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.

Civics Lessons from Guatemala

By Robert Brenneman*

Former Vice President of Guatemala Roxana Baldetti (l) and a protestor with sign "We demand justice" Photo Credits: Surizar / Flickr / Creative Commons

Former Vice President of Guatemala Roxana Baldetti (l) and a protestor holding sign that proclaims “We demand justice.” Photo Credits: Surizar / Flickr / Creative Commons

Guatemala’s popular movement for justice and transparency is suddenly and happily discovering that nothing breeds success like success.  Many Guatemalans have grumbled for years about rampant corruption among the political class, but in recent weeks a surging popular movement has finally emerged giving voice and energy to years of that frustration with impunity and graft.  The movement picked up steam after a public exposé of a shadowy tax fraud and contraband network called “La Línea,” orchestrated out of Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s office by her private secretary.  The report was produced by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).  (Click here for analysis of the Commission’s renewal.)  President Pérez Molina not only renewed CICIG’s term until 2017; on May 7 he also accepted the resignation of Baldetti and her secretary, who had served as the key money-raising dealmakers for his administration.  The U.S. Embassy suspended the visas of many of the officials named in the report, including the luckless former vice president herself.

These actions have not been enough to appease the appetite for justice and transparency sought by the growing crowds of flag-waving nonviolent protestors converging each Sunday afternoon in front of the Guatemala City’s Municipal Palace.  An estimated 57,000 gathered under thunder and pouring rain on May 17.  Empowered by the relatively swift impact of their movement, and outraged by the mounting evidence pointing to the president’s personal connections to the corruption network, the crowds of protestors  led principally by students of the public university  have shifted to demanding that the president himself step down.  Pérez Molina, sensing that the wheels are coming off his administration, has requested the resignations of his closest advisors and top officials, including his Interior Minister and his Chief of Strategic Intelligence.  He has revoked or rescinded several of the most lucrative (and obviously corrupt) government contracts that he had vociferously defended only a few weeks ago.

President Pérez Molina’s political future remains up in the air.  Many Guatemalan political analysts believe he should step down.  José Rubén Zamora, founder of Guatemala’s influential daily El Periódico, argues that resigning is “the only way out of an impossible labyrinth” of the president’s own making.  But many others view the president’s fate as less important than whether the country takes advantage of the opportunity to use public pressure to pass sorely needed structural reforms.  For years Congress has ignored several bills that would tighten campaign finance rules and bring transparency to government contracting.  Since pay-to-play politics is not unique to this administration, fixing the problem will require legal and structural changes, not merely changing the nameplate on the presidential suite.  One hopeful sign is that Manuel Baldizón, leader of the opposition Renewed Democratic Liberty Party (LIDER), has not managed to coopt the popular outrage to kickstart his own election campaign.  A popular banner at the protests warns him “¡No te toca!” (“It’s not your turn!”).  The leaders of the movement recognize that Baldizón – who has many skeletons in his own closet and heads another investment-financed party – is hardly the answer.  The protesters’ focus on reform rather than politics suggests that the most certain – and long-lasting – outcome of all is the strengthened civic sphere that appears to have emerged as the protests grow and the newspapers report daily arrests and resignations.  In this civics lesson, the Guatemalan public is both pupil and teacher.

May 26, 2015

*Dr. Brenneman teaches sociology at St. Michael’s College and is author of Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America (Oxford University Press 2012).

Ecuador: Stacking the Deck Against Democracy

Enlace Cuidadano

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa during one of his weekly broadcasts Enlace Ciudadano / Mauricio Muñoz / Flickr / Creative Commons

By Catherine M. Conaghan*

Taking a page from Hugo Chávez’s playbook, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is intimidating and steadily increasing controls on his opponents.  He regularly uses his Saturday morning broadcasts to name and shame them.  Actors from all walks of Ecuador’s civil society – journalists, lawyers, activists, academics, bloggers, union and social movement leaders – have been the target of his insults and thinly veiled threats on the weekly program, Enlace Ciudadano.  In February, Correa’s show was skewered by HBO comedian John Oliver – and, to Oliver’s delight, Correa fired back by tweeting insults (click here and here).  Journalists and civil society leaders applauded Oliver for drawing attention to the continuing deterioration of civil liberties in Ecuador.  Correa’s virulent rhetoric and intimidating use of media is part of a larger matrix of policies endangering freedom of expression and association in Ecuador.  Over the last two years, the Correa administration has worked methodically to mount a legal framework allowing for greater government control over the media and civil society organizations.

