The Lagos Legacy and Chile’s Upcoming Elections

  • Lagos, a popular president will be tough to follow.
  • Lagos’ foreign policy wilts when compared to his domestic achievements.
  • The election is Bachelet’s to lose, as the conservative opposition implodes.
  • When Chileans head to the polls in December, popular incumbent president Ricardo Lagos will not be on the ballot, due to a one-term limit written into the constitution after the Pinochet dictatorship left office in 1990. As a result, the stage is set for a battle between an influential businessman, a weathered political veteran and a dynamic, popular woman seeking to become the first female president in Chile’s history.

    Whichever candidate eventually triumphs, he or she will have big shoes to fill after Lagos’ four largely productive years, during which he was able to restart Chile’s economic growth, address the crimes of the Pinochet regime and reform many laws affecting Chile’s staunchly conservative society. Further complicating matters for the incoming president will be the numerous challenges that he or she will have to confront, from high crime rates, serious societal inequalities as well as trying to prevent a possible economic downturn. Meanwhile, the victorious candidate will also be trying to appease Washington. While if socialist Michelle Bachelet is the victor she will field a variant of that political philosophy that will be to the right of Tony Blair’s.

    Lagos’ Legacy
    Lagos’ personal legacy is up for grabs, with his major vulnerability being in the area of foreign policy. During his presidency, Lagos’ mission was to achieve the status of being in the White House’s favor, as if Chile was President Bush’s Madame de Pompadour. Lagos failed many tests during his presidency, including proving feckless when he buckled over Chile’s opposition to the Iraq war, after which he disowned his own U.N. ambassador over the issue. Then he became complicit in supporting the unseating of a constitutional government in Haiti, by sending units of his tainted military to join the controversial mission of the Brazilian-led peacekeeping forces in that country. In addition, he remained silent over the atrocities occurring there, as well as over the ineffectuality of the Chilean diplomat who serves as Kofi Annan’s chief emissary in the country. Chile also acted as a surrogate for the State Department’s Otto Reich’s and Roger Noriega’s ideologically-driven anti-Havana messianic crusade in the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

    At the same time, he was so anxious to achieve a bilateral free trade agreement with the U.S. that he groveled before the Bush administration, trying to efface Washington’s pique over Chile’s opposition to the Iraq war while he significantly undermined the willingness of his Mercosur neighbors to accommodate his country because they felt that Lagos was using them to advance Chile’s sectarian trade issues.

    An Unfinished Agenda
    Lagos, a Duke-educated economist, succeeded in jumpstarting the Chilean economy after a slow-down in the late 1990s by signing expansive trade agreements with the United States, the European Union and South Korea. Yet in spite of this growth, the economy remains one of the main issues in this year’s campaign. In recent years, Chile’s economic growth has been fueled by high copper prices, but such reliance could be dangerous. Currently copper is the country’s main item shipped abroad, representing 45% of all of its exports last year. Nevertheless, this has not caused any harm as of yet, given the currently elevated world market price of the commodity. Nonetheless, whoever assumes the helm will have to find ways to diversify the Chilean economy by decreasing its dependency on copper while not sacrificing the metal’s pivotal role.

    Even if the new president achieves balanced economic growth, that accomplishment alone will not suffice. While Chile has registered unprecedented development in the past five years, it still falls victim to the ailment plaguing so many other Latin American economies: gross social inequalities. Lagos has attempted to address the problem with his Chile Solidario program, but far more will be expected of his successor, given the magnitude of the problem. As the Chilean economy continues to grow, serious redistributive programs will be needed to ensure that all members of society share in the benefits of economic expansion. According to Business Week, voters are expected to look to someone who can lower the 19% poverty rate which Lagos had achieved through aggressive initiatives.

    Another desperately needed, yet unfulfilled reform concerns the country’s flagging educational system. All of the candidates in this year’s race agree that this is one of the most important issues currently confronting Chile. By international standards, test scores remain low, suggesting that educational improvements will be vital to Chile’s continued economic and social climb to modernity.

