Elections in Chile: A Loss for the Left?

Posted February 3, 2010

Billionaire Sebastián Piñera
Chile’s new president, billionaire Sebastián Piñera

Two weeks ago, in a relatively close run-off election, the ‘center-right’ Alianza por Chile coalition edged the incumbent ‘center-left’ Concertación which has ruled Chile since the return to democracy in 1990. Progressives who follow Latin American politics are lamenting Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei’s loss, fearing it portends a swing in favor of the region’s conservative neoliberal forces. Some have taken this ‘setback’ as an indication that the tide of reformist governments and rising popular movements across the region has exhausted itself. This interpretation is flawed on many counts.

The Concertación, led by the Socialist Party and Christian Democracy, fielded Frei, a former president and a dull candidate who failed to mobilize the needed votes to stem the right-wing opposition’s first presidential victory in the post-Pinochet era. The winning candidate, Sebastián Piñera, belonged to the Alianza, which was formed by Renovación National (RN), representing the modern and ‘democratic’ entrepreneurial right, and Union Democrátic Independiente (UDI), with origins in the ultra-conservative, old oligarchic and pro-Pinochet elite. Piñera is a member of Chile’s new billionaire class who benefited handsomely from the 1980s privatizations and the pro-business policies that have followed uninterrupted. Though Piñera supported the return to democracy in the country’s 1988 plebiscite, the leading role of UDI in his coalition, along with his family’s ties to the military regime, have contributed to fears of a democratic reversal and the beginnings of a new phase of unbridled capitalism governed directly by businessmen.

In the end, Piñera, who led all candidates in the first round with 36% of the vote, beat Frei quite handily in the run-off, reaching almost 52%. Frei, who disappointed throughout, failed to capitalize on the unfading popularity of president Bachelet (SP) and managed to scramble together 48% in the run-off, compared to the lowly 29% he received in the first round. The candidacy of ‘independent’ Socialist, Marco Enríquez Ominami or MEO, made these elections more interesting than past ones. MEO broke from the Concertación ranks and obtained just over 20% in the first round, having successfully tapped into the current frustration with Chile’s neoliberal model and the Concertación governments that have managed it. And, Jorge Arrate, an old-school Socialist (albeit with strong ties to the Concertación) ran on the Communist-led ticket, getting a respectable 6.2% of votes cast. As Arrate’s votes were already committed to Frei, the second round largely became a contest over MEO’s followers.

But what do these results really mean? A number of incorrect (or at best incomplete) conclusions, often stemming from questionable assumptions about the current regime, have been reached. Treating Piñera’s win as simply a win for the right and a defeat of the ‘center-left’ fails to clarify what has actually happened in Chile since 1990 and what direction the country may now move in. What follows is a short analysis of the elections and Chilean politics in general which might help correct some of the erroneous views that have been offered in the aftermath of the January 18 run-off.

1. The loss of the Concertación should not be viewed in terms a right wing backlash or reassertion against the region’s ‘Pink Tide’. The Concertación has very little to do with the ‘Pink Tide’ phenomenon, both in terms of its social bases, its domestic policies, and its position on hemispheric affairs. It is with good reason that the US foreign policy establishment views the Concertación as the prime exemplar of the ‘good left’ in Latin America.

While the Concertación governments have enjoyed majority electoral support since 1990, business has been a key pillar of the governments and their stability. In fact, maintaining business confidence is the Concertación’s paramount concern. Moreover, it has ruled in an openly exclusionary way. This is best illustrated by its approach to demands of the Mapuche indigenous minority and their actions in the south of the country. The coalition governments of the SP-PPD (party for Democracy, a Socialist Party creation)— CD (Christian Democrat) governments have severely repressed Mapuche communities in their fights to reclaim land from forestry and energy companies, many of them multinationals. In fact, the government has deployed its repressive apparatuses under the guise of a Pinochet era anti-terrorist law. And it has done so quite effectively, imprisoning scores of activists and killing not a few.

