James McBride on Chile’s upcoming elections
Chileans go to the polls Sunday to elect a new president as well as both houses of Congress. While there is little doubt who will win the highest office in the land, the elections will be an important test of the evolving student movement and the electoral strength of a new generation of youth activists.
Former President Michelle Bachelet, eschewing suspense, is universally expected to return to the presidency. Having served her first term from 2006 to 2010, she heads the Nueva Mayoria (New Majority) coalition, which is the latest iteration of the Concertación alliance of center-left parties that has dominated Chilean politics since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1989.
Meanwhile, Evelyn Matthei, who was Labor Minister under current President Sebastian Piñera, is attempting to win a second straight term for conservative Alianza. Piñera was the first conservative to win the presidency since the return of democracy, but Matthei almost certainly won’t be the second.
The only question in the presidential vote is whether the Alianza, together with the handful of third-party candidates, can win enough votes to keep Bachelet under 50 percent and force a second round of voting. The ex-President is currently polling near or above that mark.
The collapse of conservative support requires explanation, given the relative success of the Piñera administration.
In many ways, Piñera has brought prosperity. Under his administration, growth has averaged 5.8 percent – more than double that under Bachelet – and inflation and unemployment have been held down while foreign investment and wages are on the rise.
Still, a number of factors conspire against Matthei. First, the resurgence of the student movement in 2011 crystallized discontent with the status quo. Then there was the disarray of the conservatives’ primary process, which saw the coalition’s first two choices withdraw over corruption and then health issues. Matthei, who has drawn fire for her relatively liberal stance on social issues, was left to pick up the baton without much, if any, mandate from the party base.
Finally, there is Matthei’s association with the worst crimes of the dictatorship. Her father, Fernando Matthei, was an ally of Pinochet, who made General Matthei Commander of the Air Force. In a mirrored inversion worthy of Borges, Bachelet’s father was also a high ranking Air Force officer – but one who remained loyal to deposed President Salvador Allende, and was subsequently tortured to death by the military junta.
Keeping the issue fresh is the fact that this September Chile marked the 40th anniversary of Pinochet’s traumatic takeover.
That the candidates played together as children, before the coup ripped their families apart, ensures that the fight for the presidency is still packed with historical and symbolic – if not electoral – drama.
With Bachelet’s victory in hand, the question is what shape her second term will take.
The answer to that question depends in large part on the social forces reshaping Chile. At the heart of these changes is a new generation, with no memory of life under the dictatorship, that is navigating a shaky transition from radical student protestors to potential electoral kingmakers.
The student movement has been the most dynamic force in Chilean politics since the nationwide strikes of 2006. These “pinguinos” (so-called due to the black and white high school uniforms) demanded a more egalitarian education system, and as they matured into university students, they brought their direct-action politics with them. In 2011, even larger protests brought hundreds of thousands to the streets.
Dissatisfaction with the inequality of Chile’s for-profit education system, a legacy of the Pinochet years, is at the heart of the protest movements that have rocked both the Piñera and Bachelet administrations.
While access to higher education has increased – nearly 45 percent of 18-24 year olds have some advanced education – the quality is often low and costs are rising, leading to an explosive gap between expectations and reality. Here there is an obvious parallel with the US, where student loan debt is skyrocketing for Millennials even as job prospects dim.
But education is only one aspect of a broader frustration with the uneven pace of progress in a country considered a regional success story.
In this sense, Chile is not alone, as similar protests in Brazil and Turkey demonstrate. A growing middle class – and the high expectations they bring – is a double-edged sword for the political class.
That is why, despite Bachelet’s personal popularity, confidence in the political system in general has collapsed. In 2012, the approval rating of both major coalitions dipped under 25 percent, and the rise of protest politics mirrors the distrust of official institutions.
The cumulative effect has been to pull Bachelet’s coalition to the left.
Her platform reflects this shift, with a series of bold, if still somewhat vague, proposals.
Her campaign has promised free higher education, expanded early childhood education, and the end to all for-profit schools in six years. She wants tax reform to raise corporate tax rates and increase government revenue. She is pushing for greater rights for LGBT citizens and expanded access to abortion.
Perhaps most notably, she has passionately championed reform of Chile’s constitution and electoral system, which date back to the Pinochet era.
Chile’s binomial electoral system, in particular, was set up to over-represent minority parties and thus give the less popular right wing parties an electoral advantage. This, in turn, has meant that garnering enough votes in Congress for major initiatives – which often require at least a two-thirds majority – is a near impossible task.
Bachelet understands very well that the key to her administration’s success lies in her coalition’s ability to run up the score in Congress.
The student movement’s newfound participation in the electoral process is critical to this goal.
A number of high profile student leaders, including the now-famous Camila Vallejo, are putting aside their disgust with the system to run for seats in Congress. But they are largely members of the fringe Communist Party, which had never belonged to the Concertación coalition.
Until last spring, that is, when Bachelet came to an agreement with the Communists to include them in the Nueva Mayoria. In return for their support, Bachelet agreed not to oppose the Communist Party congressional candidates, who hope to more than triple their ranks, from three to 10. Even that slim margin could make the difference in securing a congressional majority.
This marriage of convenience demonstrates Bachelet’s determination to press every available advantage in Congress, but it also underscores the eagerness of the old guard to ingratiate itself with the younger generation. At the same time, student leaders who have so far only played the role of principled outsiders are risking their hard-earned street cred by engaging with mainstream politics.
The generational conflicts of a country struggling to move more fully into the “developed world” are what makes Sunday’s electoral contest so interesting. Chile’s efforts to reconcile its stubborn social and economic inequality with the skyrocketing expectations of its youth holds implications for the rest of Latin America as well.
James McBride is an Associate at Blue Star Strategies, an international consulting firm that advises corporations, governments, and institutions on government affairs and investment strategies.
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