Marco Enriquez –Ominami: The Obama of Chile?

A Perilous Stretch Ahead for the Ruling Concertación
Coming off of Barack Obama’s stunning success in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, the “Change” campaign has been making its way down the western hemisphere and into the heart of Chile’s 2009 presidential race. In this instance, the candidate attempting to emulate Obama’s success is 36 year old newcomer Marco Enriquez-Ominami, better known as Marco. In a nation where the last four presidents have all emerged from the same political coalition, Marco intends to run on a platform based on “Cambio.” Running as an independent, Marco is a breath of fresh air in a nation dominated by fetid coalitions. The Chilean youth movement is growing restless and longs for a candidate they can call their own, and Marco is seeking to step in and fulfill that role. Given the substantial support that’s Marco’s “change” campaign enjoys from the youth movement in Chile, combined with the increasingly shabby performance of Concertación’s center piece, the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) this election, could result in the unprecedented event of a third-party candidate overpowering candidates from both the historically powerful center-left Concertación, and the right-wing Alianza por Chile coalitions.

Political Scene in Chile
Chile returned to democratic rule in 1990, and had to rebuild its political structure after the infamous military rule of Augusto Pinochet. Since then, a tired political system has produced a number of pecking orders, in which access is limited to those who join one of the existing alliances or coalitions with other like-minded political parties. There have been two longstanding coalitions constantly mobilized to do battle for power: the Concert of Parties for Democracy, better known as Concertación, and the Alliance for Chile, better known as La Alianza. The Concertación is a coalition consisting of several center-left political parties, including the Partido Demócrata Cristiano de Chile (PDC), Partido por la Democracia (PPD), Partido Socialista de Chile (PS), and Partido Radical Social Demócrata (PRSD). La Alianza is made up of right-wing parties that include the Renovación Nacional (RN) and Unión Democrática Independiente (UDI). Traditionally, Concertación has been highly successful in containing La Alianza in its bid for political authority, with every president elected since the end of the Pinochet era in 1990 being a member of its fold.

In 2006, Chile elected its first female president, Michelle Bachelet of the PS, who defeated the RN’s Sebastián Piñera Echeñique. Presidential elections are designed so that only a popular vote of 50 percent or more can determine the victory. If no candidate is able to garner the required votes in the first round of the election, a run-off ballot is scheduled between the two candidates with the highest number of votes. Bachelet won 45 percent of the votes in the first round of the election and 53 percent in the run-off. The election of Chile’s first female president was not only historic, but it allowed the Concertación, led by Bachelet, to continue its control over Chile’s highest office.

Who is Marco?
Marco was born on June 12, 1973, only months prior to the violent ousting of the democratically-elected Allende government and its replacement by the brutal Pinochet military dictatorship. Marco experienced the dangers of politics early on when his father, Miguel Enríquez Espinoza, was assassinated. Marco’s father had been a founder of the leftist revolutionary movement Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionario (MIR) and was a highly respected figure in the battle against the military regime. After the assassination of his father, Marco and his mother fled from Chile and relocated to France. He received his primary education there but returned to Santiago to attend university.

Marco studied philosophy at the University of Chile, but ultimately became interested in film and began working as a film director. Although the film field is an unlikely first job for someone envisaging a political life, Marco took his skills and interests into the Chilean political realm where he utilized them by directing numerous political campaign ads. He worked in the 1993 and 1999 senatorial campaigns of his step father Carlos Ominami, as well as the presidential campaigns of Ricardo Lagos. Marco did not limit his directorial skills solely to Chilean political events; he also branched out to work on presidential races in Mexico and Peru.

As a result of his early participation in his stepfather’s political career, Marco became deeply involved in Chilean politics in a variety of ways. He became a member of the PS in 1994 and only recently (in June 2009) resigned from it due to dissatisfaction with the party’s orientation. The Patagonia Times reported that in Marco’s resignation letter he “accused PS head Camilo Escalona and other party leaders of straying from their founding ideals.” The break with his party led Marco to carry on his presidential campaign as an independent, with his step-father Carlos Ominami, who had also been a PS vice president, also resigning in order to support Marco in his presidential bid.

Since that moment, Marco has gained unprecedented popularity in the political spotlight. Many factors contribute to his popularity, including his illustrious film background, the “celebrity” title bestowed upon him by the media due to his marriage to a popular television host, Karen Doggenweiler, his youthful appearance, and his family history – including his father’s martyrdom at the hands of the hated right-wing security forces. All these factors combine to create a compelling story behind his public figure. But his support is not solely based on a cult of personality. Politically, his popularity stems from his ability to relate not to just one class of people, as is often the case with candidates representing specific parties, but rather a variety of classes spanning Chile’s political spectrum.