The regime also excludes large chunks of the working class from even formal incorporation. Recent estimates show that well over half of Chilean workers are under-employed, informally employed or generally employed in jobs considered ‘precarious’. The percentage of workers in unions and those covered by collectively bargained contracts have actually shrunk since 1990, from 10% and 12.5%, to 8.5% and 11%, respectively. This should come as no surprise as under the current regime, Pinochet’s regressive labor law remains in effect. To this day, industrial unionism is not allowed (workers can only bargain at the firm level) and the broad layers of informal and subcontracted workers enjoy no legal protections. Similarly, the peasants have not only failed to recover the land which the 1967-1973 land reform process granted them and which the coercion of the market or the military took away, small-holders continue to lose their lands to highly capitalized export farmers and transnational food conglomerates. The recent worries expressed by Concertacionista Viera-Gallo that Piñera might opt for repression when dealing with Mapuche grievances is nothing short of absurd. When adjudicating between claims on natural resources disputed between indigenous communities and large capital, the Concertación consistently responded with brutal coercion against the Mapuche!

The Concertación has pursued unadulterated Pinochet era neoliberal policies. Privatizations advanced dramatically under Alwyn and Frei (first two Concertación administrations), services continue to by decentralized or ‘municipalized’ (and thus severely underfunded), prior privatizations and ‘municipalizations’ (eg Social Security and education) were not revised, despite their huge social costs and wide disapproval, and large multinationals continue to enjoy the most favorable conditions, often at the expense of local communities. Besides the situation in Mapuche territory, this is best exemplified by the Pascua Lama mining project. Annual growth rates in Chile, which are higher than the regional average, remain predicated on the export of agricultural and extractive commodities, namely fruit and copper. There has been a significant improvement in terms of poverty reduction and alleviation, as the Concertación has implemented World Bank-style targeted, means-tested welfare programs.

While poverty has been reduced, the social problems that afflict Chilean society are not too far beneath the surface. They are increasingly exposed and everyday move closer to the point of eruption. Chile has become one of the most unequal societies in the world and large sectors are losing their patience. The explosion of the students’ movement in 2005-2006 shows this as do other smaller and more local struggles. Along with the persistent Mapuche movement, the huge 2007 wildcat strikes by sub-contracted miners, and the persistent shanty debtors’ protests, are clear indicators of the potential for large-scale social unrest.

Mapuche Demonstration

Some, not least of all the formerly ruling politicians themselves, argue that the Concertación’s hands have been tied by the rules left in place by Pinochet and the constraining effects of international competition. But there is little truth to the notion that top Concertación policy makers reluctantly pursued a strict neoliberal agenda. The fact is that they have championed free-market policies, even to the point of glorifying Pinochet. Asked about the dictator’s contribution to Chilean development, Alejandro Foxley, a leading Concertacionista economic manager, and more recently Bachelet’s Foreign Minister, stated without flinching:

Pinochet carried out a transformation, particularly of the Chilean economy, which is the most important change of the century. He deserves credit for anticipating the globalization process… We have to acknowledge his visionary capacity for opening our economy to the world, decentralizing, deregulating, etc. this is a historic contribution that which will endure for many decades in Chile… Moreover, he passes the test for what it means to make history, for he ended up changing the lives of all Chileans, for good, not for bad. This is my opinion and it situates Pinochet in a high place in Chilean history.

This is not the position of a renegade member of the Concertación. Foxley, a former critic of neoliberalism, is a leading voice in the coalition. Such praise of and commitment to Pinochet’s counterreforms are defining feature of its program, one which all leading members share, Christian Democrats and Socialists alike.

The Concertación is one of Washington’s most trusted allies in South America. Along with Mexico, Columbia, Peru, and (now) the coup regime in Honduras, Chile is a stalwart friend of the US in its moves against the countries and regional alliances that seek continental integration and more independence vis-a-vis Washington. This unabashed move into the US’s sphere of domination was deepened under CD-SP leadership. Let’s not forget that former president and SP member Michelle Bachelet was Defense Minister under Lagos and helped cement this close relationship from that position. In fact, Chile has replaced Argentina as the US’s ‘carnal’ ally in the Southern Cone. This all happened under the Concertación.

While publically Chile projects an image of neutrality in disputes between the region’s radical populist regimes and governments advancing US interests, Chile’s role under the Concertación has been far from impartial. In the 2005 Mar de Plata Summit, where Washington’s proposed FTAA was definitively defeated, the head of state that most fervently promoted this neocolonization scheme, after Mexico’s ultra-conservative Vicente Fox, was Ricardo Lagos, the SP president who preceded Bachelet. Further, Chile’s national security forces are highly integrated into US projects, both in terms of military strategy and weapons systems, a development, to repeat, that Bachelet facilitated. While foreign policy under Piñera might be more openly aligned with US strategic interests, it will be marked by basic continuity.