    Closely tied to this desire for international prestige is the sensitive topic of Chile’s grim recent past. Though General Augusto Pinochet’s regime ended as the result of a 1990 referendum, his specter still casts a long shadow over Chilean society. Under Lagos, several military officials accused of atrocities during the 17 year dictatorship were arrested and tried for human rights abuses. Lagos also effectively reduced the military’s penumbra over the government, but far more is needed for Chile to fully move on from its sordid past and many would argue that the president has been too timorous in dealing with Pinochet’s dark legacy.

    Also, as the elections approach, crime has become a major subject of debate. While Chile’s delinquencies do not match the terrifying levels often found elsewhere in the region, it will likely be a sensitive topic in December. Violent robberies are becoming increasingly common, and drug-related activities remain a frightening reality for many Chileans. Already, conservative groups are seeking to capitalize on such fears, advocating a “mano dura” or hardline response to crime. The fallout after the slaying of Jerry Ahumada, a five year old who was shot in the head when he was caught in the crossfire of a gang-related shootout on October 1, has become increasingly politicized, despite the objections of President Lagos.

    Chile’s Political Battlefield
    Since democracy returned to Chile in 1990, the political arena has been dominated by two main alliances. On the left, the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia, which initially triumphed in 1990 with Patricio Aylwin, has retained power ever since. Prior to this year, the country’s conservative groups had coalesced around the Alianza por Chile, a movement comprised largely of leftover Pinochet supporters and miscellaneous right-wing activists who together constitute a numerous and influential group. While Alianza had come close to toppling Concertación – in 1999 Lagos beat Alianza candidate Joaquín Lavín by a mere 200,000 votes out of a total of over seven million – its overall popularity does not rival that of Concertación, and the alliance has since splintered to the point that two separate Alianza parties will field candidates in December, thus splitting their tendency’s vote.

    The Right Wing Fractures
    The strain of this year’s election generated major strife in the Alianza por Chile, which was comprised of the hardline Independent Democratic Union (UDI) and the somewhat more moderate National Renovation (RN) parties. The alliance struggled to balance its two divergent wings, but in May the schisms grew too wide to reconcile, causing the coalition to fragment. When the popularity of presumed Alianza candidate Joaquín Lavín went into a freefall last winter, spurred downward by a highly sensationalized sex scandal, the coalition finally ruptured and the RN named its party head, Sebastian Piñera, as its presidential candidate.

    This left Lavín and the UDI in a tough spot. He was initially expected to lead Alianza to victory, but the big losses suffered by the coalition in last year’s municipal elections and the emergence of two tough and highly competent female candidates from the left gravely wounded his hopes for victory. Although he will still mount a campaign on the UDI ticket, the RN defection has severely hobbled him.

    Concertación is composed of four distinct parties; the Christian Democrats (DC), the Socialist Party (PS), the Radical Social Democrat Party (PSRD) and the Party for Democracy (PPD). Michelle Bachelet, who, like Lagos, comes from the Socialist Party, will attempt to carry Concertación’s banner to victory in 2005. Bachelet currently serves under Lagos as the country’s defense minister and previously occupied the position of health minister. She narrowly edged out foreign relations minister and Christian Democrat, Soledad Alvear, to earn her place at the top of the Concertación ticket. The ongoing disintegration of the UDI has only strengthened Bachelet.

    The Candidates
    The early favorite appears to be Concertación’s Michelle Bachelet. A doctor by profession, she enjoys considerable popularity among many Chileans, who see her as the most inclusive choice for the presidency. She is an experienced politician, and as the first female to serve as secretary of defense, has already bucked the country’s traditional machismo. Needless to say, she enjoys tremendous popularity among women voters.

    Bachelet’s personal positions stack up quite favorably on most of the country’s important issues. Her openly socialist credentials seem to work to her advantage. In a June 13, 2005 interview with the BBC, she commented that “We should continue growing economically, that is very important, but we have to make sure that everybody in this country will have the benefits of this growth.” She is also seen as the candidate most capable of tackling the topic of educational reform. Furthermore, during the Pinochet dictatorship, she herself was briefly detained before fleeing the country, which lends her a certain gravitas when it comes to the deeply disturbing issues of the past. Although some concerns linger about her problematic health, she enjoys tremendous national visibility and will be heavily favored.

