Michelle Bachelet’s Victory and the Political Future of Chile

Michelle Bachelet’s Victory and the Political Future of Chile

Theme: The resounding victory of Michelle Bachelet paves the way for another four years of government by Concertación, a centre-left coalition. This will mean a new set of challenges for a singular experience such as that of Chile.

Summary: Michelle Bachelet’s triumph in the second round of the Chilean presidential elections paves the way for another four years of government by Concertación, a successful alliance of centre-left parties, led by the Socialist Party (PS), the Party for Democracy (PPD) and the Christian Democrats (DC). Following the ‘scare’ of the first round, when Bachelet failed to win by an absolute majority and obtained fewer votes than the Concertación parties in the parliamentary elections, the road to La Moneda was not easy. However, thanks to the efforts of all the Concertación parties, the decided support of President Lagos and his government and the President elect’s own merits, victory was irrefutable. On 11 March, when Bachelet is sworn in, she will find a country with a privileged economic situation, particularly in comparison with that of its neighbours, although with social problems that need to be addressed. Bachelet must turn her attention to these once she has formed, in the next few days, the team of ministers and advisers who will accompany her in the next legislature. But her problems will not end there. The situation in Chile will also depend on its regional context and, accordingly, the new government will have to consider an extra effort in this regard.

Analysis: Logically, forecasts were fulfilled and on this occasion the polls proved to be right. Overwhelmingly, with a difference of almost seven percentage points, the candidate for Concertación, the governing coalition in Chile since the fall of Pinochet, became the first woman president of her country. The triumph of Concertación was absolute. Sebastián Piñera, the successful businessman turned politician, only saw how he overtook Bachelet in the IX Region (Araucanía) –of the thirteen districts into which the country is divided (twelve regions plus the metropolis, which includes Santiago and its hinterland)–, despite his expectations to win in four regions.

Bachelet obtained 53.49% of votes compared with 46.5% for Sebastián Piñera. The future president obtained two points more than Ricardo Lagos in the second round with Joaquín Lavín in 2000 and one and a half points more than Concertación in the legislative elections held last October. This meant that votes received increased by 7.5 points over the first round. For his part, Piñera obtained 2.2 points less than Joaquín Lavín in 2000 and, more importantly, 1.8 less than the sum of right-wing candidacies one month before (46.48% compared with 48.26%). This evidently disproves the theory proclaimed by Piñera on the benefits of presenting two candidates in the first round.

We must add to these statistics that the number of voters was practically the same in both the first and second rounds –only 14,500 fewer voted– and that blank and null votes remained the same. This allows us to conclude that, along with support from the Communist vote received by Bachelet and the failure of Tomás Hirsch’s call for abstention, Bachelet was able to attract almost 2% of Piñera’s voters. These came basically from those popular sectors, particularly among the most underprivileged, that had backed Lavín in the first round. Thus, in the poorer districts of the Metropolitan Region, Bachelet obtained more than 60% of votes, which represented a difference of more than 20 points above her rival. Concertación’s new triumph is added to the parliamentary majority obtained last October. For this reason, the next government will find it easier than the present one to push through its legislative proposals without having to compromise too much in Parliament, although this will require internal discipline, with give and take on all sides, and without committing excesses that will later take their toll. Accordingly, experienced managers will be required, capable of sending good projects to Congress.

The election took place with hardly any incidents (the most significant was the aggression against an elected senator of UDI, Pablo Longueira, when he went to vote in a popular commune). In all events, this election and other signs associated therewith are sound evidence of the maturity attained by the Chilean democracy and the strength of its party system. Vote counting was well under way when the victory of the Socialist candidate was irrevocably confirmed; her rival, Piñera, not only graciously acknowledged his defeat, but personally congratulated Bachelet. This maturity was also patent in the winner’s speech, a true ode to concord and unity, a promise to be the President of all Chileans (‘I shall form a government for everyone’, ‘a triumph for everyone’, etc), without forgetting her country’s past and her personal past, including a mention to her father, killed by the dictatorship.

