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Chile’s Presidential Election; Heating Up!!

Only 40 days to go before Chileans elect a new president, and there are a few signs of the upcoming presidential election, refreshingly few compared to the maddening overkill of election propaganda that precedes elections in the US by tediously long months. The first candidate sign I saw was along the ciclovia where I walk each morning, for Michelle Bachelet, the candidate of the “Nueva Mayoría” movement she has organized for her campaign.  Then, several blocks away there was a sign for Laurence Golborne, who was an early candidate for the presidential nomination of the right-wing coalition, the Alianza, but he ran into trouble with some of his past business and personal finance acrobatics, and had to desist.  However, he is a relatively attractive, popular, and young politician, so he quickly got back in the game and is now running for a Senate seat and could ultimately become a player in the congress if, of course, he wins.  You may remember him as the ever-present Minister of Mining who oversaw the rescue of the 33 men trapped in a mine in northern Chile a couple of years back. 

After walking around a bit I finally found a large sign for Bachelet’s opponent, Evelyn Matthei, whose theme Un 7 Para Chile invokes the maximum grade students can earn in Chilean schools….a 7.  Alongside her sign was one for Andres Allamand, a center-right politician who tried to become the presidential candidate for the right wing Alianzacoalition, but failed, so he is also running for Senator.  The candidate who beat him for the nomination was diagnosed shortly after with clinical depression, and also desisted, leaving the field open for the party leaders of the Alianza to choose  their candidate to run against Bachelet (and several others), and they chose Matthei.

But the campaigns for president and congress, like the weather in Santiago, are heating up.  The major candidates are slowly releasing their specific programs, initially focusing on the themes that were brought to the front (via the streets) over the past months especially by the series of student strikes, protests, and takeovers of schools (tomas).  The most passionate discussions are over the way education and health services should be financed (public vs. Private, free vs. subsidized), and whether the actual constitution (written during the military dictatorship and amended during the center-left Concertación administration of Ricardo Lagos) should be reformed/amended/modified via institutional processes or a constituent assembly.  There are 7 candidates for president in addition to Bachelet and Matthei, and in some ways these other candidates are more interesting in that many represent the next generation of Chilean politicians and refreshingly new political thought; they are more forward looking than either Bachelet or Matthei both of whom are seriously steeped in the past, a past many Chileans would like to move on from.
Moving on from some of the darker and more controversial periods in Chile’s recent history (let’s say, the last 45 years) is proving difficult. Many Chileans (and Chile watchers) appear to believe the only history of Chile worth considering began in 1973 with the golpe; others choose a starting point of 1970 with the election of the Socialist, self-described Marxist Salvador Allende; and others (myself included) rather prefer to see the modern history of Chile beginning with the election of Eduardo Frei Montalva in 1964, starting a period of progressive but destabilizing social and economic reforms much in concert with the Alliance for Progress and which directly challenged the power of the rightist, conservative, land owning minority who had arranged things nicely for themselves up to this point.  
Our arrival in Chile this time coincided with a significant increase in the level of public analysis of the golpe that led to the Pinochet military dictatorship, and to a degree, the Unidad Popular government of Allende (1970-73) that preceded (and led to) the golpe.  The series of celebrations and memorials held this year to note the 40th anniversary of the golpe (September 11) and the 15th anniversary of the NO plebiscite which confirmed the end of the dictatorship (October 5), uncorked a pent up need for deeper analysis and reflection on the meaning of these two events that so drastically changed the course of Chilean history.  Certainly one reason for this national catharsis is the political and historical juxtaposition of the two major presidential candidates, but another reason so much is being said about who did what and why during this period when Chile experimented with socialism and lost its hold on democratic government, I suggest, is that many of the major actors in the Allende and Pinochet governments, and the Concertacion governments who guided the transition from military dictatorship to democratic governance, are reaching a ripe old age where they are concerned about how history will judge them.  So they are helping history (while they can still remember what they did or wished they had done) by writing books describing all the challenges they faced, the hardships they persevered, the risks they took to take Chile in the right direction in the face of great opposition and personal sacrifice, all the while making sure to place a lot of the blame for what happened on the US and other outsiders meddling in Chile during the cold war. This period of pre-election reflection has definitely heated things up as the political campaigns now take off.
One way to look at the presidential election options in a general enough way so as to avoid getting bogged down in details, is in terms of how the candidates feel about the socio-economic-political “model” all administrations including and subsequent to the military dictatorship have applied for the last 25 to 30 years. This “model”, originating inside the Pinochet government and delineated in the constitution they wrote to guide Chile from then on, and then modified during the Lagos regime to eliminate some of the more egregious un-democratic, authoritarian clauses, to this day essentially defines socio-economic Chile as having a subsidiary State with utmost economic freedom, unrestricted private property, privatization of education, and limitations on social rights and political participation.  Basically, the present constitution establishes a market economy for the country and defines the institutions which ensure the continuation of this “model”.
Ex-president Bachelet governed Chile from 2006 to 2010 without seriously challenging this “model”; she wanted to make significant inroads in the health and other social sectors, but tried to do so without negatively affecting the economic model  she and her three elected predecessors inherited from the dictatorship.  Her concerns this time around, however, seem to be broader and she has stated that she is more willing to consider significant changes to the constitution that would lead to more political participation (larger congress with broader representation), and elimination of election processes that are favorable to the minority (bi-nominal election process, congressional voting processes that allow minority veto of initiatives). To make these changes she is willing to consider a constituent assembly to do so, an idea that reminds many wary Chileans of the type of populist politics recently practiced in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, none of which most Chileans admire.
Bachelet is skating towards the election on the thin ice of her extremely broad coalition, unable to present concrete proposals for her administration because she must satisfy everyone from the Communist Party on the left, to the Christian Democrats who often position themselves in the very uncomfortable center right (especially on social issues like abortion and same sex marriage).  She is, therefore, in her public appearances and in the press, relying heavily on her down-to-earth personality, accessible and sympathetic, to appear open to the desires and needs of everyone, while not being too specific as to how she would satisfy so many demands.  Because of her soft touch delivery, people who listen to her walk away with the idea that she is to be trusted to give them what they want, without her having said precisely that.  In the face to harsh demands by the press and her opposition for a clearer and more specific program for her government should she be elected, she has promised to provide just such a document during the last week in October.  She claims, however, that there is virtue in locking herself in to a detailed set of promises now, since she is “still listening and consulting with everyone”; she believes a good leader is always ready to change course if a new, better idea pops up.
Matthei, on the other hand, is clearly more supportive of the “model”, while allowing that some changes  may be necessary to provide broader political participation in decision making but she is really not too excited about that either. She certainly is not interested in a constituent assembly to make changes to the constitution, believing any required changes can be made via normal institutional processes.  Her campaign has released a specific program for her future government, that focuses on measures to strengthen public security and ensure continued economic growth through establishment of clearer “rules of the game” and hence stability for investors, producers, consumers, and borrowers.  She would strengthen government transparency and supports more aggressive efforts to eliminate tax evasion and avoidance, but does not propose tax reform per se.  She believes the tax and constitutional reform proposals Bachelet has made would seriously weaken the economy.  She suggests that Chile should be looking to Finland and other Nordic countries for socio economic policies to emulate.
Right now most analysts and the “Chilean Street” are predicting Bachelet will win with a plurality of votes in the first round, in which case a runoff election would not be necessary.  However, the proliferation of candidates most of whom will take votes away from Bachelet not Matthei, could force the second round.  And, it is not entirely clear what the effect will be of the fact that this is the first presidential election held since the election law was changed to have automatic registration to vote but allow  voting to be voluntary. (In the past, Chileans had to register to vote, but then voting was required).

