Chile's Paradox


Guillermo Hirschfeld, Coordinator for Latin America, FAES Foundation

Chile has held its first round of the presidential elections. 6.5 million Chileans out of 13 million registered voters have cast their vote (low poll attendance). In this Sunday election, the left, led once again by Michelle Bachelet, has obtained a comfortable victory, although not enough for a final victory. With 46.68% of the votes, there will be a second round where the Concertation will confront Evelyn Mattei, who won 25% of the votes.

The key elements of this election are:

1) In this election there were nine presidential candidates, 67 candidates for a seat in the House–thus renewing half of the Senate (20 of 38)–,470 candidates to renew the entire House of Representatives (120 seats) and 1,382 applicants for 278 positions as regional councillors. Bachelet's large triumph has not been matched by the results of the candidates to the Senate and the House of Representatives of the left. New Majority–the name of the cluster that joins the Concertation with other political forces–achieved the majority in both Houses, but the support for the coalition in the National Congress is below the support received by Bachelet. Although the left has achieved a majority in both Houses, it seems that the Concertation has not achieved the qualified majority needed to amend the Constitution (3/5 and 2/3, depending on the chapter) but enough to achieve the majority of 4/7 necessary to change laws that involve major institutional changes, such as a reform of the Organic Law of Education.

2) The Communists could now return to power after 40 years, since this time they have joined forces with the Concertation in the coalition of parties that has won. The last time the Communists were in government was with the Popular Unity (UP), the group of leftist parties that led Salvador Allende to the Palacio de la Moneda in 1970.

3) Economic success by itself is not enough, what has happened in the South American country is a good example of this. Four years ago I wrote that Chile had succeeded in designing a viable alternative, with good proposals and teams to lead ambitious reforms in his country. Although data prove this economic success, however, perhaps what has been lacking is politics. Because few can understand this debacle with the following magic numbers: in the economic sector, the country has grown at an average of 5.5% per year and inflation was contained below 3%; unemployment fell from 9.6% to only 6%, creating nearly a million jobs, thus achieving the promised goal. However, there was no enough political skill to show the Chileans that many of these gains were due to the policies that had been implemented.

4) Sebastian Piñera has led a good government, but he was not capable of articulating a clear political narrative with strong and united party structures. He was unable to offer a strategy capable of channelling two factors: that the achievements were the result of a strong management, and second, making that successful management a winning political project capable of convincing Chilean civil society. It is true that the right is judged by the results and the left by its intentions, but that is nothing new and it is no excuse anyway. Piñera leaves La Moneda with 40% popularity; his predecessor, now the winner of these elections, left with twice that number.

5) With regard to political matters, while Piñera managed to instil the Chilean right with democratic legitimacy–he has been the first president of the Alliance to rule in Chile after Pinochet's dictatorship–it is also true that he was unable of generating a consistent narrative, politically speaking, that could grant continuity to the project that he has embodied.

6) This is one of the hardest results suffered by the Chilean right since the country's return to democracy, results measured in figures and staged by the fracture and weakness felt in the parties that are part of the Alliance. But the worst nightmare, a scenario where Bachelet obtained a landslide victory in the first round with qualified majorities, has not been completely fulfilled. However, everything is possible in politics and, until December 15, anything can happen.

7) Although Bachelet's victory in the second round is taken for granted, the announced Bachelet hurricane was not felt with the expected power. This may generate some disappointment given the very high expectations placed on her, both in votes and in promises.

8) The question that now arises is: given its victory, Chile's left could lose focus and fall into the temptation of breaking the State policies, consensus and sensibility that have hitherto ruled the country. This could lead to a radical account which would not only be detrimental to Chile but to the processes that have already been successfully launched in regional terms, such as the Pacific Alliance.

9) How and who will be responsible of rearranging everything to the right of the left in Chile, in case this result cannot be overturned? In any case, any eccentricity that seeks to return to a past estranging the country from modern democratic values, or the very denial of the legacy and achievements of the Piñera Administration, could be two hazardous and tempting shortcuts for the despair of those who only understand voters as a number. However, these eccentricities would only manage to accelerate the collapse of a project that excited most Chileans four years ago. A reflected and strategic reconstruction process should necessarily start today, and not after the second round, taking advantage of the union that could be generated around the fear that certain Bachelet proposals arouse.

For the sake of Chile and the region, let us hope that the open-mindedness that made Chile one of the countries with the most serious institutional architecture of Latin America manages to succeed both in the left and the right. Let us hope that Chilean democratic maturity prevails over the will of those who ignore how difficult it is to re-build the road to prosperity once it has been destroyed.