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Chile’s Election; Down to the Wire

We are just a few short days away from the presidential elections in Chile, and most observers are convinced Michelle Bachelet will win large. Her main opponent, Evelyn Matthei, is around 20 percentage points behind in most polls.  There are nine candidates from across the political spectrum vying for the position, since it is so easy to collect the number of signatures (50,000) required to qualify to be on the national ballot. One observer commented recently that a couple of the candidates may actually receive fewer votes in the election than signatures they collected to enter the race! Because of this plethora of candidates splitting the total vote, Bachelet may not receive the “majority plus one” of total valid votes required to win in the first round and thus avoid a runoff election between the two top vote earners. In the case that a second round is needed, it would be held one month after the first, in mid-December, with Bachelet, member of the Socialist Party and supported in the campaign by the modified “Concertación” movement she named “Nueva Mayoría” face-to-face with Matthei, supported by the same right of center coalition, the Alianza, that supports the present and outgoing president Sebastián Piñera.
As the campaign has progressed over the past few weeks, the positions taken and the personality of campaigns of the two leading candidates present a clear choice to the voters.  On the one hand, Matthei has carried water for the proponents of the position that Chile has progressed remarkably, albeit not perfectly, towards “developed” status after 24 years of gradual escape from the institutions (and lack thereof) left by the Pinochet dictatorship. Matthei points out stridently that this progress must not be impeded by drastic public policy changes that could threaten this pace of development.  Supporting this position are the results of recent polls and analyses from respected Chilean and international institutions. More than 70% of Chileans believe Chile is the best country in which to live in Latin America (Encuesta Bicentenario). Freedom House classifies Chile as fully democratic since 2000. In terms of human development indicated by life expectancy (longest in Latin America with 78.2 years, about the same as the US), Infant mortality at 9 per 1,000, education, literacy and quality of life, Chile is ranked 40 of 183 countries and the highest of all Latin American countries. To wit, obesity is more of a problem than malnourishment.  Unemployment is at its lowest level in 30 years and GDP per capita at its highest, just short of US$ 20,000.  The IMF believes the most optimistic scenarios for economic performance over the near future in Latin America are in Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico (countries which, by the way, are joined in a “Pacific alliance” formed recently to enhance their trade position with the very attractive and growing Asian markets).
On the other hand, Bachelet has clearly crafted her campaign to sync with the opinions of Chileans as reflected in recent public opinion polling that, surprising to some given the situation just described and touted by Matthei, reflects a significant desire to move away from private sector and market solutions especially where “social rights” are involved.  85% of those polled want to reduce salary inequality, 67% support tax reform, usually meaning increase taxes on companies and the rich, 81% believe a government-run retirement fund should be established to compete with the private programs to reduce the costs (read profits) earned by the private funds, 74% agree that university education should be free and universal, 80% are in favor of renationalizing the copper industry, 82% support the creation of a network of public pharmacies, 70% want the government to take over the public transportation system.The underlying issue is equality.

Bachelet surely respects the economic growth Chile has experienced over the past two decades, but she wants to give more importance to distribution of wealth, not just total growth and per capita averages. (She probably keeps in the front of her mind the classic calculation: Two brothers have two chickens for dinner; one eats both, the other none.  Per capita consumption of chicken: one chicken per brother!).    And on top of this equity issue, or maybe because of it, there is a strong push from many different levels of Chilean society to adopt a new constitution to rid the country of the constitution forced through by the Dictatorship but subsequently amended in a new version signed by then President Ricardo Lagos in 2005. 

The option of forming a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution has been a burning issue during this campaign.  It is an idea that gets most of its support from Chileans who seem driven to erase everything created by the Pinochet dictatorship and by those who see the process of developing a new constitution as a way to bring broad sectors of society, who feel they have been left out and are not represented in today’s decision-making institutions, into the discussion on the future of their country.  Bachelet firmly supports a new constitution, and has not discarded the idea of a constituent assembly.  As with many of her statements and the program she has made public so far, it is hard to tell how far she would actually go to produce a complex, new constitution. At times she appears to be allergic to a constituent assembly, probably the case because the process surely would dominate her entire time in office and possibly not even produce a new constitution.  Matthei, on the other hand, is openly opposed to calling a constituent assembly, believing it to be a dangerous proposal, even destabilizing, and that it is also unnecessary in that the specific changes needed in the constitution should be debated and agreed upon within the existing institutions established to do just that, especially the Congress.

