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.

Success of the Implementation of the Peace Accord Depends on Real Participation

By Christian Wlaschütz*

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A march for peace in Colombia after the failure of the October 2016 plebiscite. / Leon Hernandez / Flickr / Creative Commons

The same thing that caused the Colombian government to fail to win the plebiscite on its peace agreement with the FARC in October – a deficient understanding of participation – could complicate implementation of the version of the agreement approved by the Congress last week.  Congressional approval on November 30 is occasion for joy and expectation, but it is also a moment for reflection.  That failure was caused not only by disagreements about political participation and justice issues, but also by the government’s consistently deficient understanding of the meaning of participation in its broader sense, beyond politics, and an over-reliance on the desirability of “peace” in the absence of tangible benefits.  Since negotiations began in 2012, several partial accords on issues such as land reform, political participation, and victims were achieved and publicized.  Unlike the negotiations between the government of former President Uribe and the paramilitary groups a decade ago, there was clarity about the process, the results of the specific negotiations, and the way forward.  President Santos’s decision to submit the final accord to a plebiscite, however, changed the public dynamic significantly and revealed several shortcomings in the government’s strategy regarding communication and participation.

  • Participation has been inadequately understood as a space for the public to be informed and to listen – rather than for the government to listen. Massive public events gave the political elite the opportunity to speak about the process, with only a few moments for the listeners to ask questions.  While many written proposals were submitted to the negotiation process, no comment or feedback was ever given.  This one-way communication did not help the public balance the benefits and costs of the peace process, and there was an enormous gap between the informed, mostly urban circles of academics, organized civil society, and other political and economic actors and the people in the urban and rural peripheries of the country.
  • The distance between elites who negotiated “peace” and the very poor living conditions of many people on the ground transformed peace into an abstract term void of tangible significance. Talk of peace dividends lacked a real connection to people’s everyday experience of corruption, deficient state services, and increasing insecurity.  The high abstention rate in the plebiscite – 63 percent –is clear evidence of the disconnect.
  • Indeed, “peace” has remained a distant objective claimed by many generations of Colombians. Since almost nobody has real experience with what peace is like, how it feels and changes life, the motivation to make deals on things such as justice in exchange was limited.  In contrast, terms such as impunity or privileges for criminals have an authentic meaning based on experience, helping the NO campaign discredit the peace accord.

Despite the Congressional approval, enthusiasm for the peace process has waned in comparison to two months ago, when the first version was solemnly signed in Cartagena.  Even though no plebiscite was legally required on either version, the lack of a second plebiscite has left a bitter taste behind – as if the accord were pushed through despite popular rejection.  Also troubling is a wave of assassinations and threats against civil society leaders.  According to the Jesuit Research Center CINEP, 31 leaders have been killed in the last three months; the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights counts 57 assassinations in the course of this year.

The legitimacy and success of implementation of the accord will depend on more authentic participatory methods to plan and implement the politically controversial issues of reintegration, land reform, justice, and the creation of a political party by the FARC.  Real participation – with space for exchange, debate, and the certainty of having a stake in the process – would foster shared responsibility for the successful implementation of the accords.  It would also help the people to grasp the benefits of peace and, therefore, the need to make compromises.  The contents of the accord are sufficiently comprehensive to end the armed conflict; whether or not it also helps to transform a structurally unequal society will depend to a great extent on the way participation is defined.  Only with broad participation will the communities protect and support the peace process.

December 6, 2016

Christian Wlaschütz is an independent mediator and international consultant who has lived and worked in Colombia, in particular in conflict zones in the fields of disarmament; demobilization and reintegration; and reconciliation and communitarian peace-building.

Colombia: President Santos’s Challenges

By Maribel Vasquez

President Santos Calderón / Photo credit: Agência Brasil, Creative Commons

President Santos Calderón / Photo credit: Agência Brasil, Creative Commons License

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has yet to announce whether he will seek a second four-year term in May, but with the November deadline fast approaching for him to declare his candidacy, many Colombians are expressing dissatisfaction with his performance. Three years after taking office, and after a protracted honeymoon period, Santos’s approval ratings dropped to a dismal 21 percent several weeks ago. (A more recent poll surged to 41 percent but the rollercoaster ride appears likely to continue.) Colombia has experienced a wave of strikes and protests – perhaps reflecting a phenomenon evident from Brazil to Chile to Peru by which popular sentiment nosedives despite steady economic growth because much of the population is left out and institutions fail to respond to needs. The Santos administration has governed more democratically than his predecessor and shown greater commitment to the rule of law and accountability. Unlike the Clintonian dictum that “It’s the economy, stupid,” Colombia’s long-standing adage has been that “La economía va bien, el país va mal.”

The stalled peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are also to blame for Santos’s dwindling public support. On October 13th, the 15th round of negotiations concluded in Havana without visible progress towards an agreement. (Talks are set to resume next week.) The agenda has six major points agreed to by both sides: land reform, political participation, disarmament, illicit drugs, rights of the victims, and implementation of an eventual peace accord. To date, agreement has been reached on only land reform and rural development. A number of thorny issues persist, including the FARC’s demand that a constituent assembly be convened to incorporate the peace deals into the country’s constitution – which the government has rejected.  In the latest development, the government also turned down the FARC’s call to have civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson act as mediator in the release of Kevin Scott Sutay, a former U.S. marine abducted by the FARC earlier this year. Criticism of Santos’s handling of the talks is due in part to perennial public concern that the FARC is stalling the peace talks to regroup and rebuild its capabilities.

President Santos has staked his political legacy on ending Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict. Success or failure of the peace talks will define his presidency for many Colombians, and failure to reach an accord would cast a cloud over his political future. While he has talked tough – saying FARC stalling is wearing out the government and the Colombian people’s patience – President Santos appears in every bit of a hurry to see these negotiations come to a conclusion before the end of the year. Former President Alvaro Uribe and his loyalists in the Centro Democrático (CD) have already blasted what they claim is excessive leniency on the President’s part.  Santos is in a bind: if he rushes the peace talks, he risks making too many concessions and playing into the Uribistas’ hand, while canceling the talks would strip him of the desired distinction of being Colombia’s peace president. The easy road to reelection – effective conclusion of the peace process and greater responsiveness to the country’s widespread malaise – seems remote.  A strong opposition candidate has yet to emerge, however, giving Santos time to rebuild public support. CD frontrunner Francisco Santos’s recent threat to leave the party hints at a split within Uribismo.  The failure of an organized opposition may be the only advantage Santos has at the moment.