There was a chance that Michelle Bachelet would win Chile’s Presidential election outright in the November 17 round of voting. In fact there was mention of an election “tsunami” from within her Nueva Mayoría team of advisors, who, besides running what most observers term an errorless campaign, exuded confidence she could win the required majority-plus-one votes against Evelyn Matthei of the right wing Alianza (and 7 other candidates) to avoid a runoff election. But even though she came close, that did not happen. She received 46.7% of the votes to Matthei’s 25%, so the two will spend another month campaigning. Bachelet clearly won big, so she only needs to keep her supporters interested enough to return to the polls on December 15, and gather enough additional votes from people who supported the secondary candidates, to maintain her distance from Matthei. None of these losing candidates has promised to support her and deliver votes of their supporters to her cause, and since she is not in serious need of cutting a deal with any of these candidates to defend her victory in the second round, she will not offer any of them much to join her effort.
Matthei, on the other hand, must devise a strategy that significantly attracts an additional block of voters to catch up to Bachelet’s comfortable lead, which most observers feel is highly unlikely. One might think that, since only about 50% of the qualified voters actually cast votes in the election, there should be fertile ground “out there” to entice new voters to get in the game and participate in the runoff election. Difficult, but not out of the question, so Matthei has changed here team to include younger members of her coalition, some who won congressional seats in the first round election and hence have proven access and acceptability to important populations of voters. But can she change her message to one that convinces enough voters that she and her cohort care as much about normal Chileans and their struggles to feed, house, educate, and keep healthy their families. Bachelet has done that, but Matthei has not.
So what is likely to happen is that Bachelet will keep her campaign staff in place (why change a winning team, after all!), but try to reach further into the large group of Chileans who did not vote in the first round; skewed towards the young, the poor, and the self-proclaimed “disaffected”, the “indignados”, some of whom just might shelve their skepticism temporarily and join the parade in support of her program of free education for all, tax reform to produce the additional resources needed for this educational reform as well as much needed improvements to the public health system, and a new constitution freed of the trappings of the present constitution that originated in the Pinochet dictatorship.
The Presidential election is only half the story (well, maybe three quarters). On November 17, Chilean voters also elected Senators to the upper house (Senate), and Deputies to the lower house (Chamber) of what they call their Parliament (Legislature). If Bachelet is to be successful at implementing her reform-rich program, she will need support in the legislative branch, and this election gave her a majority in both houses. Candidates from the parties making up Bachelet’s campaign coalition will hold 21 seats in the Senate compared to 16 from the opposition; in the House they will hold a 67 to 49 advantage. This balance (or unbalance, if you wish), should allow Bachelet to win legislative approval for most of the programs and reforms she has campaigned on, although many of these are still very highly generalized and lacking in a fair, detailed assessment of the costs and benefits (monetary and social) associated with each.
One aspect of the “Pinochet” constitution that is attracting a lot of attention and much criticism from a wide range of constitutionalists, politicians, and segments of civil society is what is referred to as “special quorums”. These apply with certain types of legislative proposals that require more than a majority vote to pass; some require 60% and others, such as constitutional reforms, require 75%. It is this latter special quorum that is complicating Bachelet’s campaign promise to create a “new constitution”, because it would allow the opposition to vote en bloc against her proposals for reform. (Observers of the gridlocked US Congress are all too familiar with this tool of power afforded to the minority to stymie, for better or for worse, the will of the majority.) While it is not a given that the right wing minority would object to any and all constitutional reforms requiring this level of approval, it is certainly likely. Hence, believing that this special quorum of 75% is a trap that will inevitably lead to failure of Bachelet to produce a new constitution using the present institutional framework (legislative branch), and in the process preclude her from eliminating these special quorums from the constitution, there is an outcry from a broad range of the Chilean public for an alternative approach, the creation of a “constituent assembly”, to draw up Bachelet’s new constitution.
