An Independent Candidate Jolts Chile’s Democracy

  Source: NACLA

The campaign apparel on sale at Marco Enriquez Ominami’s political headquarters in Santiago, Chile, was a colorful and at times cheeky display. There were notepads with the young presidential candidate stylized as a grinning bullfighter on the cover, along with t-shirts that reference Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe prints. A series of TV spots aired during the campaign were even more sly: one ad, alluding to voters’ attachment to the ruling party, showed a group of piglets feeding on a sow’s milk and exhorted voters to "release the nipple."

Such irreverence and humor was a trademark of Ominami’s candidacy, as he railed against Chile’s ruling center-left coalition, the Concertación, for being "dinosaurs" who were "out of touch" with the public. Although Ominami captured only 20% of the vote in the first round of Chile’s presidential elections, it was still a remarkable feat for a 36-year-old senator running as a progressive independent in a country where for the past 20 years without fail, about 60% of the vote has gone to the Concertación and 40% has gone to the right. For now, polls show that conservative billionaire Sebastian Piñera (who won 44% of the vote in the first round) will most likely win Chile’s second round of presidential elections on January 17. It would be the first time that the right has been democratically elected since Pinochet’s departure from power in 1988.

Both Piñera and Ominami energized voters by promising change after 20 years of Concertación rule, even though its social and economic policies remain popular, having attained record budget surpluses while cutting the national poverty rate to just 13.7%. The coalition’s chosen candidate, Eduardo Frei, tried to ally himself as much as possible with outgoing President Michelle Bachelet and finance minister Andrés Velasco, whose popularity ratings hover around 80%, thanks to their handling of last year’s global financial crisis.

But unhappiness in Chile persists: while 70% of the public approves of the government’s handling of the economy, according to Santiago-based polling company Adimark GfK, just 36% are happy with Chile’s education system, with another 33% content with public transportation and 12% with crime rates. And despite the higher standards of living, depression and suicide rates are also spiking.

All is not well in the country, and both Piñera and Ominami have used voters’ malaise to their advantage. But while Piñera’s sneers at the Concertación for being "exhausted" and for "running out of steam" are not much different from when he ran against Bachelet in 2005, Ominami’s criticisms have a sparked a more profound identity crisis within the Chilean left. Ominami chose to run as an independent as a protest against the coalition’s refusal to hold presidential primaries. This, along with a constitution and an electoral system drafted by Pinochet, has entrenched power within a handful of elites and alienated the public, Ominami argued. As Patricio Navia, a political scientist at New York University has pointed out, Ominami’s candidacy is not so much a plague on Frei’s old-boys’ network than it is a "symptom" of a much more serious disease: the Concertación’s inability to modernize and promote a more competitive, inclusive democracy.

And, Navia adds, while Frei’s decision to emphasize governability and continuity in his campaign rather than reform may cost him the presidency, Ominami’s calls for change ultimately proved a bit too much for cautious Chileans to handle. While there were some differences in the candidates’ fiscal policy positions – Piñera wanted minor overhauls in state-managed oil and copper companies, while Ominami wanted to expand the state’s role in the economy – it was Ominami’s emphasis on political renewal that may have unnerved some voters while clearly energizing others.

Ominami suggested creating a post for a prime minister; and switching from a bicameral congress to a single chamber of parliament with 120 representatives, elected by proportional representation instead of the current binomial system. He also wanted to eliminate a phrase in the Constitution that banned abortion, and another one that stated, "The family is the fundamental nucleus of Chilean society." Gay marriage, another hot topic previously shunned in presidential elections, also became a focal point of the campaign when Ominami pushed the other candidates to clarify their positions on the issue (to the dismay of some conservatives, this led Piñera to film a commercial where he appeared with a lesbian couple).

"Piñera was able to say, ‘I offer you a change in the captain of the ship,’" Navia told NACLA. "Ominami’s big mistake was to offer more change than what people wanted." Bachelet was able to run successfully as a "change" candidate in 2005, he added, but offered the prospect of renewal within the framework of the Concertación coalition, unlike the independent Ominami.

"I think his mistake was to think that people are tired with the Concertación, and I don’t think that was the case," Navia told me. "People were tired of seeing the same leaders with the same faces. People wanted change, but within the Concertación."

Although ultimately unsuccessful, Ominami’s semi-populist bid injected a badly-needed jolt of energy into Chile’s democracy, not only by forcing Frei and Piñera to work harder for their votes, but by bringing the debate over the need for political renewal into the spotlight. There is no doubt at this point that the Concertación is in the doldrums; the coalition won its usual majority in Congress in the first round, but by the smallest margin in 20 years. President Bachelet has been slow to back Frei, leading some to question whether she also sees a win by Piñera as good insurance for her own bid in 2013.

Ominami, meanwhile, remains in his self-created political wilderness and, with his staunch refusal to back either Frei or Piñera, seems to be reveling in it.

"My take is he should go back to the Concertación, but I don’t think that’s what he’s going to do," Navia told NACLA. "He may try to create a new party, but that may fail. It depends on the Concertación. If the Concertación wins, Ominami’s presence will disappear. If they lose, that may give him a chance to go back and re-engineer the party."

Elyssa Pachico is a NACLA Research Associate.