The campaigns so far have not addressed how Chile will continue its march towards the next level of development.  Chile is a member of the OECD (along with Mexico the only Latin American members), but it, along with Mexico and Turkey, is not an industrialized country, making comparisons of socio-economic data with other OECD countries tricky. Chile still relies heavily on income from the mining sector, especially copper.  The outlook for the price of copper, now high but with a tendency to decrease below US$ 3.00 per pound, puts Chile’s economy at risk.  One viable option to decrease the dependency on copper is to shift investment from the mining sector slowly towards forest products, fisheries, fresh fruits and vegetables, and wine, the sectors which have begun to show some degree of efficiency and competitiveness in the world market.  These sectors suffer from the high cost of energy, increasing labor scarcity, and years of indifference to environmental protection of basic natural resources of soil and water.  Neither of the two leading candidates has put forward any specifics nor even shown any indication to be concerned about the investments in education, research, and innovation necessary to continue the modernization of these productive sectors and the addition of new areas of production.  The best example of this is the agri-food sector, where Chile actually has advanced over the recent decade and is potentially a globally important exporter of agriculture products.  However, when the candidates were invited recently to an important annual symposium on Chile’s place in the global agriculture and food economy, not one of the candidates chose to participate.
So as we move to the election with the general feeling that Bachelet will eventually be elected president, with a large margin if she wins in the first round, and probably an even larger margin if they have to go to a second round, the issue now really becomes how she will govern and what happens to the right wing coalition.  It is interesting to note that were a president in the US to win by the margin being projected for Bachelet, it would be termed a very strong mandate for the program being put forward. To a certain degree, the simultaneous congressional elections of senators and deputies will determine the extent Bachelet can govern with support from her coalition to pass legislation.  She seems very close to having that outcome, but these elections are harder to predict.  Another important factor is that at this point, that is, for the campaign, Bachelet is bookended within her coalition by the Communist Party on the left and the Christian Democrat Party on the right.  If she moves too close to the business sector and too slowly on reforms of the tax structure and the health and education sectors,  Communists will rebel; in fact, it still remains to be seen if they will actually join her government.  At any rate, they will have several seats in Congress.  If she moves too far left, especially on certain social issues like same sex marriage and abortion, the Christian Democrats will push back.  But the elephant in the room, the first and possibly the biggest issue Bachelet will have to deal with that could determine how successful her presidency is, is the issue of forming a constituent assembly to prepare a new constitution.  If she is forced into a constituent assembly-type process by her own party, the Socialists, she will have a very difficult time fulfilling the promises she has made to improve significantly the health and education systems, deal with the Mapuche and other indigenous populations’ claims, and develop a national energy policy which addresses the rapidly increasing costs of energy in Chile. 

The right wing Alianza will come out of this election soundly defeated, by Bachelet and by themselves. Bachelet’s coalition is much more disciplined than that of Matthei.  That may not hold past the campaign, but the difference between the two is noteworthy. I heard an interesting comment recently that Piñerahad a pretty good presidency but he was a bad president.  And Bachelet had a pretty mediocre presidency (2006-2010) but she was a good president.  I’m not sure who coined this idea initially, but it does seem to come down to the “poetry” and “prose” of running public affairs.  One has to do with running the government (prose) and the other with understanding your people, connecting with the people who have unmet aspirations and needs, and projecting the feeling that you share the ups and downs of daily life of those whose lives are not easy and often precarious. (poetry)  Piñera had little poetry, and Matthei has even less.  To be fair, the right wing coalition in Chile has really only governed for 4 years since 1964, compared to 26 for the left.  The right now has a newly formed reservoir of talent versed and experienced in the nuts and bolts of governance, and new leaders with more finely honed political skills are now available.  My guess is that the temptation for these folks, as they watch their TVs Sunday night, will be (if they haven’t been doing so already) to grab the phone, line up a job in the private sector, maybe overseas as so many talented Chileans do, and bail from the political scene at least for a while.  Maybe.  But maybe not, and if not, the right will be better ready for another chance in the near future to get back in the game.  Bachelet’s well-orchestrated poetry will be a big reason for her winning this election, as is expected, but she will need to deliver the prose of governance much better than she did the last time, or she will again, in four years, deliver the country to the opposition.
Posted in Santiago, Chile, on November 13, 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.

2 thoughts on “Chile’s Election; Down to the Wire”

  1. Jim Hogan says:

    Hi Dave, Our friend Rene sent this to me. He seems to be your publicist – when does he actually work?: In any case, I enjoyed your analysis. For me, the take away is : why do the Chileans want to fuck up all the progress they have already made as a nation…..siempre quejandose. You look like the same rabbi I remember from way back when. Un abrazote, Jim

    1. Dave says:

      Well, another reader commented the following, somewhat to your point: “My guess is that it will swing to the left, thus erasing some of the economic gains of recent past. But if gains go to only a few and not shared are they really gains? As you know, we can say the same for this country.”

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