  • The 2013 Law of Communication and a new oversight agency, the Superintendence of Information and Communication, are intended to ensure that all print and broadcast media provide “truthful information” that is “verified, contrasted, precise, and contextualized.”  Superintendent Carlos Ochoa was selected from a short-list of nominees provided by Correa.  Among alleged violations recently singled out for sanctions are items in the leading newspaper El Universo and its accomplished political cartoonist, Xavier ‘Bonil’ Bonilla.
  • Issued in 2013, Executive Decree 16 also has civil society – from neighborhood associations to think tanks, business chambers, unions, and advocacy groups – under pressure. In addition to elaborate regulations for the legal registration of organizations, the decree stipulates conditions allowing the government to “dissolve” them.  These include group involvement in “partisan activity” and “interfering in public policies.”  To date, only one organization – the Fundación Pachamama involved in environmental activism – has been dissolved, but civic leaders fear that the decree will induce ”self-censorship” and stifle participation.

The new laws amount to a project – unprecedented for Ecuador – of surveillance and regulation.  They provide the government with a tempting arsenal of weapons to use, if necessary, in upcoming battles on other important legal matters, especially on the issue of presidential re-election.  After years of pledging that he would not seek a third term in office, Correa reversed course and has tasked his legislative super-majority with finding a swift route to amending the constitution.  Most public opinion polls show, however, that a majority of Ecuadorians would prefer a referendum to decide whether or not yet another consecutive re-election should be allowed.  The road to re-election may be more difficult than Correa and his advisors imagine, but they enter the fray with the weight of the law on their side.  With powers to control the media and limit the activity of civil society, the Correa administration enjoys the upper hand as 2017 approaches.

March 12, 2015

*Catherine Conaghan is the Sir Edward Peacock Professor of Latin American Politics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.  She specializes in Andean politics.  She is the author of an article, “Surveil and Sanction: The Return of the State and Societal Regulation in Ecuador,” in the April issue of the European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

Bolivia: Lessons from the MAS

By Santiago Anria*

Joaquín Eguren / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Joaquín Eguren / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As Bolivian President Evo Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) prepares for the October 12 general election – which opinion polls indicate it will win by wide margins – the MAS appears to be a remarkably diverse organization capable of adapting operations to different regions of the country.  It fits neither the typical journalistic portrayal of Latin American social and political movements as clashing with political parties and elected governments, nor political scientists’ characterization of parties as unitary actors under the control of a unified leadership.  Founded by coca growers in the mid-1990s as their “political instrument” to contest power, the MAS has become the collective political expression of grassroots organizations now in power – to this day having diffuse boundaries and multiple faces, combining features of a grassroots movement and a party, and being a remarkably successful instrument for exercising rule.

The MAS’s regional diversity is one of its greatest strengths.  As an organizational actor, it looks and operates differently in different contexts depending on how the political space is structured.  In the Bolivian central region of the Chapare, where strong peasant unions are aligned with the MAS and control the territory, civil society and party are fused.  Grassroots organizations monopolize the political space, and local decision-making structures are embedded in the union structure.  Their success is rooted in “agrarian union democracy,” which emphasizes that “bases” exert control on the leadership – that the rank and file should lead and leaders should follow.  In the eastern city of Santa Cruz, on the other hand, the MAS has made inroads in traditionally hostile territory by developing an unusually strong local party organization with remarkable mobilization capacity, and that capacity gives it a central role in local governance.  As in other cities with large informal economies, the local structure draws support from two powerful urban sectors – transportation workers and street venders – and is organized territorially in districts that operate both during and between elections.  Rather than having the features of a movement, in Santa Cruz the MAS looks and works more like a conventional political party.  In the Chapare, Santa Cruz and elsewhere, the MAS organization has considerable latitude to operate locally within alliances and policies usually defined at the national level.  As a result, the MAS and its governmental counterparts are not often, or by necessity, in tension.

Latin American history offers many examples of political movements becoming personalistic vehicles for charismatic leaders.  More than 10 years since it became a credible electoral vehicle, the MAS may offer a more promising organizational alternative.  Morales is certainly a charismatic leader, with significant popular legitimacy and authority within the MAS.  His leadership cannot be overstated, and he is the dominant figure binding a wide array of grassroots movements and organizations.  Yet, the MAS has remained permeable to popular input in areas where civil society is strong and has mechanisms to arrive at collective decisions.  In the last general elections in 2009, grassroots influence was consequential: it led to the massive entrance of individuals and members of allied grassroots organizations into the highest level of political representation.  Their participation in Congress (the Plurinational Legislative Assembly) has pushed to diversify the legislative agenda still largely subordinated to the executive.  New MAS leaders willing or able to challenge Morales’s leadership have not emerged but, as the candidacies for the upcoming elections are defined, the strong regional dynamics could alter the composition of the new parliamentary group.  Whether the MAS will remain open, and whether it will manage to outgrow its dominant leader figure, will depend on the continuing strength of allied groups in civil society.

*Santiago Anria is a Ph.D candidate in political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.