Chile’s Election; Stumbling to the Finish
This is the last week of the second round of campaigning for Chile’s next president; the definitive runoff vote between Sebastian Piñera and Alejandro Guillier is Sunday, December 17.
Everyone pretty much agrees this election holds special importance. It could mark the end of the “transition” from dictatorship to democracy, begun in 1990 with the presidency of Patricio Aylwin, followed by the elections of Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, Ricardo Lagos, Michelle Bachelet (twice) and Sebastian Piñera. This period is notable for having benefited from alternation between major political coalitions and gender. All these leaders have guided the country generally towards a coherent national strategy based on what some refer to as “modernized capitalism”, rebuilding of civil society and institutions debilitated by the dictatorship, and free trade arrangements with the rest of the world. Compromise decision making was a hallmark of these governments.
Over this period of resurgence of democracy, poverty has been diminished significantly, albeit not enough, and the middle class has grown, has better housing, more purchasing power and greater access to education and health services, but again, not enough. Chile’s recent growth exhibits wide inequities, although that, too, is slowly improving. You might be tempted to conclude, if you have watched Chile for the past half century like this writer has, that Chile is about half the way towards what is generally thought to be “developed” status. This election is about how to keep going towards higher levels of socioeconomic development. It reflects the age old struggle between the socio and the economic; the discourse at times ignores the fact that real development must focus on, and blend, both.
So leading up to this runoff election on Sunday, Sebastián Piñera, the center right candidate and winner of the first round of voting, has been trying to convince the disaffected Christian Democrat voters (whose candidate lost badly in the first round) and others from the political center that, if elected, he will return the country to a higher rate of economic growth but also pay more attention to social issues than he did the last time he was president. He has finally come around to supporting some level of free university education although he wants it mostly for technical level education, and he cautions that if the economy does not return to higher growth levels it will not be possible. This is a key issue which can fill the streets with young protesters, and win votes. Notwithstanding this shift in his position on free higher education, Piñera has not moved very far away from his conservative base program. He needs the votes of those who supported the more extreme independent candidate,José Antonio Kast, in the first round. With Kast’s strong support, which he received right after the first round, and that of the other popular right-of-center politician, Manuel José Ossandón, Piñera seems to have firmed up support from the conservative side of the voting public. His core message is still his commitment to return the country to higher rates of economic growth which will produce more and better paying jobs, and to exercise more efficient public sector services especially in health care and public safety.
Guillier on the other hand has stuck with his message that if elected he will follow through on the basic reform package President Bachelet has been pushing for the past four years. This includes tax reform to pay for free higher education, reform of the retirement system, and early steps to devise a new national constitution.
During the past couple of weeks both candidates have had ample opportunities to present their plans, and respond to questions from the press and the public in general. A commendable process of public debates and regulated use of the media has allowed for a free flow of information from and about the candidates and their programs, but new proposals or plans have not been offered. The process seems to have tired everyone out, especially the candidates themselves. So, both sides are mostly looking for the soft spots in their opponent’s message, or personality, to attack. It seems like they may have hired veteran campaign advisers from the recent US elections to lower the level of discourse. Thankfully, it is not yet in the Chilean nature to go quite as dark and personally offensive as the US experiences of late.
Guillier ran into trouble for a threat he made publicly to “put his hand into the pockets of rich businessmen, relieving them of their money and making them patriots for a change!” This did not go over well. Nobody, rich or poor, enjoys this image, so he had to retract his words, if not the intent. He has also at times had a difficult time explaining programs that have been proposed publicly by his campaign on his behalf. This campaign has been one of very little precision related to how the candidates’ programs would be implemented.
The issue of transgender dysphoria tripped up Piñera in a recent interview as he tried to answer a question on this sensitive subject. Chileans are pretty quick to pile on a slip-up like this, in spite of the fact that most, if the truth be known, would not know (yet) how to deal appropriately with the transgender subject either. My suggestion to Sebastian Piñera would be to immediately go see the award winning Chilean movie “Una Mujer Fantástica”, staring Chilean actress Daniela Vega (trans); the same advice goes for all Chileans, and readers of this blog. It is truly a wonderfully directed movie and Daniela is, yes, fantastic.
After all is said and done, Alejandro Guillier finds himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. He claimed all through the first round campaign that if elected he will essentially continue the Bachelet-led Nueva Mayoria coalition and program of reforms. Due to that coalition’s slow dissolution, and low public opinion ratings for Bachelet’s leadership generally, he did not receive the level of votes in the first round he expected. What makes his situation more difficult is the new coalition of small, mostly leftist, parties, the Frente Amplio. This coalition’s candidate, Beatriz Sanchez, received a respectable number of votes in the first round, almost equaling Guillier, but they are not rushing to get on Guillier’s bandwagon. In fact, even though Sanchez has said she will vote “against Piñera” (i.e.,for Guillier), she and the rest of the Frente Amplio leaders have not joined Guillier’s campaign nor are they interested in joining his team if he wins. The entire Frente Amplio leadership, and probably many of their voters, so far are more committed to being in the opposition for the next four years, regardless of who wins the election. To win, Guillier must pick up a large percentage of votes that went to Sanchez in the first round. Without the full support of the Frente Amplio, and so far he does not have it, Guillier’s chances are diminished.