Bachelet’s address also included other significant aspects worth analysing, such as her commitment to a new style of government, with more dialogue and participation and, above all, closer to citizens. This is important if it is wished to achieve a greater involvement of young people in national politics. But the president did commit herself to focus on the social agenda, which it seems will be the hallmark of her administration, and this emphasis on social affairs includes the consolidation of a social protection system in which the priorities will be education, health care and employment. Chile has a Gini Index (which measures inequality) of 57.1, the same as Colombia and only surpassed in South America by Brazil and Paraguay. Thus, while the richest 20% of the population controls 62.2% of income, the poorest 20% only account for 3.3%.

The achievement of these targets and the maintenance of progress in the fight against poverty will depend to a great extent on maintaining the current economic policy and for the national economy to continue to grow, buoyed up partly by the high price of copper and other Chilean exports. Bachelet is taking over an economically sound country, but with serious social problems. In 2005 the GDP increased by around 6% and reached US$110,000 million, with a GDP per capita of more than US$7,000. This was the basis for the spectacular retreat of poverty and extreme poverty in Chile, which is unequalled in the rest of the continent. The average rate of unemployment in 2005 was 8.1%, the lowest since 1998, although some factions on the right complained during the campaign of the use of public employment for clientelistic purposes.

The outcome of the election was based on a couple of core issues. First, in the way all Concertación parties, starting with the Christian Democrats, threw themselves into the campaign and in defence of their candidate. This unbroken support, which was massively joined by President Lagos and the entire government, prevented the loss of votes to the left and, particularly, to the right. Support from Lagos was important, bearing in mind that he ended his mandate with 75% approval (government support was 60%). The second issue was Piñera’s failure to win the centre, particularly Christian Democrat voters. His attempts to break Concertación were unsuccessful and his vote ultimately depended on his own forces and on Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI). And although in the days running up to the election Joaquín Lavín, the defeated UDI candidate, spared himself no pains in Piñera’s campaign and turned up for all the photographs necessary, tension between Renovación Nacional (RN) and UDI did not make things easier for the centre-right candidate. In all events, victory was achieved by Bachelet herself, who knew how to convey her message to the people of Chile. The magnitude of her triumph reinforces her autonomy vis-à-vis the Concertación parties when forming her cabinet, but there can be no doubt that the playing field boundaries are fairly tight. The debate is under way: who are the artificers of this victory?

The names that make up Bachelet’s cabinet –which will only govern for four years following the latest constitutional reform, with no possibility of immediate re-election– will provide a clue as to how this question will be resolved and, especially, how she will govern. In this respect, she maintained one of her two statements on the matter and slightly, but substantially, amended the other. She has kept her commitment to equality, and the cabinet will have the same number of women as men, which is a challenge in such a macho country as Chile, as shown by the results of the first round. What she did amend was her intention that ‘no-one would have seconds’, in other words, of overhauling the top echelons of the administration. However, following the strong support received from the Concertación parties, starting with DC and its leader Adolfo Zaldívar, her commitment was somewhat diluted: ‘no-one will have the same course twice’, nobody will hold the same post as in the past.

Looking beyond the overwhelming triumph of Bachelet, challenges in the future will be significant, and it is worth bearing these in mind. Some are directly related to campaign promises made by Bachelet, others to the general political framework of Chile, and the rest to the country’s place in the Latin American context and its relations with its neighbours. On the home front, close attention should be paid to how the government is formed, relations between Bachelet and the parties and between Bachelet and Lagos. Lagos said that, following her triumph, it is probable that Bachelet will lose some of her autonomy, which the new president will fight against. The CD will play a crucial role in the struggle between parties and presidential leadership. Here, the future of Concertación is at stake, irrespective of the fact that it is now a well-established coalition. Two significant events took place on the day of the election. On the one hand, when Lagos went to vote, many sympathisers expressed their wish for him to stand as candidate again in the 2009 elections, which would obviously be the icing on the cake for a politician such as Ricardo Lagos, the only Latin American president with the stature of an international statesman. Almost at the same time, ex-president Aylwin underlined the importance of alternating between socialists and Christian democrats in the presidential candidacies of the Concertación, after two consecutive socialist presidencies that were preceded by two Christian democrat presidents.

