Piñera Wins Big; Now What?
Sebastián Piñera was quite confident he would win Chile’s presidential election in the first round a month ago, and avoid a second round runoff. He didn’t. Yesterday, he and his supporters were afraid they would lose to Alejandro Guillier in the second round voting. That didn’t happen either, and instead, he won with more votes than Bachelet won in her landslide victory four years ago.
So, the voting was not as close as we thought it would be. Over the next few weeks political junkies will pick apart the data on who voted for whom, and why. It does seem that Piñera did, in fact, pick up votes from voters who did not vote in the first round, some who voted for Goic, the Christian Democrat, and, given his large total vote count, some who voted for Guillier and even Sanchez in the first round.
In summary, Piñera’s supporters organized better and worked harder than Guillier’s team to get out the vote. Guillier was so attached to President Bachelet and the weakened, increasingly unpopular Nueva Mayoría, that the most committed Frente Amplio voters basically stayed home for this second round. With these broad dynamics, Piñera carried the day.
A ten percentage point win, 54.6% to 45.4%, is a definitive win for Piñera. More voters turned out (7 million) in the second round than in the first. There were very few blank votes. The polls closed at 6 PM, and about 90 minutes later the paper ballots, all marked with a simple lead pencil, had been counted by volunteer workers and the results were made public. Shortly after, President Bachelet congratulated the winner, although she had openly supported his opponent, and the loser telephoned the winner and acknowledged the remarkable outcome. All very efficient, all very civilized. There is a good reason why Chile is ranked high, #34, on the Economist Intelligence Democracy Index (Norway #1, USA #21, Argentina #49, Peru #59, Bolivia #90). By the way, this Index defines countries with scores below #20 as “flawed democracies”, or worse. The USA by this measurement has a “flawed democracy”, and so does Chile, but “flawed” for somewhat different reasons. Chileans admit this, and, blaming most of the problems with their democracy on the Pinochet period of military dictatorship and the constitution produced in that period, have progressively worked through legislative measures to improve their democracy. I’m not sure that’s happening in the USA, where the “flaws” seem to come down to low public confidence in the institutions which guarantee and support democracy. This Chilean election should help improve Chile’s score. The last election in the USA probably won’t.
With such a clear outcome in Chile’s election, it shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out what will happen now. The Guillier supporters, many of whom were counting on participating in the spoils of ministerial and other public sector positions, and many of whom are in the Bachelet government, will have to scurry around for alternative employment. Guillier returns to his seat in the Congress. Bachelet has already lined up another position as a high level adviser to the United Nations. Many of her people will go to universities and think tanks; some may even find a private sector job! There will be complete change in the executive agencies, but Piñera is probably perpared for this, with most of his ministerial appointments in mind. After all, they did it once before, in 2010.
Remember back to 2010. As Bachelet was preparing to depart and turn over the keys to the palace to Piñera, a terrible earthquake and tsunami destroyed much of central coastal Chile, and gave a black eye to Bachelet and her administration for an inadequate response to the tragedy. She never fully recovered from that smudge on her reputation, while Piñera earned some recognition for his leadership of the recovery and reconstruction during the years following the disaster. It is probably just another sign of the seismic nature of Chile, rather than some special curse that follows Bachelet, but days before Chileans were going to vote last Sunday, another tragic natural event destroyed the small mountain town of Villa Santa Lucía. This town is near where several years ago a volcanic eruption destroyed most of the coastal town of Chaitén. Bachelet will hopefully act faster and more effectively this time, since the disaster response and relief institutions in Chile have been significantly upgraded since 2010. She, too, has learned some hard lessons, so is probably already on a helicopter heading towards Santa Lucía as this is being written. Her term does not end until the second week in March, so cleanup of Villa Santa Lucía will start on her watch.
