Election Preview: Chile 2009

Chile will elect a new President, all 120 deputies and 18 out of 38 Senators on December 13. Incumbent President Michelle Bachelet, elected in a runoff in January 2006, is ineligible to run for a second consecutive term, but theoretically allowed to run again in 2013. If no candidate for President wins more than 50% of the valid vote tommorrow, a runoff is scheduled since January 17, 2010. In reality, it is quasi-certain that the presidential race will go to a runoff, like in 2006 and 2000.

The Chamber of Deputies and Senate are elected using the binomial electoral system. In the Chamber, there are 60 two-seat electoral districts, in which each coalition runs two candidates. These two seats are usually split 1-1 between the two main coalitions, unless the winning coalition beats the other by more than two-to-one. The Senate uses the same electoral system, except that elections take place in 19 constituencies and Senators serve eight-year terms. Life Senators were abolished in 2005.

Political History

Although Chile is a culturally conservative and Catholic country, Chile has had a recent political history marked by left-wing (and right-wing) governments. In 1970, Salvador Allende, the candidate of the Popular Unity (UP) coalition between the Socialist Party (PS) and the Communist Party (PCCh), became President in his third attempt at the Presidency, defeating former right-wing President Jorge Alessandri and left-leaning Christian Democrat (PDC) Radomiro Tomic in a close race. Allende’s election to the Presidency was notable not because he was left-wing, as Chile had already elected centre-left leaders, but because Allende was classified by a Marxist and led a very left-wing economic and foreign policy. The success of Allende’s economic policies is very disputable, and his foreign policies distanced Chile from the US. In a bloody and controversial coup in 1973, right-wing General Augusto Pinochet seized power, with the backing of the United States and other western bloc nations. While Pinochet undid most of Allende’s left-wing policies and led a very right-wing economic policy, he was a ruthless dictator. He finally fell in a 1988 plebiscite, planned under the 1980 constitution, in which over 55% of Chileans voted against granting Pinochet another eight-year term in office.

In the 1989 elections, the first free elections since 1970, the candidate of the centre-left Concertación coalition – Patricio Aylwin, won the election and the candidates of the Concertación have won the 1993, 1999-2000 and 2005-2006 elections. The Concertación had been originally formed to oppose Pinochet in the 1988 plebiscite.

Political Parties and Leaders

The Concertación is not a coalition similar to the UP. While it includes the Socialist Party, the PS is the second largest party in the coalition behind the old Christian Democrats, who in Chile are more notably centre-left and supportive of what they call a ‘social market’ economy. The coalition also includes the Party for Democracy (PPD), a centrist party recently hurt by corruption scandals; and the Social Democrat Radical Party (PRSD), a party formed in 1994 by the merger of the old Radical Party (a centre-left old anti-clerical party) with a small Social Democratic Party.

The opposition on the right has, since 1988 until very recently, been led by supporters of the defeated YES side in the 1988 plebiscite, and its close relation to Pinochet in the minds of voters has played an extremely large role in its failure to win nationally. The parties of the right have been worth between 34% and 44% of the vote, 36-38% on average. The electoral coalition of the right is known since 2001 as the Alliance for Chile, or the Alianza. It is composed of two parties: the National Renewal (RN) and the Independent Democrat Union (UDI). The UDI split from RN in 1988, the UDI being very supportive of Pinochet. The UDI is very socially conservative and economically right-wing, and is historically the most pro-Pinochet party in the coalition. However, the UDI has recently taken a more populist term and now supports more leftie economic policies. The two main figures of the right are Sebastián Piñera (RN), a very wealthy businessman who stated in the past that he voted against Pinochet in 1988; and Joaquín Lavín (UDI), who is a member of the Opus Dei and historically close to Pinochet but has since become a populist and alienated a large part of the right. Lavín was the Alliance’s sole candidate in the 1999 election, and won 47.5% in the runoff against Socialist/Concertación candidate Ricardo Lagos. However, Piñera and Lavín faced off in the 2005 election, with Piñera coming out narrowly on top. Since then, Piñera has taken control of the right and has reformed the coalition significantly. More on this later.

The Communist Party of Chile has been sidelined since its pre-Pinochet heydays, and has since been independent of the Concertación, taking a markedly left-wing route. The Communists are the largest party in theJuntos Podemos Más (Together, we can do more) coalition, which used to include the Humanist Party, a small party who provided the JPM with its candidate in the 2005 election, Tomás Hirsch. He won 5.40%, and the JPM coalition polls around 5 and 9% of the votes nationally.

Last Election

In 2005, Michelle Bachelet, the PS Minister of Defense of President Ricardo Lagos, was nominated as the Concertación. She defeated Piñera 53.4-46.5 in a January 2006 runoff. As has been said numerous times, she is a woman (shock), agnostic and the daughter of an Air Force general tortured by the Pinochet regime. Despite facing poor approval ratings in 2007 and 2008, her ratings have taken a dramatic upswing and she is now hitting 80% approval ratings. Her economic and social policies have been praised, and even by the right.