    The most prominent of Bachelet’s challengers is Lavín, a long time figure in Chilean public life. Lavín earned a graduate degree in the United States and in 1979, at the age of 26, became the dean of the economics department at the University of Concepción. In this position he gained recognition as one of the country’s “Chicago Boys,” a band of hard-core neoliberal economists who, after studying under the right-wing guru, Milton Friedman, at the University of Chicago, helped provide the deflationist, budget-shrinking policies used in Pinochet’s Darwinian overhaul of the Chilean economy. His background includes stints as mayor of the tony Santiago district of Las Condes, as well as serving as the mayor of the city of Santiago prior to resigning to pursue the presidency earlier this year.

    Lavín, who is the architect and proponent of the “mano dura” anti-crime stance, seems to be perceived by Chileans as resolute only on that subject. His campaign, recognizing that this area may be his only advantage, has continually hammered at the law and order issue. According to the Santiago Times, Lavín accused Bachelet of being soft on crime, but earned no acclaim for his cynical tactic of publicly predicting that criminals will vote for her. But while he may successfully fear-monger some votes, the fact that he generally lags behind Bachelet when stacked up against an array of other important topics, suggests he is not likely to approach the support he received in 1999. That he must even have to think about competing for the conservative base, due to its split, has undoubtedly seriously weakened his ability to focus attention on building national support.

    The New Conservatism
    The man mainly responsible for the current conservative infighting is Sebastian Piñera, a Harvard-educated economist who made his reputation as a successful big businessman, serving as president of the powerful LAN Chile airline. He entered politics in 1989, when he was elected as a senator from Santiago’s eastern district. In 1999, he was named as RN’s candidate to run for the presidency, but eventually backed the Alianza coalition candidacy of Lavín. This year, Piñera was gaining such popularity that his party decided he should contest the election against Lavín.

    Piñera’s campaign has essentially split the country’s conservative base down the middle: polls put his popularity at just a few points behind Lavín. Although he has made crime one of his issues, he has been less aggressive than Lavín in his rhetoric on the subject. Unfortunately for him, in Chile it traditionally has been difficult to win with a campaign that seeks the political middle ground between left and right.

    Current Standings
    The split within Alianza has helped make Concertación’s Bachelet the clear frontrunner, and some analysts have gone so far as to predict that she might even achieve an unprecedented first round victory (under the Chilean system a runoff between the top two candidates from the general election occurs if neither one has attracted more than 50% of the vote). Alianza’s inability to consolidate its base has only helped Bachelet, as Lavín and Piñera are forced to bicker over conservative votes. Both of them have said that they will whole-heartedly back whoever faces Bachelet in the event of a run-off, but the residual damage done by the in-fighting may prove too much for either candidate to easily overcome.

    Already the Alianza infighting has led to rumors of “dirty tricks,” such as a recent police investigation into a questionable land purchase by Piñera (information of which was leaked to the conservative Santiago newspaper El Mercurio). Whoever is the eventual candidate of the right, the results of a second electoral round could be tight: if 1999 was any indication, the country is so evenly divided that the outcome could become a tossup.

    According to the latest polls, published on September 22 by the Chilean Center for Public Studies (CEP), Bachelet currently holds the lead with 45% of the vote. The results showed the two rightist candidates locked in a near tie, with 20% of the respondents favoring Lavín and 17% opting for Piñera. While the rankings aren’t likely to change before December, the electoral numbers most likely will, as a substantial amount of time still remains for the unexpected to happen. A four-way presidential debate on October 19, which will also include Humanist Party (PH) candidate Thomas Hirsch, could have a pronounced effect on electoral preferences as well.

    Chile will enter 2006 with a new president, but the country’s direction seems unlikely to change radically as a result. The victor most probably will not be handed an overwhelming mandate, and as a result may find that the best path is that of the least resistance: gradual change and adherence to the general ideas of the Lagos government. If Bachelet becomes Chile’s first female president, it will signal a major development for women’s rights, but her precise policies will have to determine her fate. Any victor will be forced to confront major issues such as inequality, education and the Pinochet question head on. Although Lagos may have only partially addressed such topics, skirting them entirely will not be an option for his successor.