Chile: Election Likely to Show Big Political Shifts

By Kenneth Roberts and Eduardo Silva*

A presidential candidate stands in front of a crowd and a large Chilean flag

Ex-president Sebastián Piñera addresses his supporters at a campaign rally last month. / Twitter: @sebastianpinera

Chilean politics in the run-up to national presidential and legislative elections on November 19 have revealed that – within major lines of continuity – significant changes in the political alignments that have structured the country’s democracy since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990 are taking place.

  • Continuity is most pronounced on the conservative side of the political spectrum, where the two main conservative parties, Renovación Nacional (RN) and Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI), have joined forces with smaller parties to sponsor the presidential candidacy of billionaire business mogul and former President Sebastián Piñera. In public opinion surveys of voter intentions, Piñera has maintained a healthy lead over a collection of centrist and leftist candidates.  He appears likely to come out on top in the first round of voting – and significant abstention (if fewer than 5.5 million registered voters vote) could push him over the top.  If he is forced into a run-off, the final outcome will rest heavily on the ability of his opponents in the divided center-left bloc to coalesce forces.
  • The center-left space is where most change is concentrated. The core parties in the Nueva Mayoría coalition that backed incumbent Socialist President Michelle Bachelet have won five of Chile’s six presidential elections since the transition to democracy in 1990.  For the first time, however, the main centrist party, the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (PDC), has opted out of the alliance to run its own candidate, Senator Carolina Goic.  With Goic languishing in the polls, however, the primary challengers to Piñera are located further to the left, including the Nueva Mayoría’s favorite, Senator Alejandro Guillier.  Although early speculation pegged him as an outsider, he is now firmly identified with the moderate reformist left and represents continuity with the current government.

A new left-leaning group, the Frente Amplio, has nominated Beatriz Sánchez, an independent journalist.  She arguably represents a larger challenge to the status quo, as her candidacy gives political expression to social actors who are sharply critical of Chile’s political establishment and the neoliberal economic model.  Even though the Broad Front’s electoral strength is untested, it brings together a number of small parties alienated from Nueva Mayoría and inspired by Chile’s massive student protest movement and other activist networks that have mobilized around labor, environmental, and pension reform issues in recent years.  Sánchez favors more redistributive taxation and greater state intervention in strategic enterprises and utilities, as well as in water property rights and forestry where social conflict has been high.  She is also for replacing the private pensions system with a mixed public-private one and getting private banking out of the student loan business.

This election will likely show that the broad center-left coalition that dominated Chilean politics since the 1990 transition has effectively splintered, with the Christian Democrats seeking to carve out an independent space in the political center and a movement-based alternative emerging on the mainstream parties’ left flank.  Uniting such disparate forces to compete against Piñera in a run-off election, should one be required, will clearly be a formidable task.  Nueva Mayoría candidate Alejandro Guillier, considered the strongest run-off candidate to take on Piñera, is already in conversation with Christian Democrats and Sánchez’s Frente Amplio.  In a run-off, he is thought likely to get around 60 percent of the Christian Democratic vote, with more conservative Christian Democrats voting for Piñera.  His appeal to Frente Amplio voters could suffer because of their unhappiness with Nueva Mayoría.

  •  The specter of high abstention looms large for second-round voting, too. President Bachelet’s low approval ratings for most of her second term in office, although recently reversed, signaled low enthusiasm despite her successful pushing through a series of major reforms, including a reform of the electoral law to enhance proportional representation, a tax reform to increase revenues for social programs, the initiation of free university education for low-income students, and a much-debated law to legalize abortions in limited circumstances.  Last, but not least, mainstream parties across the board have been weakened by a series of corruption and campaign finance scandals, leaving many citizens alienated from parties.

November 2, 2017

*Eduardo Silva is Professor of Political Science at Tulane University, and Kenneth Roberts is Professor of Government at Cornell University.

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.

