Chilean head of state, he did not project change.

A Natural Process of Transition

Some experts explain Concertación’s defeat as the natural result coming from a frustrated desire for enhanced democracy signaled by the electorate for an alternate arrangement for governing. For example, Alvaro Elizalde, the Vice President of the Socialist Party, expressed his belief that Piñera won because, “there is a natural wearing down after 20 years of government of a given coalition.” He went on to say that “Concertación began losing its capacity to listen to the citizenry.” Maria Jose illustrates the erosion within the coalition when she describes that, “[Concertación] distanced itself from the people and forgot why they were there a bit.” After two decades of power, a possibility exists that Concertación lost touch with its base as it moved further away from the left and closer to the center. It is also possible that an erosion of the coalition’s relationship with its base over the 20-year existence of the coalition created a substantial desire for a transition in government.

Although a desire for change can profoundly affect an election, it may not have played an overwhelming role in the ballot that brought Piñera to power. According to an article that ran in La Tercera titledUDP Survey: Piñera obtains 54.1 percent of support and 42.5 percent wants Bachelet as the next President,” only a mere 16.7 percent of those surveyed actually believe that the coalition suffered from an erosion due to its protracted stay in power.3 In the article titled, “Chile: A Fading Concertación on the Road to Losing the Presidency”, COHA Research Associate Romain Le Cour Grandmaison discusses Jorge Arrate’s decision to resign from the Socialist Party in order to take on an independent project outside the official structure of Concertación.4 According to Le Cour Grandmaison, Arrate “declared that the coalition is ‘’exhausted’’ and its ‘’cycle is over.’’  The article adds that, “Arrate communed with the Communist Party in order to present ‘a real candidate’ from the left.” However, if the Concertación’s cycle were truly over, in the apparent view of the Chilean electorate, the coalition would not have seen the 18.79 percent gain between both electoral rounds or a loss by a mere three percent.

Enriquez-Ominami- First Round Spoiler

Enriquez-Ominami’s independent candidacy, robbed Frei of a first round win, like Bachelet’s first round defeat of Piñera in the previous 2005-2006 race. In the 2010 National Survey conducted by Diego Portales University, 15.5 percent attribute the flight of votes to Marco Enríquez-Ominami’s intervention in the race with his candidacy.  Consistently criticized for splintering the Concertación ’s natural share of supporters, Enríquez-Ominami went on to receive a substantial 20.12 percent of the votes in the first round, forcing a second round run-off to be staged. Referring to Enriquez-Ominami’s candidacy, Jorge Arrate believes that, “he attempted to profit from the space that had been created by the Frei candidature.” The space Arrate refers to was brought about by an electorate that had been influenced by a postmodern culture, that Arrate may have only belatedly discovered, that had in fact, remained untapped. Maricarmen strongly believed that, “Marco Enriquez-Ominami took away votes from Concertación.”  If Enriquez-Ominami had not run, the possibility of Concertación winning in the first round existed.

Concertación’s Mistakes

Although the political profiles of the various candidates played a significant role in defeating the coalition, critical mistakes were made during the coalition’s rule. For example, Enriquez-Ominami pointed to Concertación’s failure to reform public education. A clear example of the public’s discontent with Concertación’s management of public education was the Penguin Revolution, a 2006 Chilean student movement in which over 600,000 students took to the street to protest the recent fee hike by the Bachelet administration, in addition to demanding free bus passes. Referring to the Penguin Revolution, Enriquez-Ominami stated that, “The social unrest is very strong in Chile… that unrest exploded in 2006 with 600,000 on the street.” Maria Jose explained, “With the governments of Concertación I felt more represented but I also believe they made a lot of mistakes […] in the end for that same reason they lost the election.”

Another mistake that lead to Concertación’s defeat at the poll was the major fragmentation that took place within the structure of the coalition. Although it is reasonable for some ideological differences to exist within any coalition of independent political parties, the severe sparring that was witnessed in Concertación forced it to moderate its platform in order to find cohesiveness within its constituency. This in turn alienated many left-leaning voters.  Maria Jose agrees and stated that she believed, “the first mistake of the left is that it is very fragmented [and] in search of a majority stance the left did moderate.”  Concertación’s splits affected its ability to have a leftist platform due to its need to moderate in order to satisfy the expectations of all the parties within the coalition in order for it to best achieve its majority.

