Who Lost Chile? Conservative Multi-Millionaire is President Elect

The news that the rightwing multi-millionaire Sebastian Piñera had won Chile’s presidential runoff on Sunday January 17 with 51.6% of the vote left the Concertación coalition of Socialists and Christian Democrats reeling.  Piñera is the first Chilean conservative to win a presidential election in over half a century, and the first right-winger to ever garner the 50% of the popular vote necessary to win the presidency today.

The news that the rightwing multi-millionaire Sebastian Piñera had won Chile’s presidential runoff on Sunday January 17 with 51.6% of the vote left the Concertación coalition of Socialists and Christian Democrats reeling.  Despite a poor showing in December’s first electoral round, few in the Concertación really believed that their man, the dour Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei, could actually lose.

The thousands of Piñera supporters who poured into the centre of Santiago flushed with exhilaration seemed equally stunned. Flanked by family, Piñera bathed in the vocabulary of democratic triumphalism long the exclusive domain of his rivals. “Today,” he boomed, “a strong clear majority of free men and women have opted for change, for future and for hope”.  The flag waving “generation of Chile’s bicentenary” lapped it up bewitched. For both victors and losers, something monumental was happening in Chilean politics.

Piñera is the first Chilean conservative to win a presidential election in over half a century. He is the first right-winger to ever garner the 50% of the popular vote necessary to win the presidency today. Until Sunday, it appeared inconceivable that the hugely successful Michelle Bachelet, whose approval ratings have reached a record 80%, would have to pass the presidential sash to an opponent. The Concertación has dominated Chilean politics since winning the No vote in the 1989 plebiscite on Pinochet’s rule and has never before lost an election. The No camp was always the silent majority, the economically powerful but politically stigmatized the resentful minority.  Or so it was, until 18:30 on Sunday when Frei conceded defeat.

The Wrong Candidate

So, how did Latin America’s most successful governing coalition come to this? Piñera ran a good campaign and avoided mistakes. His Alianza por el cambio (Alliance for Change) – consisting of Renovación Nacional, basically a neoliberal club for Chile’s landed gentry, and the Unión Democrática Independiente, a dynamic party of former Pinochet henchmen with slightly fascist undertones and close ties to Opus Dei – managed to avoid public quarrels.

Piñera’s challenge was to keep his reactionary backers united and on side while convincing middle ground voters that he is not one of them. It went relatively well. Flak thrown up after Piñera met retired solders and criticized “eternal trials” for dictatorship era abuses was swept aside. Likewise, UDI wrath after a gay couple appeared in Piñera’s campaign slots was kept, largely, private. And like rightwing populists the world over, Piñera wooed the masses with endless promises of “a strong hand against crime”, a “million jobs”, spectacular economic growth and spurious stories of his rise from rags to riches.

But in many ways Piñera won on Sunday be default because the Concertación self destructed. He actually only garnered a few more votes than his coalition partner Joaquin Lavin received when he lost to Ricardo Lagos in 2000. The election was lost  by Frei because nearly 200 thousand voters annulled their votes and thousands more didn’t bother to turn out, despite compulsory voting laws.

Some in the Concertación will try to blame Marcos Enriquez Ominami (MEO) the maverick independent who came from nowhere to win 20% of the vote in the first round. MEO, 36, is the biological son of Miguel Enríquez, the myth drenched leader of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) gunned down in 1974 by Pinochet’s goons. Raised in exile in France, Marco was a documentary film maker before he was elected socialist deputy in 2006. In parliament he earned a reputation as a discolo (disobedient) and frequently ruffled Christian Democrat feathers by proposing legislation on abortion, contraception and gay marriage. These issues were central to his platform and are divisive in a modern Chile separated, not so much between left and right, as between a majority who espouse progressive liberal values and a large minority of traditional catholic moralists.

The second round contest saw both camps frantically courting MEO’s voters and lobbying his advisors to endorse their man. Insisting until the eleventh hour that Piñera and Frei were “the same thing”, MEO eventually accepted that he would, reluctantly, be voting for Frei in the second round. This was not so much an endorsement as a strategy to avert the inevitable charges of “opening the door to the right” should Frei lose.

