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.

Brazil: Surge in Divisive Politics

By Marcus Vinicius Rossi da Rocha*

Two politicians debate

Brazilian right-wing politician Jair Bolsonaro disparages fellow politician Maria do Rosário during a debate on violence against women. / Marcelo Camargo / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Political tumult, constant corruption scandals, and widespread popular loss of confidence in political institutions have given rise to divisive right-wing movements that, although not poised to win office in the 2018 elections, are laying the groundwork to have an impact on Brazilian politics in coming years.  Brazil will elect a president and both houses of Congress in October 2018, after five years of economic crisis (3.6 percent contraction in 2016); corruption scandals (President Michel Temer is still under investigation in the Lava Jato probe); low confidence in government (Temer has 3 percent approval); and political instability.  Many observers believe Brazilian democracy could be in peril.

Two factors in particular – the economic decline and the odor of taint surrounding Temer and the political class – are fueling a surge in right-wing and populist politics.  Conservative and market-oriented agendas are, unsurprisingly, gaining momentum, but also are challenges to the country’s three decades of democracy, including the defense of torture and military dictatorship.  The surge is seen in three main areas:

  • The Free Brazil Movement (Movimento Brasil Livre, MBL) is a youth libertarian movement born in early 2014 following the mass street protests of 2013, which its leaders helped organize. While promoting free speech, less government, individual liberty, and market-oriented reforms, its agenda emphasizes moral issues as an electoral strategy.  It mobilizes protesters against left-leaning politicians and gay art exhibits and succeeded in shutting one event down on spurious grounds.
  • Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain turned lawmaker, is famous for his defense of torture and the death penalty, his opposition to human rights protections, and his praise for the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil in 1964-85. Proud of his lack of political correctness, he compares himself to U.S. President Donald Trump, and he casts himself as engaged in a moral struggle to save the nation.  He promises to withdraw Brazil from international human rights agreements; opposes gay marriage; and wants to adopt the death penalty and loosen gun laws.  In a speech on the House floor one time, he told a female legislator and human rights defender, “I do not rape you because you are not worth it.” He was reprimanded by the courts for this and other statements, but a leading public opinion institute Datafolha shows him with almost 20 percent of popular support.
  • A handful of senior active-duty and reservist military officers also seem to be crossing the line with greater frequency, openly speaking about “constitutional military intervention.” These officers espouse a highly disputed interpretation of Article 142 of the Constitution – which states that the “Armed Forces aims … to defend the homeland, to assure the constitutional powers, and, by initiative of any of these powers, to assure law and order” – to argue that the Constitution gives the Armed Forces authorization to intervene in politics.  At an event a few weeks ago, General Antonio Hamilton Mourão said that if the judiciary does not fix the government’s corruption problem, the Armed Forces could.  The high command remained silent.

Few analysts believe that the 2018 elections will be obstructed in any way, but the years of crisis, compounded by the polarizing rhetoric and activities of frustrated conservatives, will put checks and balances to test.  A military coup is highly unlikely – the Army is not eager to run the state again – but the apparent politicization of institutions sworn to defend the rule of law could cause others to flout the Constitution.  Congressman Bolsonaro does not appear likely to score big in 2018.  His party is small, but his popularity could very well give a boost to similarly minded groups poised to gain ground in Congress. This could lead to more than a continued shift toward the interests of construction firms, financial system, and agriculture sector that support them; it could portend a dismantling of decades of work to build democratic institutions; end torture and police brutality; and protect citizens’ rights to choice, freedom from discrimination based on sex or sexual orientation; pro-choice laws, gay rights, and indigenous rights.  Three decades of democracy won’t be reversed easily, but the next several years call for healing, not a new politics of division.

 October 5, 2017

* Marcus Rocha is a Ph.D. Candidate in Public Policy at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil) and a CLALS Research Fellow specializing in the Brazilian executive branch and corruption in municipalities.

Colombia’s Peace Accord and the Prospects of the War System

By Nazih Richani*

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A FARC demobilization zone is visited by the UN Security Council Field Mission. / UK Mission to the UN / Lorey Campese / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Colombian peace accord has achieved another historic landmark, but the process has been anything but easy – and continues to face serious impediments.  The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have deposited 60 percent of their weapons in UN containers to be destroyed, a watershed in the history of Colombia, as the 53-year-old insurgent group enters a new phase.  A coalition of political and social groups, however, continues efforts to stymie implementation of the accord.  It includes large landowners, cattle ranchers, agribusinesses, ultra-right religious groups, and extractive multinational corporations.  Its leading spokesmen are former President Álvaro Uribe and former Attorney General Alejandro Ordóñez, who are spearheading a vigorous campaign arguing that President Juan Manuel Santos and his government conceded too much to the FARC, compromising private property rights, the prevailing land-tenure system, and the country’s Christian values.  (The official line of the Colombian Catholic Church, which has strongly conservative factions, has been “neutral” on the peace accord, although Pope Francis has expressed strong support for it.)

These forces have flexed their muscles before.  They were instrumental in mobilizing opposition to the referendum on the accord last October, which forced the government to incorporate their demands by making the language of the accord clear that property rights and the agribusiness-extractive-rentier economic model remained dominant.  The opposition remains on the offensive, this time using the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Constitutional Court.  While Public Prosecutor Nestor Humberto Martínez was going after FARC money, alleging that the rebels did not declare all their assets, the Constitutional Court challenged the “Fast-Track” process by which passage of bills related to implementation of the peace accord could be accelerated by reducing the number of parliamentary debates and the time required for approval.  This opened the door for the opposition coalition in parliament to challenge the accord repeatedly with protracted debate and amendments.  Its main goal has been to prevent any change in the rural land tenure system and block the inclusion of the FARC in the political process.

The opponents’ ability to tip the political balance against the accord is likely to grow as Colombia prepares for its presidential election in May 2018.  The Santos government, the left, and center-left have already looked weak while trying to make even modest reforms necessary to create conditions for a lasting peace and facilitating a transition from a war system political economy to a different one.  The paramilitaries, including old groups that remained operative after the formal demobilization of 2005-06 (such as the “Urabeños,” mutated from the former United-Defense Forces, AUC); the drug cartels and organized crime; the dramatic expansion of coca plantations; and mining of dubious legality are important components of the “old” war system that are still potent and fuel the reactionary coalition.  The exit of the FARC (and possibly the National Liberation Army, ELN, as well) are certain to change the composition and political economy of the war system that has shaped Colombia for more than four decades, but new actors (the Urabeños and others) are emerging and mutations are taking place.  These forces will persist and wield considerable power as long as Colombia is not willing or capable of addressing the countrys need for agrarian reforms and pursuing sustainable economic development based on a more equitable distribution of wealth and income.

June 27, 2017

* Nazih Richani is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Latin American Studies at Kean University.  In 2014, the State University of New York Press published a revised and updated version of his 2002 study entitled Systems of Violence: The Political Economy of War and Peace in Colombia.