In Chile, Presidential Election Outcome Certain, Future Less So
By Christopher Sabatini, on
The election will be a watershed in Chile’s 23-year-old democracy, and not just because it will be the country’s first presidential election held without mandatory voting. A realignment of political forces and the emergence of a new generation of young politicians have pushed a new reform agenda, which Bachelet has tried to capture in a series of constitutional and tax reform proposals. The shifts are certain to shake up Chile’s traditionally staid post-Pinochet democracy.
The Socialist Bachelet ended her previous term in 2010 on a high note, buoyed by high rates of economic growth. This was fueled in no small part by the boom in world prices of copper, the country’s major export, but also Bachelet’s capable and responsible economic team. Among other things, and unlike many neighbors, the Bachelet administration avoided the temptation of profligacy and parked the country’s resource-based windfall in a sovereign wealth fund.
That fund came in handy for her and for her successor, outgoing President Sebastian Pinera, when global recession hit. For Pinera, however, the cushion left over from the economic boom has not been sufficient to overcome public frustration over the lack of social mobility in Chile. Persistent public protests, including student demonstrations that first broke out in 2011, have lasted through his term. And despite his private sector credentials, Pinera has also taken heat from the business community for refusing to soften a one-time tax on the extractive industry following the 2010 earthquake and a number of decisions on licensing and regulations interpreted to be anti-business.
As a result, the energetic CEO president who replaced Bachelet and ended 20 years of electoral domination by the Concertacion coalition of Christian Democrats and Socialists looks set to end his term with levels of popular approval hovering around 40 percent.
Pinera’s unpopularity has left his center-right coalition—comprising the Union Democratica Independiente (UDI) and the Renovacion Nacional—in shambles. A nasty primary election and the unexpected resignation of the center-right’s first candidate, Pablo Longueira, for personal reasons have done little to help Matthei.
Despite the predictability of Bachelet’s victory, this election cycle signals a broader and growing demand for electoral, political and even constitutional change that, if implemented, could remake Chile’s post-Pinochet system.
The slowly building popular demand for broad institutional change stems in part from the inherently conservative nature of the constitutional framework left behind by former dictator Augusto Pinochet. While many have criticized the rigid structure that helped ensure conservative and military support for Chile’s post-1990 democracy, politicians have also gone to great lengths not to rock the boat, remembering the bloody coup that ended the government of Salvador Allende in 1973.
The success of the pro-market model implemented by Pinochet, despite a few initial missteps, has also produced some of the highest levels of GDP growth in the region, as well as macroeconomic and fiscal prudence that has reduced poverty rates from more than half of the population in 1990 to less than 20 percent today.
But the growth of the middle class and the expectations that have come with it have created pressure for political change. Chileans are demanding more from their politicians: more accountability, more direct connection and more results. In the eyes of many, accountability and connection have been thwarted by the country’s electoral system, which splits each congressional district’s two seats between two top vote-getting parties or coalitions, unless the leading party wins two-thirds of the district’s votes. The idea was originally intended to prevent the fragmentation of the political system, but has led to criticism that the political system has become too closed and unrepresentative, leaving voters feeling that they have little connection to their elected officials.
As for expectations for results, in her current campaign, Bachelet has channeled the economic demands of this new constituency, promising higher taxes on the rich, with the newfound revenues to be spent on the social programs demanded by the new rising middle classes, namely education.
The question is whether Bachelet, a creature of the Concertacion system, can effectively deliver on these promises. As part of her effort to win over the new generation of voters, she has expanded the Concertacion coalition to include the Communist Party. The new alliance, called Nueva Mayoria, also includes a number of the student protesters that bedeviled the Pinera administration.
Bachelet has framed her economic proposals to capture the new generation’s priorities, in particular by echoing the theme of social inclusion. But it’s a tough balancing act. Her proposed higher tax on the rich to fund her promise of free university education is clearly popular with her newfound base among the student movement, yet her economic proposals have also triggered very sharp reactions among Chile’s business classes. Many now fear that Bachelet redux will prove to be much more radical, a result of what many believe is her instinctive leftist orientation and her need to court the student movement and the Communist Party.
The truth, though, is that Bachelet’s economic team is made up of holdovers from her very pro-market administration from four years ago. The key question will be whether her economic proposals, even in their modesty, can match the expectations she’s successfully managed to capture.
Ultimately, Chile is a conservative society. Even its much-vaunted new middle class remains deeply wedded to the market economy system; many simply want more social mobility and opportunity.
Demands for change will remake the country’s electoral, political and constitutional system; Bachelet has even implied that she could convene a constituent assembly to modify the constitution. But the process of reform needs to be understood in the context of Chile’s hidebound, conservative system and culture as well as Bachelet’s own trajectory. Change will certainly come, but it won’t be the turmoil prophesized by Bachelet’s, or Pinera’s, most vocal critics. In fact, her plans for change may just head that turmoil off.
Christopher Sabatini is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. Follow him on Twitter on @ChrisSabatini.