But most Concertacionistas accept that the nomination of their lackluster pious ageing candidate was, from the start, a huge mistake. The candidate was weak, the campaign shoddy and the campaign team torn by internal conflicts. Moreover, Frei’s nomination was a circus. No attention was paid to opinion polls and a sham primary, from which MEO and others were excluded, was staged in April 2009 long after the real contest had been slugged out in 2008 between three grey haired Concertación Grandees: Ricardo Lagos, José Miguel Insulza and Frei. The latter won, partly because it was the Christian Democrats’ “turn”, and partly because Lagos and Insulza realized that without popular backing the nomination was a poisoned chalice.

What Chileans saw, and what they rejected on Sunday, was a Concertación reduced to a clientele network organized to divide the spoils of government. MEO understood this and his call for all the Concertación chiefs to resign struck a cord.  Bachelet’s popular spokeswoman Carolina Tohá, drafted in as Frei’s second round campaign manager, summed up after Sunday’s rout. “This society requires more participation, more accountability, more transparency” she said. “We did it correctly in government. What was lacking was to apply these same standards to the way we did politics”.  Michelle Bachelet’s election marked a before and after that thrust Chilean society and politics into a new progressive democratic era. Frei was part of “the before”, he simple does not represent today’s culturally dynamic Chile; failure to understand this has led the Concertación to the edge of a cliff.

Accepting defeat, Frei called upon the “centre-left” to “maintain the unity we have achieved” and treat this as nothing more than a temporary “glitch in our path”. It is a tall order. The alliance of Christian Democrats and Socialists has always been a tense marriage held together by a mutual loathing of Pinochet, now dead, and avarice for power, now lost.  Even before the Frei debacle there were signs that the union was shattering with splinter groups peeling off to left and right. Tohá promises “reform and renovation” but, released from the discipline imposed by power, there is every possibility that the alliance will implode amid insults and recriminations.

As things now look, the Concertación’s fate rests with two people with diametrically conflicting interests. The first is Michelle Bachelet. If she is to make a presidential bid in 2014 she needs the alliance to hold and she may be the only person capable of creating unity. The other is MEO. His best chance of prevailing in 2014 is precisely if the Concertación breaks and progressives realign behind him.

Piñera in power

Piñera’s election met with rumblings in the world’s press about the return of Pinochetism to Chile. Piñera’s estranged brother was a minister during the dictatorship and many of his coalition partners in the UDI were Pinochet cohorts. Pictures of one delirious supporter waving a bust of the old General found their way into several papers.  And, of course, Piñera will have to pay off the UDI’s support with key government posts.

However, Piñera famously voted against the dictatorship in 1989 and knows that any association with Chile’s dictatorial past will damage his image externally and create huge problems internally. Besides, most prominent civilians from the Pinochet era are dead, retired, or occupying safe parliamentary seats. And there is definitely something in the thesis that the democratic election of a right-winger actually signals the end of Chile’s drawn-out transition to consolidated democracy. The tortured political cycle that opened with the 1973 Coup that brought Pinochet to power may, at last, be completed.

The charge that Piñera, an airline magnet who owns a television station, is “Chile’s Berlusconi” is perhaps fairer. Chileans have a traditional penchant for austere presidents and Piñera has had to counter criticism that his personal fortune makes him an unsuitable candidate.  His promise to confine his financial interests to a blind trust does little to belay suspicions that he financed his own lavish campaign and that his interests are indelibly aligned to those of the super rich.

And one thing that can be expected from a Piñera government is a shift of direction away from Bachelet’s nascent social democracy towards a strangely anachronistic Thatcherite individualism.  “We will be a government that fortifies and extends the network of social protection,” mouthed Piñera during his victory speech. However, in a rare omission of true intent, and in words that echoed Norman Tebbit’s bike speech, he continued, “But I want to say with great clarity that we will be a lot more content when a Chilean pulls himself up by his own merits and efforts”.

The second thing to be expected from a Piñera presidency is chaos in Chile’s public sector. The Chilean president has exclusive power to name 1,306 ministers and top civil servants who in turn nominate hundreds of department heads and aids. This means that the Concertación cadres who have run the state machinery for two decades will be clearing their desks and making way for Piñera technocrats unfamiliar with public administration. This will particularly hit the Foreign Service where ambassadors are appointed by the president and key embassies are prized electoral booty. And to add to the problem, in a region increasingly dominated by the progressive left, the Chilean right has few contacts and, barring Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe, fewer friends.

After Bachelet’s great success in South America, many in the region’s capitals will look on bemused asking why Chile is suddenly swimming against the regional tide. Their conclusion is likely to be that in reality the right did not win Sunday’s election in Chile; the truth is rather that the Concertación got complacent and threw power away.