I have heard the view that the real issue now is not who will win, but how Bachelet decides to win, and how Mattei decides to lose.  To me it is what I imagine an election would look like between Barack Obama and Margaret Thatcher.  Although now that I think about it, maybe more like Hillary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher (although Michelle smiles more than Hillary, and Evelyn more than Margaret did!).

As I was walking home last evening from a discussion with a history professor from the Universidad Catolica who is doing research on the Peace Corps, I decided to pass by Avenida Suecia where the Peace Corps office was when my group of volunteers was in Chile in the late 1960s.  This trendy Providencia neighborhood that had classic mansions on tree-lined streets at that time has been turned into an area of high rise office and apartment buildings, so I was surprised to find that the old house that was the Peace Corps office is still there, painted entirely white and just as stately as I remember it.  Ironically, however, it now houses the national headquarters of the far right UDI  party, Matthei’s party, and her campaign headquarters has been established right across the street.  Must be something seeping out of the walls of that house that make those who enter feel strongly about Chile and its development.

House on Avenida Suecia in Santiago where Peace Corps Headquarters was in 1960s 

One more small election anecdote…remember Camila Vallejos, the attractive firebrand student leader who led the first student protests and strikes a couple of years ago which turned into an almost permanent student protest movement in opposition to the Pinera government and “the Model”, who travelled around the world electrifying leftists everywhere and ended up being featured in favorable articles in the Economist and the New York Times?  Well, she is firmly ensconced in the communist party, is running for a deputy slot in the national Camara (like the US House of Representatives) from the La Florida neighborhood of Santiago, and has just had a healthy baby girl.  She is as active and attractive as ever.

Stay tuned….more to come.

Posted in Santiago on October 9, 2013.

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David Joslyn
David Joslyn, after a 45-year career in international development with USAID, Peace Corps, The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and private sector consulting firms, divides his time between his homes in Virginia and Chile. Since 2010, David has been writing about Chile and Chileans, often based upon his experience with the Peace Corps in Chile and his many travels throughout the country with family and friends.
David Joslyn

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One thought on “Chile’s Presidential Election; Heating Up!!”

  1. Avatar
    Marjorie Burdetsky says:

    Muy interesante! Gracias!

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