Chile: Between Stability and Uncertainty

By Eduardo Silva and Kenneth Roberts*

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Students protest in Santiago, May 2016. A highly-mobilized Chilean civil society has beset Michelle Bachelet’s second term as president. / Francisco Osorio / Flickr / Creative Commons

With national elections looming at the end of 2017, President Michelle Bachelet’s startling reversal of fortune raises the question of whether the traditional parties’ failure to win broad popular support could give rise to an anti-establishment populist leader.  At the end of her first government in 2010, Bachelet was the most popular president in post-democratic transition Chile.  This go-around, high-profile corruption scandals involving party financing and real estate deals implicating her family (along with both governing and opposition parties) have cut into her support.  Irregularities in the electoral registry before the 2016 municipal elections, an ineffective response to devastating forest fires, concessions over major reforms, and a slowing economy have also hurt her approval ratings, which are hovering near 20 percent, the lowest of any president since 1990.  Her administration has been beset by protests over education reform, labor relations reform, and the private pension system that the military government established in the 1980s.  Tensions and violence flare up continuously over land rights in the south between Mapuche communities and extractive industries.  All of this is occurring in a context of marked secular decline in voter participation and political party identification.

The trend of volatile approval ratings and a mobilized civil society now spans three administrations – Bachelet, Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014), and Bachelet again – from 2006 to 2017.  Unlike in Brazil and Argentina, where “middle class” revolts demanding clean, efficient government and economic growth signified a rightward turn after prolonged center-left rule, most of the protests in Chile come from the left flank, rather than the right.  Moreover, the mainstream parties appear seriously detached from the most active groups in civil society and, as seen in declining levels of party identification, from the citizenry at large.  This raises questions about the future of Chile’s party system, whether its center-left and center-right coalitions can hold together, and the chances for outsider populists.

All things considered, Chile has been a case of exceptional partisan and electoral stability in Latin America since 1990.  The dominant parties and coalitions have won all the elections, without the rise of a major “outsider” populist or a major new “movement party.”  But the next elections may provide a sort of “in between” outcome.  Ex-President Piñera, who has independent tendencies on the right, and a center-left alternative, Alejandro Guillier, are the current frontrunners in presidential primaries scheduled for July.  Guillier is a type of insider, nominated by a small party in a large coalition, with outsider credentials who does not really belong to Chile’s traditional casta política.  At this early point, if Piñera and Guillier win their respective primaries, both would appear to have a shot at winning in November or in December’s runoff – with neither outcome representing a breakdown of the system, nor a widespread electoral protest against mainstream parties.  This suggests, for now, the continuation of a system that is on the surface highly stable in institutional terms, but in reality highly detached from society at large and in particular from youth and the more active, mobilized sectors of civil society.  Neither political coalition shows many signs of significant internal renovation, although Guillier represents at least some change in leadership of the Nueva Mayoría.  However, political systems have been known to limp along under these conditions in the absence of major economic meltdowns, and that may be the most likely outcome of the next electoral cycle in Chile.

February 13, 2017

*Eduardo Silva is Professor of Political Science at Tulane University, and Kenneth Roberts is Professor of Government at Cornell University.

Intense Electoral Year in Latin America

By Carlos Malamud*

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Chilean President Michelle Bachelet with the leaders of her coalition, Nueva Mayoría. The Chilean presidential election of 2017 will determine the legacy of the Nueva Mayoría. / Gobierno de Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

The new year will be an intense one for Latin American elections.  Although perhaps not as important as those taking place in 2018, this year’s elections will have a significant impact on the countries holding them and, in some cases, the region as a whole.