Another important point, although not directly connected with the government, is the future of the right. Who will take the lead in its ranks: RN or UDI? In this regard, on the night of the electoral defeat both Piñera and Pablo Longueira expressed their willingness to stand as candidates for the right in 2009. What happens in the ranks of the Alliance will also have a repercussion on relations between government and opposition, on the negotiations under way and on the votes in Parliament.

The domestic agenda includes other points of interest, such as the reform of the electoral system for parliamentary elections. It is necessary to end the binominal system, which distorts proportionality in Parliament and excludes the Communist Party (PC), which represents 5% of the Chilean population. This and other reforms, particularly those that matter most to the president, must be negotiated with the right, irrespective that Concertación has the majority of both chambers for the first time since the transition to democracy.

In recent years Chilean diplomacy has been dependent on its singular relationship with Latin America. Despite its economic success, or precisely because of this, Chile is regarded with a mixture of envy, suspicion and fear by a considerable part of its neighbours. For many, Chile is more an ally of the United States than a dependable partner. Hence the work to be carried out in the future by the next government. Here it seems that a policy of approximation to the region will be adopted, although without compromising the basic lines of what has always been traditional Chilean policy. If it is said, on the one hand, that there will be dialogue with all democratically elected presidents, that there is no need to wage a ‘cold war’ with its neighbours and that Argentina is a strategic priority, at the same time it is recalled that entry into Mercosur will not be made at the cost of closing the country again. In this regard, there are certain red lines which the president elect does not seem prepared to cross.

Peru and Bolivia are two vital axes on this agenda. The step taken by president Lagos to attend the investiture of Evo Morales, accompanied by Michelle Bachelet, despite the risks entailed, represents an important step towards easing a situation that had become very tense. Simultaneously, in Santiago, close attention is being paid to developments in the electoral campaign in Peru and the chances of Ollanta Humala and his virulent nationalist and anti-Chilean discourse.

Conclusions: The resounding triumph of Michelle Bachelet, with a difference of seven points over her rival, places her in a strong position vis-à-vis the future. Her standing is high but, nevertheless, the parties that make up Concertación are fighting to maintain their influence and their spheres of power. Hence the different readings and constructions made of the victory (who was the most decisive?). In all events, the first skirmishes for the selection of ministers are now taking place and various political, economic and social players have shown their preferences on the matter.

Parliamentary control of both chambers will enable the new government to more easily push through a good deal its legislative initiatives. In this regard, a significant part of the future government’s work will be centred on social aspects, as the president stressed during her campaign and recalled in her speech on election Sunday.

Although the future of Concertación is not threatened, close attention will need to be paid to relations between the parties, and particularly to what occurs in the Christian democrats. The attempts made by Sebastián Piñera to win over the Christian democrats to his cause and his statement on election night that he would like to broaden the centre-right Alliance formed by RN and UDI should not be forgotten.

Finally, relations between Chile and its neighbours are a major item on the country’s international agenda. Bolivia, Peru and Argentina are key issues for the Chilean foreign ministry and neither should relations with the Venezuela of Hugo Chávez, with whom there were problems in the past, be excluded. Despite Bachelet’s wish to maintain good relations with everyone, it would not be improbable that Chavez’s exuberance, seeking to commit Chile to his cause, will create new problems in bilateral relations.

In the light of all these issues and looking beyond the problems that may arise, Chile is a responsible and predictable nation. As occurred in the past, Chile is, and must continue to be, a dependable ally for Spain. Spain’s presence in Latin America must be backed, therefore, by governments such as Chile’s rather than by the difficult alternative of other more compromising options.

Carlos Malamud, Senior Analyst, Latin America, Elcano Royal Institute