Matthei and the right parties have been roundly defeated in this election, so far. The right is not as coherent and disciplined politically as the left, and under Bachelet’s guiding hand the left coalition formed to obtain Bachelet’s election has become more inclusive by welcoming the Communist Party into the coalition while keeping the more centrist Christian Democrats also in house. It is one thing for a party like the Communists to join the campaign, but another to join her government once she is elected. It is pretty clear that this time, differing from the first time she was President, Bachelet will form her government with less of a need to succumb to influence from the leadership of the political parties who supported her campaign. (Polls show that while Bachelet is popular, the political parties that support her are not.) Bachelet probably has her government pretty much staffed and first steps planned, but some observers believe that because of this second round of voting there is still room for Matthei and her Alianzasupporters to influence how and with whom Bachelet eventually governs. This is more apt to occur if Matthei is able to challenge Bachelet’s proposed program enough to seed doubts about its effects, and its eventual costs. There will be at least one face-to-face debate, something that did not effectively happen in the first round, so Matthei has at least that chance to show to the voting public (and the previous non-voting public) what she and the right think are the serious shortfalls of Bachelet’s program.
A strong showing in the runoff by Matthei, which would require expanding her vote count considerably, might temper how Bachelet interprets her mandate and influence her choices when she finally names her team to govern and determines her priorities. On the other hand, a weak showing by the right could result in an even more overwhelming victory in the runoff election and leave Bachelet with the even greater feeling that she has won a clear mandate for her program, and can proceed unfettered.
One interesting and indicative decision Bachelet made almost immediately after winning the first round election was to enlist the support of four attractive young victors of seats in the Chamber of Deputies to join her in public campaign events. These are the very attractive past leaders of the student movement, who took to the streets over the past two years to force politicians and public opinion to pay attention to important social issues like education, health care, and equity of opportunity and wealth which have been begging for attention and reform for years. These leaders of the future campaigned under Bachelet’s Nueva Mayoría banner and having parlayed their popularity into electoral victory will join the Chamber of Deputies in March, bringing fresh energy to that often stodgy body. Three of them have joined the Communist Party, and as such the Party has doubled the seats it holds in that body from 3 members to 6. These former student protest leaders all were once vociferous critics of Bachelet, and even now openly proclaim that they are joining the legislative branch initially within her coalition, but with only one foot, while the other they are keeping in the street with their comrades of the civil social movement. Time will tell if they drink Bachelet’s Kool Aid, or she drinks theirs. It also remains to be seen how independent of their party these young legislators will be.
So are Chileans turning their backs on the policies and practices that have given the country economic progress for the past two plus decades? Are the Chilean voters indifferent to what it will take to fulfill the recently released OECD projection that Chile’s will be the most dynamic economy in the biennium 2014-15 of all the 34 members of this club of developed and emerging economies? Will Bachelet, in her drive to make Chile a more “just and equitable” society still be able to deliver economic growth of 4.5% in 2014 and 4.9% in 2015 as projected by the OECD analysts? To put this in context, compare these numbers to projections for the US (2.9% and 3.4%) or the EU (1.0% and 1.6%). Some local analysts and commentators are drawing the conclusion that this election may be showing that Chileans are as interested in social growth (equity, participation, environmental health) as they are in economic growth, and while they may still want growth, they are willing for that rate of aggregate growth to be slower than it has been, if by slowing down and limiting the excesses and abuses of their relatively free market economy they can attend to some of their social needs better.
In some ways it all looks a lot like Chile in 1970, when the Allende government raced to socialize the Chilean economy and society, self destructing (with a lot of help from the opposition and other enemies) with the resultant calamity the results of which still infect Chilean society and politics. This is the outcome of a Bachelet victory that the likes of the Wall Street Journal and other conservative analysts are predicting (or fearing). But it also looks a lot like Bachelet may in a way be Chile’s Barack Obama. The reform wave she is riding feels a lot like the vibes around Obama’s victory in 2008. Even her speeches sound a bit like his, and her endless promises while exciting, add up to an impossible agenda her inability for whatever reason to implement run the risk of leading to high levels of disappointment (like Obama also). Admittedly, Obama was not proposing the drafting of a new constitution like she is, nor was he a self-defined Socialist like she is.
For Chile’s sake, one can only hope that Bachelet is more capable of setting realistic priorities, corralling her supporters to her side consistently to promote and implement her program, and that the Chilean legislative branch can avoid the costly, divisive partisan gridlock Obama has faced for his entire time in office.
But wait…our work is not done here. No summary and no conclusions quite yet. There is more campaigning, another vote on the 15th of December, and a government to form in March of 2014. Let’s keep watching. These Chileans are truly quite entertaining as they struggle to rebuild an economy, a society, and a democracy.
Posted in Santiago, Chile on November 20,2013