Bachelet has become Guillier’s most committed supporter in the last days of the campaign. It is her legacy Guillier is defending. If he loses, Piñera is her legacy. This would be the second time she turns the tricolor presidential sash over to a right wing government led by Piñera. She has donned her white medical jacket during these last weeks of the campaign, to inaugurate clinics and hospitals, and Guillier often shows up next to her on the dais. And, when Piñera publicly cites accomplishments he believes he should get credit for, Bachelet’s official spokesperson and other ministerial level officers regularly contradict or belittle his statements. Her team is all in for Guillier. This kind of involvement of a sitting administration, while permitted, was not common in the recent elections in Chile. It may, however, be more so in the future.
Barring some significant gaff or broad insult from one of the candidates, the vote on Sunday will probably be close. The final vote for Piñera will be determined by how many additional voters he can attract as he moves slightly to the center. One of my confidential Chilean sources of information, admittedly a solid Piñera supporter, claims that over the course of the second round campaign, Piñera has held on to his 36% of first round voters, added most of Kast’s, some of Goic’s voters who are die hard right leaning Christian Democrats, a few of Sanchez’s voters who were protesting believing she had no chance of winning but now will get serious with their vote, and some Guillier defectors who voted for him in the first round to ensure Piñera would not govern with a mandate by winning in the first round. He thinks that combination will take Piñera over the top. (I know; this reasoning stretches my imagination also.)
On the other hand, the additional voters Guillier needs to add to his first round tally of 22%, are mostly sitting under the Frente Amplio tent, inclined and conditioned to be in the opposition, allergic to Piñera but unwilling to compromise enough to support Guillier.
Given this scenario, admittedly sketched from afar, the outcome on Sunday will depend upon the voters who are still undecided and most likely in the political center. They will have to decide whether Piñera or Guillier, neither of which they especially like or trust, is most apt to govern with a more successful economic growth agenda than Bachelet, but concerned enough about inequality of opportunity and wealth to continue some important parts of Bachelet’s reforms. Several of the most loyal readers of this blog tell me they think Piñera will win with about 52% of the votes. Several others predict Guillier will draw enough Frente Amplio votes to win by 2% points. Unknown is how many voters will submit blank votes, voting for neither candidate.
A Chilean academic I have known for years, a self proclaimed product of the ’60s with “Patria Joven and Eduardo Frei Montalva in his heart”, is leery of the strong pull to the left that Frente Amplio would surely exert on Guillier. So he is still undecided, but is “probably” voting for Piñera. This lukewarm nature of his decision seems to reflect what is going on within a large portion of the Chilean voting public at this time.
The center is no longer providing good, known, respectable candidates. The old guard is moving on, and the reserves are not yet ready. Guillier simply does not have the stature of center left leaders Chile is used to. He probably, if elected, would do OK, but not great. Or maybe he would become entrapped by the Frente Amplio leftist ideology, a tendency he, in a fit of gratuitous spontaneity, evoked at the end of a rally with his call “Hasta la Victoria, Siempre!“, a call to victory made popular by Fidel Castro (or was it Che Guevara?) and repeated regularly by Venezuelans Chavez and Maduro. The right is moving slowly towards the center as it develops a program that addresses social needs and debilitating inequalities, and Piñera is a known entity. He is not very exciting, but will govern, if elected, with a steady, though conservative, hand.
Whoever wins this election will have a difficult time governing. Neither will have a simple majority in Congress to count on for legislation. Either will face an aggressive opposition from the Frente Amplio on the left, from their growing number of representatives in Congress or in their natural habitat: the street.
So maybe this election isn’t the launch of Chile’s next excursion further into the “developed” community of nations. Maybe the next four years will be a hiatus while the political scene sorts itself out. The right surely could spend more time on its social development strategy, the center needs to figure out how to replace the old Christian Democrat party, and the left has to decide whether it really wants to participate in governing this country or remain in the minority and in the streets in continuous disruptive opposition.
Here is what I think, today: This preference to be in the opposition which the Frente Amplio is exhibiting, will probably deny Guillier the needed votes to win this time. And, if just enough voters at the same time take a deep breath and vote one more time for “the devil they know”, Piñera will squeak by with a win.
Let’s talk again on Monday, when we’ll begin to look forward rather than back.
Posted on December 15, 2017, in Leesburg, Virginia.
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