  • In Ecuador’s presidential and legislative elections on February 19, the PAIS Alliance will run a slate of nominees for the first time without Rafael Correa heading its slate. The President said he’s stepping down for family reasons, but Ecuador’s economic problems, aggravated by the decline in oil prices, apparently convinced him to seal his legacy on a high note now rather than end his time in office in defeat.  The party’s presidential candidate, former Vice President Lenin Moreno, has a 10-point lead in polls over his closest competitor and has the advantage of facing an opposition divided among seven candidates, but his leadership remains uncertain.
  • In Mexico, the state governors of México, Nayarit, and Coahuila and mayor of Veracruz are up for election on June 4. The race in México state will measure the popular backing of the four parties in contention – PRI, PAN, PRD, and López Obrador’s new Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena) – in the 2018 presidential election.  The older parties will begin to weed out the weaker pre-candidates.
  • Elections for half of the Argentine Congress and a third of its Senate in October will define the second half of President Mauricio Macri’s presidency. The government is confident that economic recovery will strengthen its election prospects.  A weak showing will strengthen the Peronista opposition and complicate Macri’s agenda.  The Peronistas are currently divided into three big factions – that of Sergio Massa; the “orthodox” wing headed by some provincial governors, and corruption-plagued Kircherismo grouping headed by former President Cristina Fernández.  Open, simultaneous, and obligatory primaries (known by the Spanish acronym PASO) in August will be an important test for all.
  • Chile will elect a successor to President Michelle Bachelet on November 19. Primaries in July will reveal whether the country’s two big coalitions – the center-left (including the President’s Nueva Mayoría) and the center-right – are holding, as well as the presidential candidates’ identity.  The names of former Presidents Sebastián Piñera and Ricardo Lagos are in the air, but it’s too early to know how things will play out in the environment of growing popular disaffection with politics and politicians.
  • Honduras will hold elections on November 26. Due to a Supreme Court decision permitting reelection, incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernández could face a challenge from ex-President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, who was removed from office by the Army in June 2009, running as head of the Libertad y Refundación (Libre) Party.
  • Also in November, Bolivia will elect members of various high courts, including the Constitutional, Supreme, and Agro-Environmental Tribunals and the Magistracy Council. These elections will reveal the support President Evo Morales will have as he tries to reform the Constitution to allow himself to run for yet another term in office.

These elections in 2017 have a heavy national component but will shed light on the region’s future direction.  The success or failure of the populist projects in Ecuador and Honduras, or of President Bachelet’s Nueva Mayoría in Chile, will tell us where we are and, above all, help us discern where we’re headed.

January 17, 2017

*Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute, and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid.  This article was originally published in Infolatam.

Chile Elections: Bachelet’s Partial Victory

By Maribel Vasquez and Eric Hershberg

President Michelle Bachelet / Photo credit: Chile Ayuda a Chile / Flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND

President Michelle Bachelet / Photo credit: Chile Ayuda a Chile / Flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND

Elections last Sunday didn’t give former President Michelle Bachelet the strong mandate that she wanted but she appears well positioned to win the second round and the honor of serving a tough second four-year term. An underwhelming number of Chileans headed to the polls to cast their votes for the president of the republic, parliamentarians, and for the regional councilors. Polls had indicated that Bachelet would win convincingly in the first round but, with 46.7 percent of the ballots cast, she fell just short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off election on December 15. Conservative Evelyn Matthei, from the governing right wing Alliance Party, received 25 percent of the vote in the first round and has little chance of winning the run-off: another 17 percent of Chileans voting in the first round opted for candidates running to the left of Bachelet, and observers predict they will either stay home in December or select the former president as a second best option.

A 2012 change in voting law appears to have hurt Bachelet’s percentages. Under the new norm, Chileans for the first time were automatically registered to vote in presidential and congressional elections upon reaching 18 years of age, instantly expanding the electorate from eight to 13 million potential voters. But also for the first time, voting was not compulsory, and that proved consequential. In a country where public opinion polls have long shown high levels of alienation from the political system, particularly among younger segments of the population, abstention reached unprecedented heights. Fewer than seven million Chileans turned out to vote on Sunday, representing only around half of those eligible to do so. Turnout was undoubtedly suppressed by the stubborn persistence of Chile’s binomial electoral system, a holdover from the Pinochet dictatorship’s 1980 Constitution that gives the losing party a bloated presence in Congress (in order to receive both seats in any given district, the winning party or coalition must win double the percentage of the vote received by the runner-up, so frequently even a wide margin between the two top vote getters generates an equal allocation of seats). Bachelet’s center-left coalition, the New Majority, has proposed amending the constitution to make the electoral system more reflective of public preferences. But the newly-elected Congress, selected according to the rules of the authoritarian regime, is unlikely to generate the super-majorities needed to achieve constitutional changes that would alter the system so as to democratize congressional representation.