Surely, Piñera will also be in Santa Lucía soon, so that in March, when he takes over, he has a head start on overseeing the recovery and reconstruction of this unfortunate isolated town. There is an important aspect of Sebastián Piñera that lends a certain degree of confidence in his ability to deal with natural disasters, and is one trait voters on Sunday may have had in mind. He acts, and acts decisively. He also has a keen ability to meld private sector resources with public sector institutions and responsibilities. Some say he has been too loose in the past with the way he melds the public and private sectors, but it worked in the rescue of the thirty three miners trapped in the San José mine also in 2010. Public – private collaboration is surely going to be needed as Piñera attempts to get Chile’s economic growth back on the upside.
While we are considering Chile’s propensity for big natural events, it is worth noting that Santa Lucía’s sister village in the central Maule region, Santa Olga, is beginning the rebuilding process after having been destroyed by wild fires last year about this time. If you have followed this blog for very long, you will know that the destruction of Santa Olga and surrounding areas of central Chile was a very big deal. If preparations for dealing with that size of wild fires this year have not been put in place, Bachelet and her Director of CONAF, Chile’s forest service, will be in for a very difficult last two months of their terms, because what is happening again in California, will happen again in Chile. They had better be more prepared this time with fire fighting aircraft, trained and organized on the ground patrols, and especially, will equipped and trained local volunteer fire fighting brigades. We shall soon learn if Bachelet’s team has the resources in place to face another wild fire season. This too will depend upon the joint readiness and operational resources of the private forest industries, local communities, and the government’s forest service. This may be Bachelet’s last big challenge, especially if the summer (January-February) temperatures reach record highs and the dry winds reach last year’s extraordinarily high velocity.
One data point in Piñera’s electoral victory is worthy of special attention. He received his largest point spread of votes over Guillier in the Araucanía region, the agricultural region in southern Chile where a majority of the Mapuche indigenous people live. This region has been torn apart for years over the Mapuche struggle for what they see as their rights in this, their homeland. Their struggle is complicated by the expansion through the area of the tree plantations which supply a modern and efficient wood and paper products industry, conflicts related to ownership, quality and availability of water in the region, and violence which recent governments have been unable to quell. The left, that is the groups that supported Alejandro Guillier, ostensibly has a better understanding of the Mapuche struggle than the right which is more closely aligned with the private sector operations in this region. Why, then, did Piñera do so well in this region in this election? Was it just the non-Mapuche who voted for him, or did the Mapuche also see more possibilities with a change in approach that Piñera promises? Figuring this out will help address these issues that beg resolution in the Araucanía, a region which holds so much potential economically, culturally, and for tourism.
Piñera was helped considerably in this region by Felipe Kast, a congressional member (not the first round presidential candidate, his uncle José Antonio Kast.). Felipe Kast and the Evopoli party he leads, are part of Piñera’s coalition. This party is focused on social issues while situated on the right of the political spectrum. A liberal party whose main concern is how to restructure social and educational services and opportunities to benefit more broadly and aggressively the young. These two issues, socioeconomic progress in Araucanía and more equitable and effective services for the young, could keep Felipe Kast and the Evopoli party at the forefront if Piñera governs more to the center.
Chile is entering a period of realignment of political forces and alliances. The right, in the government, will be successful to the degree it can form programmatic and legislative agreements with center groups like the Christian Democrats. Some early speculation has it that Piñera may even be able to join forces with some of the Frente Amplio parties on certain subjects. That certainly remains to be seen. The social democrat center, the Christian Democrats, Socialists, and PPD, is in disarray and will flounder around for awhile before figuring out where they want to be and who should lead them. The Communists, under the Bachelet government a loyal member of the Nueva Mayoría, will consider abandoning that weakened alliance and join with the Frente Amplio. And the elephant in the room for this election, the Frente Amplio, while attempting to organize their newly earned representation in Congress will be torn between the role of legitimate opposition to Piñera, or a more disruptive presence in the street aligned with what they refer to as the “social forces” demanding more, better, and freer education, health care, retirement income, and everything else.
Exciting times in Chilito!
Posted on December 18, 2017, in Leesburg, Virginia.