Chile: Has the Center-Left Really Turned the Page?

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

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By choosing to support Presidential candidate Alejandro Guillier, the Chilean Socialist Party is turning the page on its ideological platform. / Movilh Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Chilean Socialist Party’s rejection of former President and party standard-bearer Ricardo Lagos as its candidate in the Presidential election scheduled for November signals a break with the political program and leadership that it has offered since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship.  But the center-left still has a lot to do to sustain its base going into the future.  In a secret vote – a process that caused heated discussions and revealed deep divisions between factions of the party – the Central Committee decided to support political newcomer Senator Alejandro Guillier.  Already the decision to choose the candidate through a closed-door voting by the leadership, instead of a general consultation as wanted by the party’s constituency, prompted José Miguel Insulza (another historic party figure and former Secretary General of the OAS) to withdraw his own candidacy.

  • The preference for Guillier, a well-known journalist and non-militant of the Socialist Party (PS), has an obvious explanation: the polls. While Guillier ranks second in the polls just behind the center-right candidate – billionaire former President Sebastián Piñera – Lagos remained stuck beneath the threshold of 5 percent. The PS decision cannot be reduced to mere pragmatism, however.  Lagos represented continuity with the generation that has represented the center-left since the restoration of democracy, based on market friendly policies with social redistribution.  Much of its base has grown disillusioned by the pace of redistribution, however, and combined with dismay over signs of corruption –modest in scale by regional standards but politically embarrassing to the party and to incumbent President Michelle Bachelet – that disenchantment jeopardizes PS prospects moving forward.  By following the polls and choosing Guillier, the PS is turning the page of the transition to democracy period.

But the PS may be abandoning its previous ideological platform without a clear idea of what is going to be the new one.  The ideological and programmatic orientations behind Guillier’s candidacy are unclear.  To become the single candidate of the center-left, moreover, Guillier will probably need to compete in primary elections against the candidate of the Christian Democrats.  Whoever emerges from that process will compete in November against two rather well defined ideological positions.

  • The right-wing candidate, Sebastián Piñera, offers a program oriented to undo the progressive reforms undertaken by the Bachelet government, such as reforms of the tax, pension, and education systems. Polls suggest that this program of “neoliberal restoration” may attract centrist voters who, skeptical of the political and social changes associated with those reforms, may prove receptive to Piñera’s contention that they are the cause of a recent slowdown in economic growth and tightening of the labor market.
  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, the leftist coalition Frente Amplio strives to enhance and deepen the reforms; expand social rights and redistribution; and reduce the role of markets, particularly in the educational sector and retirement pensions. In a strategic move, Frente Amplio chose a charismatic journalist (and former radio colleague of Guillier), Beatriz Sánchez, as its candidate.  According to polls, she is already attracting support from prospective voters who Guillier would need in order to become Chile’s next President.

In selecting Guillier, the center-left is acknowledging the exhaustion of its base with the generation that led the Chilean transition to democracy.  Disillusion is particularly deep among younger Chileans who must be a critical foundation for any enduring project of social reform.  Party stalwarts like Lagos and Insulza represent precisely the wrong message in that context.  But if the center-left is clearly trying to turn the page, to succeed it must define its post-transition programmatic platform — or risk being relegated for the first time since Allende’s Unidad Popular to be the third political force after a united right and a united left.

April 20, 2017

Stefano Palestini Céspedes is CLALS Research Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the Freie Universität Berlin, where he specializes in international organizations and regional governance.

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