Getting elected to a second four-year term as Chile’s president might prove to be the easy part for Bachelet.  Harder still will be pushing forward the ambitious policy reforms she has promised. An especially prominent issue in the campaign was the demand of a growing student movement to reform Chile’s privatized education system, and Bachelet responded with a pledge to guarantee free, quality higher education to all Chileans, to be funded by a proposed increase in corporate tax rates and elimination of tax deferrals used widely by Chilean companies. Yet while Bachelet’s bloc secured the simple majority needed to secure modest tax reform, it fell short of the super majorities needed to secure education reform or change the electoral system or constitution, and the rightist opposition is loath to cede ground on either of these issues, which are also legacies of the Pinochet constitution. To enact the key pillars of her agenda, Bachelet’s second presidency will need to calibrate difficult negotiations with Congress with popular pressures to fulfill democratic aspirations for political representation and a more social democratic approach to public services than has been possible to achieve during the first 23 years of post-authoritarian rule.

Chilean Watershed?

 

Michelle Bachelet / Photo credit: OEA - OAS / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Michelle Bachelet / Photo credit: OEA – OAS / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Sunday’s presidential primaries in Chile – the country’s first ever –reaffirmed former President Michelle Bachelet’s leadership of Concertación and cleared the way for a faceoff in November between herself and the Conservative candidate, Economy Minister Pablo Longueira.  Bachelet trounced challengers within her center-left coalition, winning 74 percent of the primary vote, and seems poised to build on the astounding 81 percent approval rating she had in 2010 when her first term ended.  (Current President Sebastián Piñera’s approval rating now hovers around 40 percent, a two-year high for him.)  Conservative Longueira will have the advantage of Piñera’s incumbency, but his party’s somewhat weaker performance on Sunday – with about 27 percent of all votes cast – and his slim 3 percent margin within the coalition suggest a tough campaign ahead for him.  Most observers deem Longueira’s performance in Piñera’s cabinet to have been competent but unexciting, and they predict an easy Bachelet victory in November.

Whichever candidate wins, Chile faces an evolving set of challenges.  Its commodities-driven economy is slowing down, and a stubborn gap between rich and poor is fueling demands for tax and education reforms.  Chile is ranked the most unequal country of the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  Widespread demonstrations by students, teachers and professors have been demanding free tuition from preschool through university, and key labor unions are increasingly joining these mobilizations for reform.  Accepting her primary victory on Sunday night, Bachelet said voters were motivated by a desire for tax and education reform as well as a new constitution to replace the one created under dictator Pinochet in 1980.  She has also said that if elected she will halt the controversial HydroAysén project, which would build five mega-dams on two of Chilean Patagonia’s rivers.  Despite this rhetorical shift leftward and her role as the leader of the Socialist Party, such statements are not expected to lead to significant policy shifts; Chilean observers say she will continue to hew closely to the market-friendly policies that helped make Chile one of the region’s most stable countries during her first term.

Bachelet’s and Longueira’s competition may fail to excite the electorate in November, when voting will not be obligatory for the first time, and low turnout could deprive the victor of the mandate needed to lead thorough change, an arguable requisite  to increase the credibility of democratic institutions.  Empowered by two years of protests, student leaders are not leaving things entirely up to political elites.  Many are also running for office and aspire to bring a new perspective and direction to reforms in Chile.  International attention has focused in recent weeks on popular mobilizations in Brazil, but as recently as last week, tens of thousands of Chileans marched through the streets of Santiago and other major cities, challenging the credibility of the existing political order.  Bachelet has made deals with some of the protest leaders – agreeing, for example, not to run a Concertación candidate against one of them in a congressional race – but their demands are unremitting and strategic, and the winner of the upcoming election faces  a real challenge in trying to satisfy them.