2. Politically and socially, Chile has changed dramatically since the end of the military regime. The transition and return to (low-intensity) democracy shifted the content of class politics, political fault-lines and terms of debates. It is wrong to view these elections through pre-1990 lenses that pit right v. (center) left, dictatorship v. democracy, unbridled exploitation v. social justice. These old lines of demarcation are today almost irrelevant. A facile conclusion is to state that Piñera’s election is a defeat of democracy and a return to power by THE right. In fact, in Chile’s elections since the end of the dictatorship, two right wings have competed, both promoting a limited form of democracy and neoliberal policies. Surprisingly, many historic left figures, such as Manuel Cabieses, founder of Punto Final, a newspaper that used to be very close to the MIR (Revolutionary Left Movement), asked leftists to hold their noses and vote for Frei, the ‘lesser evil,’ in the run-off, in a desperate effort to prevent the pro-Pinochet, anti-human rights monstrous RIGHT from regaining power. While the RN-UDI Alianza is right-wing, and is composed largely of Pinochet-era monsters, it is impossible to characterize the Concertación ‘alternative’ as anything but right-wing. This framing of the contest, its rhetoric and the fear it appeals to have been used to get popular sectors to vote for and defend the neoliberal policies of the Concertación, the other Right.

3. The Concertación lost not because the right has enjoyed any kind of surge in popular support. In fact, the vote total of the RN-UDI Alianza did not surpass their totals in the 1999 and 2005 run-offs. Indeed, the votes for the ‘right’ have remained fairly stable since the ‘Yes’ vote (for prolonging Pinochet’s regime) in the 1988 plebiscite obtained 44%. This does mean that non-Concertación right has real, substantial, and enduring electoral support. But is also suggests that the Concertación lost mainly for internal reasons, because it has exhausted itself as a political option (for now). People have not moved increasingly to the right; they have abandoned the Concertación for failing to deliver on the expectations of change; they are simply fed-up with its anti-popular policies, its epidemic corruption, the grotesque bickering over resources and positions by its unsavory and elitist political class, and its growing clientelistic practices. Analysts are correct to point out that the Concertación has squandered the ‘political capital’ it began its rule with in 1990. They had managed to eke out victories by exploiting the specter of a restoration of military rule, fear of which was not unreasonable coming out of a 16 year brutal dictatorship. Today, however, they are a shaken and weakened, if not spent, force, and this appeal to people’s basic desire for democracy and human rights has lost its efficacy.

The Concertación just barely squeezed by in the last two elections. It was only a matter of time before its marketing would prove ineffective in the content-less popularity contests that elections have become. Since there has been basic agreement between both rights in Chilean politics, the elections have been governed primarily by personalities. In fact, Chile can be said to have anticipated the US ruling elite’s Obama ploy in 2005 by offering Michelle Bachelet to a disillusioned public. The Concertación had nothing to offer programmatically so it came up with a seemingly down-to-earth single mother (albeit one that hobnobbed with top Us and Chilean brass) that the female electorate could identify with, and a former political prisoner who might appeal to the sentiments of the left and democrats in general, to boot. At the time, the Chilean electorate found her to be more ‘simpática’ than her opponent and she won in a close race. In fact, her popularity has only grown since then, despite her disastrous handling of two key crises—the student movement and the ‘restructuring’ of Santiago’s transit system. Yet her high approval ratings (80%) did not help the Concertación’s fortunes this time around. Between a grey Frei — whom people associate with the worst of the current political class and the internal bickering of a Concertación which is increasingly removed from the everyday lives of Chileans — and Piñera — someone who seems to have a more dynamic personality — this time around they found the latter more ‘simpatico.’ Frei obtained 200,000 fewer votes than previous Concertación candidates summoned in past run-offs. A fraction of a third candidate Marco Enríquez Ominami’s votes were enough to get Piñera over the hump.

Student University Occupation

4. The institutions of the current Chilean regime are designed to be as exclusive as possible. And the Concertación has hardly tried to correct this in spite of its claims. When discussing this point, most observers emphasize the most blatant arrangements left in place by Pinochet, like the designated senators which have historically stacked the Senate in favor of the pro-Pinochet right. This is certainly a residue that must be eliminated. But far more effective in reducing real democracy are the binomial electoral rules. This system has allowed a powerful party elite (from both camps) essentially to decide the makeup of Congress even before elections or primaries take place. It has given party bosses huge amounts of power and has removed popular sectors as far as possible from real decision-making. It has also effectively excluded small, third parties from having a voice on the national scene. To date, this institutional configuration has served both political blocs quite well. They have been able to govern through this regime with impressive stability, despite its exclusionary character. Nevertheless, there are rumblings from down below which the elites from both sides will take note of. It remains to be seen whether the disenchantment among workers, students, shanty-dwellers, the Mapuche, etc. will be able to breakthrough this institutional stranglehold that both rights currently have on the Chilean political system or whether, following these elections, elites will find ways to ‘fix’ the institutions and keep them working in their exclusive favor.

