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.

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.

ALBA Governments and Presidential Succession

By Eric Hershberg

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Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is proof that being anointed successor by one’s patron on their deathbed isn’t adequate preparation for governing effectively or consolidating a revolutionary legacy.  Although being Hugo Chávez’s man got him into office, it obviously hasn’t been enough for Maduro to stem growing economic, political, and crime problems.  One element behind these protests is a widespread perception – including among some supporters of chavismo – that Maduro is a pale reflection of his benefactor and not up to the task of leading Venezuela.  Chávez hand-picked him in a hasty and half-hearted manner, and he didn’t bequeath to him a coherent set of policies, practices, or institutions that could ensure the continued advance of the Bolivarian Revolution.  Maduro inherited a state that was so weak institutionally and so dependent on Chávez personally that the jury remains out as to whether he has the capacity to keep all the pieces of Chávez’s legacy intact.

The Venezuelan president’s rocky road reflects the difficulty of the renovation of political leadership across ALBA nations.  Rather than nurture successors capable of carrying forward the transformations begun by founding leaders, one president after another has followed Chávez’s lead in dealing with the future by focusing primarily on extending their terms of office.  This past January Nicaragua’s national assembly cleared the way for Daniel Ortega, president since 2007, to run for a third term in 2016.  Ecuador’s Rafael Correa likewise won a third consecutive term in 2013.  Last May Bolivia passed a law allowing Evo Morales to run for an unprecedented third term in 2014.  In none of these cases has the leadership sought to build the credentials of potential successors in the presidency, in stark contrast to what Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva did with Dilma Rousseff or what Ricardo Lagos did with Michelle Bachelet.  This phenomenon is not unique to left-leaning governments – Alvaro Uribe and Alberto Fujimori, for instance, suffered similar temptations –, but it seems endemic to the ALBA governments and is particularly troubling to the extent that these are instances where the leadership aims to effect wholesale, lasting societal transformations through its enduring control over the state apparatus.

There is a distinctive sort of hyper-presidentialism emerging throughout the ALBA nations.  Chávez, Correa, Morales, and Ortega’s concentration of power in their own personas makes it particularly hard for future leaders to emerge.  Their political projects embody aspirations for fundamental societal transformations.  In that sense, they can reasonably be categorized as what the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci would label as historic projects, and even revolutionary ones.  But if a transformative, historic project fails to develop leaders and launch them into positions of growing responsibility and power, it is unlikely that it will succeed over the long run.  Lula could transfer power to Dilma, Lagos could do so with Bachelet, Tabare to José Mujica, and so on.  This is what made possible the conversion of eight-year projects into 16‑year projects, and so on.  The PRI, in Mexico, managed successions for seven decades, and presumably is poised to continue along that road now that it has regained the presidency.  Yet for some reason the ALBA governments have not taken this step.  Their leaders have angled toward caudillismos that have a medium-term appeal, but that almost certainly cannot be the foundation of a decades-long project for changing societies in need of transformations that they themselves articulate.  While their frequent successes in displacing traditional elites and thwarting well-financed oppositions are impressive, it is striking that they fail to build political institutions and leaderships capable of carrying on their own visions and political projects after they pass.  The ALBA presidents may calculate that dismantling the ancien regime is legacy enough, but history may judge them harshly for delaying the emergence of more effective and enduring institutions, and of leaders who can push their projects forward for many administrations to come.