Marco’s Campaign
Marco’s Cambio platform today is the most vital aspect of the campaign, specifically as it appeals to youth. Because of the 20 years that the ruling Concertación has been in power in Chile, “Change” is the strongest campaign message to run against a status quo where the dominant political movement has been losing influence for some time. Chilean youth constitute the target audience of Marco’s “Change” campaign because he feels it needs a voice and place to express its aspirations. Treating Chilean youth as a focal point is very novel for Chile. On his campaign website, Marco makes it a point to provide Chilean youth with a forum to express itself and participate in his campaign through blogs.

Getting to Know Marco
Marco creates a dilemma for those attempting to label him as sympathetic to either the right or the left. In the process of establishing the fact that he definitely looks to transform Chilean politics, he has outlined a number of programs taken from both ends of the political spectrum that he plans to endorse. He has been identified as a supporter of gay marriage and legalized abortion, both already on the platforms backed by Chile’s leftist political parties. However, he also has proclaimed his intent to support neo-liberal reforms, including the privatization of certain state businesses, leading to the widely-held belief that he may be as conservative on some issues as he is progressive on others.

Setting aside any confusion caused by Marco’s tendency to advocate positions from across the political map, his position on environmental issues is pellucidly clear. He has demonstrated a dramatic level of backing for environmental issues which in return has earned him deserved support from the Green party, which is an important endorsement if he is to be successful in his independent bid for the presidency. His most visible act of environmental commitment came when he opposed the well-publicized HidroAysén project and its plans to build five colossal dams in Patagonia. These dams would necessitate large-scale construction which would negatively affect the natural beauty of Chile’s breathtaking Patagonian region. Marco’s opposition to the project came at an opportune time as indicated by the May 19, 2009 issue of the Patagonian Times, in which a survey done by Ipsos research company shows that “between April 2008 and April 2009, the percentage of Chileans opposing the HidroAysén project jumped from 37.4 percent to 57.6 percent.” These numbers must be considered as representative of the broadening support being mounted by Marco and his environmentally-conscious campaign.

Where Marco is Heading
Marco began 2009 in an ideal political situation.. He received a good deal of support for his ideas, and at one point was further advanced than expected, given his position as an independent candidate battling powerful well-located political coalitions. Running as an independent candidate, it is necessary for Marco to gain 36,000 signatures by September 11 in order to be eligible to run for president on the December 2009 ballot. These signatures must come from voters who are registered, but not affiliated with any political parties. In July 2009, the Santiago Times claimed that Marco had already received the 36,000 signatures needed and that he “wants to get 70,000 signatures before the deadline to assure there will be no foul play in his registration effort.”

Polling and surveys tend to be fair, if sometimes cruel, revealing where a candidate stands in the presidential race and pointing out where available resources should be allocated. Polling projections and surveys have demonstrated the momentum building behind Marco, but they have also served as a realistic reminder that he is still running as a third party candidate battling two candidates from established and powerful coalitions. On June 11, 2009 polling company Imaginacción showed Marco receiving 20.9 percent of public support, trailing behind Eduardo Frei Ruiz Tagle (PDC) at 29.9 percent and Sebastián Piñera (RN) who leads with 34.9 percent. A little over a month later, a July 23 poll done by the research company MORI, illustrates that Marco’s numbers have dropped considerably, while his opponents have taken the opportunity to widen the gap. Once estimated to have 20.9 percent of public support, Marco fell to 13 percent. Both polls, published in The Santiago Times, showed Piñera in the lead.

Marco now faces formidable opposition. Frei is backed by the powerful Concertación coalition and previously served as president in a six-year term running from 1994 to 2000. Piñera, backed by La Alianza, had previously faced and lost to Michelle Bachelet in an election run-off in the 2006 presidential elections. In comparison, Marco’s career in the Chilean government is brief, having commenced in 2005 when he was first elected to Congress. Although he does not have extensive experience on his side – which may inevitably hurt his chances at performing well in the present race – he can count on the powerful and infectious idea of change. Marco’s participation in the pursuit of the presidency and the exposure he gains from it could place him in a position to become a formidable contender, if not in this race, then in one in the near future.