In short, the post-Pinochet regime stands atop an institutional arrangement that is designed to exclude. In fact, the Concertación has quite comfortably co-existed and even co-ruled with the Alianza opposition. And there will be many Concertación forces now calling for a more formalized power-sharing deal with the Alianza, a pact resembling the Social Democratic-Christian Democratic Punto Fijo pact that reigned in Venezuela from 1958 until the rise of Chavez. One of the effects of such exclusionary political practices and institutions has been an increasingly alienated electorate, a development that could only hurt the incumbents and help the Alianza. Only two thirds of eligible voters registered to vote in the first round and over one sixth of those didn’t even bother to show up. Uncharacteristically, abstention actually increased slightly in the run-off. In the end, Piñera, similar to victorious candidates before him, won with less than 30% of the eligible voters. Most alienated from the electoral politics are young people, representing more than half of unregistered voters. And among working class youth, things are even worse. The apparent apathy and resignation that the exclusionary character of the post-1990 regime has bred is a problem that the radical left will have to address.

5. A critical question: What opportunities, if any, does this outcome present for the radical left and organized popular sectors? If the Concertación is not to be counted among the new Pink governments in Latin America, does its loss signify an opening for the social forces that back Evo Morales in Bolivia and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela? Better yet, does its failure create opportunities for a truly independent left and the emergence of vibrant, autonomous struggles from below? Many have suggested just the opposite, arguing that a return to power by the Right will mean a closing of spaces for political participation and a further clamping down on the struggles that are just beginning to gather steam. This is a pretty dominant view among sections of the left linked to the Communist Party of Chile. In fact, the 6-7% of the electorate that voted for the Communist candidate in the first round wholeheartedly supported Frei in the run off for this very reason. In exchange for this support, the Communists and its allies were ceded three congressional seats by the Concertación. The logic behind such a deal with Christian Democrat and Socialist Party neoliberals is that it keeps the Right at bay while simultaneously giving the Left a parliamentary foothold. However, for the reasons listed above, this position is unconvincing. Having the Concertación in office does no more to level the political playing field for the anti-capitalist left. And tying the success of the left to the fortunes of the neoliberal Concertación seems doomed to fail.

Others saw in the first round candidacy of Marco Enríquez Ominami (MEO) a promising development that can be built upon. MEO, the biological (but certainly not ideological) son of legendary MIR founder Miguel Enríquez, broke off from the Concertación and launched his campaign promising a new and more democratic way of doing politics. His demagogic campaign was indeed more dynamic and his new face and style won him an unprecedented 20% of the vote. Yet, while many saw in him a left figure, who not only was stirring things up in a stagnant and decomposing Concertación but was also offering a real left alternative, the fact is that programmatically MEO offered nothing of substance. If anything, despite his attacks on business as usual represented by both competing camps, he represented certain continuity with the neoliberal model, as his flirting with further privatization of the copper industry indicates. More realistically, his vote tally is a sign of the general and directionless frustration with the Concertación rather than the beginning of a new movement. His campaign should be seen as a maneuver by a disaffected yet nonetheless establishment Concertacionista intended to improve his bargaining power. In the end, a third of his supporters voted for Piñera, supplying the numerical margin which the Alianza right needed to win this time around. That his campaign mobilized a motley collection of opportunists and malcontents, and the eclectic nature of his ‘platform’ belies the notion that MEO might somehow head a new left alternative in Chile.