Explaining the reasoning for both his split from Concertación and his raison d’être for creating the Progressive Party, Enriquez-Ominami stated that; “I believe the split between the left and the right is a split that no longer gauges the challenges of Chile. [This is] Not because I don’t recognize the debate between the left and the right but I do not believe [the difference between them] is enough.”  The unclear division between the left and right is an unavoidable loss due to moderation. The amount of votes gained by Arrate (the Communist candidate) and Enriquez-Ominami (an independent candidate), in the first round exemplify the electorate’s movement away from the moderate stance that was now being professed by the coalition, unsuccessfully seeking refuge under leftist and separatist wings.

The coalition’s lack of cohesiveness due to its fragmentation is another explanation for Concertación’s 2010 defeat. The coalition’s inability to stand wholly behind Frei shows the damaging nature of the body’s growing lack of cohesiveness. According to “Chile: A Fading Concertación on the Road to Losing the Presidency?”, “as long as it is unable to propose a common message, people are turning away from […] Concertación. In their stead some are now favoring more individual initiatives, making the coalition’s model less relevant.”5 The lack of unity behind their presidential candidate resulted in the defection of Enriquez-Ominami and Arrate from the coalition to run independently, which ultimately lead to Concertación’s first-round defeat.

Conclusion

Without a doubt, the most significant reason for the coalition’s defeat was its failure to produce an appealing presidential candidate. Frei’s candidacy patently dissatisfied the electorate by flying the flag of a more moderate wing of the coalition that did not boast mass appeal. Frei turned away many voters seeking a change in the political profile, unlike Bachelet, Concertación’s candidate in the prior election, who represented change by aspiring to be the first female president in Chile. Concertación’s shortcomings as a coalition within its structure, or in policy, became the most significant factor when it comes to winning an election. Maricarmen believes that, “It is clear that there will not be a completely distinct Concertación.” Although there may have been a natural erosion of the coalition’s ability to connect with its electorate after the 20-year period it was in power, it now must counteract this tendency if it means to be a serious contender for the 2013 presidential election. What Concertación needs today is a wave of new and progressive leadership to revitalize Chile’s disenfranchised electorate. Le Cour Grandmaison explains that, “…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,” appears to be the new winning formula. 6 This shows the significance of the quality of candidates in order for Concertación to get back to being able to succeed in national elections.

To win the next presidential election, Concertación must find a popular candidate.  There are several possibilities. For example, if Enriquez-Ominami could mend his relationship with Concertación, it is possible that he could be a very formidable candidate. But some, like Maricarmen, think differently. She comments on Enriquez-Ominami and illuminatingly states, “the fact of being so independent makes him be separatist. He doesn’t belong anywhere that makes him too exclusive… it’s too difficult to adjust to his way of thinking.”

In order for Enriquez-Ominami to succeed as a candidate, it is necessary for him to be more pragmatic and be better prepared to compromise with the prominent forces within the coalition. Another possibility for Concertación’s reemergence as a dynamic force in the next presidential election is the electorate’s preference for Michelle Bachelet to return as a candidate. Although Bachelet is a previous head of state like Frei, contrary to Frei she represents a more progressive wing of Concertación.  A recent poll established the overwhelming support for Bachelet. The 2010 Survey carried out by Universidad Diego Portales, where current Chilean President Sebastian Piñera received 54.1 percent approval rating and a 33.8 percent disapproval rating in comparison to the Michelle Bachelet’s administration approval rating of an 81.9 percent matched against a 9.9 percent disapproval rating. Although Bachelet is an ex-president of Chile, and thus not a new force or a compelling force for change, the overwhelming support she receives among the electorate further exemplifies the significance of a popular candidate in any forthcoming Chilean presidential race.

References for this article are available here

Research Note:

A series of interviews were conducted by a COHA researcher with a diverse group of Chileans. These interviews provided a useful sense of the overall political predilections which were held by leftist or left-leaning voters regarding the 2010 defeat of Concertación’s presidential candidate. Among those queried were Jorge Arrate, a 69-year-old politician who ran on the Communist Party line as its 2009 presidential candidate; Alvaro Elizalde, second in command of the Chilean Socialist Party; Maria Jose Elizalde, a 20-year-old law student in the University of Chile and a member of the Socialist Left, a group of militants of the Socialist Youth who sympathize with the Chilean Socialist Party; Maricarmen Leyton, a loyal backer of Concertación since 1990; and Marco Enriquez-Ominami, a 37-year-old former senator of the Socialist Party who ran as an independent candidate in the 2009 presidential election. The interviewees’ overall responses support the thesis that Concertación’s loss in the 2010 election was inevitable.