Michelle Bachelet (PS-CPD) 45.96% > 53.49%
Sebastián Piñera (RN) 25.40% > 46.51%
Joaquín Lavín (UDI) 23.22%
Tomás Hirsch (PH-JPM) 5.40%

Parties, Candidates and Issues

As has been said above, she is ineligible for re-election (which, theoretically, she would easily win by the first round), and an interesting and unique presidential field has emerged.

The Concertación nominated Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, a Christian Democrat who served as President between 1994 and 2000. He defeated the Radical José Antonio Gómez with around 65% of the vote as a result of two early primaries in the regions of O’Higgins and Maule. He is the son of former Christian Democrat President Eduardo Frei Montalva, who served between 1964 and 1970. The 67-year old Frei has been described as uninspiring. The Socialists pledged their support to Frei and prevented the 36-year old deputy Marco Enríquez-Ominami (Marco, or MEO), a Franco-Chilean filmmaker and politician, also the son of a Chilean revolutionary executed by Pinochet. In a YouTube video, Enríquez-Ominami announced his candidacy as an Independent and left the PS. His candidacy has attracted significant international media coverage, some of whom have obviously dubbed him the Chilean Obama. Not entirely foolishly, as Marco stands for change, renewal and an alternative. He has stated that the Concertación has run out of steam and is led by party machines and elephants. His youthful image, his charisma and his populist campaign methods have won him significant popular support: Marco’s number jumped from 2% in January to around 20% and in contention for second today.

On the right, Sebastián Piñera, has been establishing his control over the right since his defeat in 2006. He has obviously been helped by Lavín’s poor political maneuvering since then. In the end, he was unanimously nominated by the Alliance with the support of both his party, the RN, and the UDI. His campaign has taken a turn much different than those of the old Chilean right. He is helped by his past statement that he didn’t vote in favour of Pinochet in 1988, a significant advantage in a country where many voters would still never vote for a pro-Pinochet candidate. In addition, and most importantly, he has dropped the nationalist undertones of the Alliance, symbolically by dropping the Alliance’s red-and-blue star in favour of a ‘modern’ looking rainbow-coloured star and renaming the Alliance the ‘Coalition for Change’. He has publicly praised some of the left’s economic and social policies, and announced that he would continue some of them. However, Piñera is a very wealthy businessman and some have said that he intends to run Chile “like a corporation”, whatever that means. In addition, he has also led a strong law-and-order campaign. Overall, he campaigns for change, but only moderate change in that he isn’t a radical rightist out to eliminate all leftist policies.

The Juntos Podemos Más coalition nominated former Socialist cabinet minister Jorge Arrate (now a member of the Communist Party), a grandfatherly-looking 68-year old. He defeated the coalition’s 2005 candidate and main figure of the Humanist Party, Tomás Hirsch. Since then, Hirsch and the Humanists have switched their support to Marco’s New Majority for Chile coalition.

Here are the results of the latest poll, by El Mercurio:

Piñera (RN-CC) 38%
Frei (PDC-CPD) 23%
Enriquez-Ominami (Ind) 20%
Arrate (PC-JPM) 7%

In a Piñera vs. Frei second round, the former is up 42.5-34.4. Against Ominami, Piñera wins by 40.7-34.8. In all polls, Marco performs better than Frei against Piñera in runoff scenarios, and some say he is the only candidate who can defeat Piñera and the right.

Parliamentary elections are also being held on December 13. In 2005, the Concertación won a majority in both Chambers, but has since lost this majority due to defections. The JPM won 7.4% in the lower house and 6% in the upper house elections in 2005, but the binomial electoral system (which dates from Pinochet) effectively prevents the election of third parties, though some Independents and regionally-implanted parties can win (a regional party won one seat in the Chamber in 2005, Marta Isasi in District 2). The JPM (effectively the Communists) has therefore decided to run with Concertación – the PC will have 9 candidates for the Chamber and will likely win some seats – the first PC deputies since 1973. The candidates of the Piñera coalition are split rather evenly between the RN and the UDI. Finally, Marco’s New Majority coalition is only running 79 candidates in the Chamber and 7 in the Senate, and 38 of its 79 lower house candidates are from the Humanist Party. The coalition has some high profile candidates, mostly Independents, who could win (it has 1 incumbent in each chamber), including incumbent Senator Carlos Ominami in the 5th Constituency (Marco’s adoptive father) who is favoured to win. Another high-profile race to the Senate is in the 6th constituency (Valparaiso) where Joaquín Lavín is running for Senate – even though he’s originally from Santiago’s affluent suburbia. He is facing a tough race facing the son of former President Ricardo Lagos but also the second right-wing candidate, deputy Francisco Chahuán of the RN. In this constituency, both coalitions are likely to split 1-1, with Lagos likely winning but Lavín must come ahead of Chahuán to win.

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Posted on December 13, 2009, in Chile, Election Preview. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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