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In my opinion, the Concertación’s defeat does represent an opportunity for the anti-capitalist left, even if significant dangers exist. This is not because a Piñera victory will make things that much worse for the masses, awakening them and channeling them into militant action. Not only is such a view morally repugnant, it is, in the Chilean case, unrealistic. Material conditions will not change significantly as the Alianza will in all likelihood continue the ‘social-liberal’ policies of its predecessor. The moment may be favorable for the radical left because the shifts and re-positioning that take place within the Concertación may weaken the constraining links that the Socialist Party (and even the Christian Democrats) has with labor and popular sectors. The Concertación will do everything in its power to prevent this, yet given the infighting and ‘cannibalism’ among its leaders, it may not be able to. Still, it will make every effort to pull MEO and his followers back in and to re-distribute power quotas in order to please the entire coalition, keep it as intact as possible, and minimize disruption to the overall political order. If this is achieved, the Concertación will present itself as a loyal and constructive opposition and enter into a alternating power-sharing arrangement with the Alianza, further entrenching the elite and undemocratic nature of the post-Pinochet regime. If this outcome does in fact materialize, Chilean politics will bear resemblance to Mexico’s following the defeat of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled for 70 years until the new century). Since 2000, the PRI has refashioned itself and now is poised to recover power from the other dominant and neoliberal party, the PAN (National Action Party), in 2012. In Chile, the Concertación, if it rebuilds successfully, will try to come back in four years, possibly with ‘simpática’ Bachelet as its candidate. If this occurs as party bosses envision, prospects for the radical left will remain very difficult.

However, the disruptions that the electoral defeat will inevitably produce inside the formerly ruling coalition should allow its latent loss of legitimacy to translate into real action and opposition by workers and popular movements that escape the binding and demobilizing effects of the Concertación. Many sectors of the Socialist Party — Allende’s party — for instance, will finally realize that substantive change will never come from within the coalition. We can expect them to return to their ‘roots’ and replant themselves in the workers and popular struggles that have until now been (mostly) effectively ignored by ruling institutions. Having been convinced of the bankruptcy and futility of the Concertación, the departure of these groups can have a positive effect on the reconfiguration of a real left in Chile. This tendency will be more pronounced to the extent that the CD continues to fragment, pulling factions to the right.

Naturally, such prospects depend primarily on the reemergence of stronger and larger struggles by independent movements. With the Concertación monkey of their backs — the threat of a return of the ‘Right’ having finally materialized — rank and filers, Mapuche activists, and community organizers have little reason to temper their demands and actions. In this context, and with the controlling nature of the post-Pinochet regime in question, we should see a multiplication and intensification of struggles from below. These struggles will be the building blocks that will reconstruct a real anti-capitalist left in Chile, one that will fight both Rights, the Concertación and the Alianza. They will redraw the lines of demarcation of a new class politics and they will rely on their own efforts, rather than the hollow promises of the ‘center-left’, to restore real justice and democracy in Chile.

Fortunately, there are political formations in Chile that have this outlook. The Movimiento de los Pueblos y los Trabajadores (MPT — the Workers and Peoples Movement) is an effort to regroup and rebuild revolutionary socialism from below and through the creation of independent working class power. ‘Facing the alternating power of elites, it is necessary to build up an alternative from below and in all disputed terrains of the class struggle,’ states activist/writer Andres Figueroa, a member of the MPT. Correctly viewing the Concertación and Alianza as two sides of the same neoliberal coin, he adds:

It’s true that after a long retreat, organic and political decomposition, despair and depression, anti-capitalist socialism just now is beginning to write the prologue to the reconstruction of its leadership among workers and popular sectors. This will be done slowly, with audacity, and, at the same time, giving confidence, clarity, and strength to the future agents of the deep, independent, and popular change that the vast majority of Chileans demand. For this reason, its main tasks are participating in the genuine struggles and movements of the working class, and dynamically and comprehensively broadening the anti-capitalist struggles of indigenous communities, women, environmentalists and the queer community.

To the extent that the post-1990 regime has been shaken and openings will present themselves for increasing active popular struggles, and to the extent that the a new generation of anti-capitalist activists and movements follow the advice of groups like the MPT, the prospects for a genuine radical left in Chile may improve.


4 responses to “Elections in Chile: A Loss for the Left?”

  1. Locks Avatar

    http://teatronescafedelasartes.blogspot.com I learned a lot about Concertación as well as the dangers and opportunities afforded to the left in Chile.

  2. Warne Avatar

    Fortunately, there are political formations in Chile that have this outlook. The Movimiento de los Pueblos y los Trabajadores (MPT — the Workers and Peoples Movement) is an effort to regroup and rebuild revolutionary socialism from below and through the creation of independent working class power.


  3. neptune Avatar

    UDI in his coalition, along with his family’s ties to the military regime, have contributed to fears of a democratic reversal and the beginnings of a new phase of unbridled capitalism governed directly by businessmen.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Thank you for the thoughtful analysis of the political situtation in Chile. I learned a lot about Concertación as well as the dangers and opportunities afforded to the left in Chile.