Guide to Chilean Politics and the 2013 elections

Presidential (first round), congressional and regional elections were held in Chile on November 17, 2013. The President of Chile is elected for a four-year term, not immediately renewable, by a two-round system. A second round will be held on December 15, 2013 since no candidate won over 50% of the vote in the first round. The entirety of the lower house of the National Congress (Congreso Nacional), the Chamber of Deputies (Cámara de Diputados), elected for four-year terms and half of the Senate (Senado), elected for eight-year terms, were up for reelection. For the first time, voters also directly elected their regional councillors (consejeros regionales) in the country’s 15 administrative regions.

This very long post is designed as an ex post facto guide to Chilean political history, politics and the campaign (with analysis of the results) than just as a usual post-election analysis. That’s why it is so,so long (but, again, divided into sections).

Electoral system

Map of Chile (physical)

The President of Chile, who is head of state and government, is elected to a four-year term under a traditional two-round system in which a candidate must win 50%+1 of the votes to be elected outright by the first round. The President may not serve consecutive terms in office, although a former President may serve a second non-consecutive term in office.

Members of both houses of Congress are elected by the binomial system in two-member constituencies. The Chamber of Deputies’ 120 deputies are elected for four-year terms in 60 two-member districts (distritos), while the Senate’s 38 senators are elected for eight-year terms in 19 two-member constituencies (circunscripciones) – renewed by halves every four years. The binomial system, an issue of hot debate in Chile, is an enduring legacy of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and the negotiated transition to democracy in 1989.

There are major population disparities between the districts/constituencies, with two urban districts in Santiago having over 600,000 people and two regional districts having less than 100,000.

In each district/constituency, each party/coalition of parties runs one or two candidates (almost always two, independents will often run alone) which are considered as a ‘list’. However, voters do not vote for party lists – they vote for two candidates, regardless of party lists. Nonetheless, when results are calculated, the votes cast for all lists’ candidate(s) are added together and the two lists which obtained the most votes win one seat each. Within each list, the candidate which won the most votes of the two candidates is elected. However, when a single list wins more than twice the number of votes cast for the second-placed list, that list obtains both seats. For example, if list A wins 60% of the vote and list B wins 30% of the vote, then list A would win both seats. However, if list B was to win 31% of the vote (and list A still 60%), then both seats would be split between these two lists.

The binomial system leads the over-representation of the two largest blocs and severely penalizes third parties/coalitions, which are, more often than not, unable to win seats in Congress. The workings of the binomial system also means that the two candidates who won the most votes are not necessarily elected; for example, if the winning list’s second-placed candidate won more votes than the first placed candidate on the list which placed second, the winning lists’s second candidate will only be elected if his/her list won more than twice the number of votes cast for the list placing second. If not, the first candidate of list B would be elected even if he/she has less votes than the second candidate on list A.

The binomial system establishes a structurally conservative system, in which the relative size of the two largest blocs change relatively little from election to election. The system is often criticized for the left, especially the extra-parliamentary left, because of the immobility it creates and the exclusion of weaker third parties. The system’s supporters, who are often on the right of the spectrum, argue that it allows for political stability and encourages the creation of two, strong blocs.

Political history

Chile’s contemporary politics, society and economy remain heavily influenced by the country’s tumultuous history. Understanding Chilean political history is key to understanding the political issues, debates and structure which exist today. Certainly, the enduring legacy of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship has continued to play a huge role in Chilean politics and society, but it is important to understand the various long-lasting issues in Chilean politics which led to the 1973 coup and which, to a certain extent, continue to inform political debate in Chile.

Chilean political history is made all the more interesting because it stands out from the traditional story of Latin American politics. Chile came closer to European ideological, class-based and partisan politics than practically any other Latin American country; while Chile’s politics were unstable and not immune to coups and military intervention, Chileans long prided themselves on their relatively robust democratic system which endured for decades while other countries came under the iron fist of caudillos. What led to this unique state of things? And what caused Chilean democracy to unravel and fall victim to a bloody dictatorial regime in 1973?

Conservative Republic (1829-1861)

In the nineteenth century, as in most other Latin American countries at the time, Chilean politics – a game reserved to the landowning elites – was marked by the traditional battle between Conservatives and Liberals, a political struggle which expressed different views on the organization of powers (strength of the executive), the role of Catholic Church, the economy and political liberties. Although there seems to be a tendency to overstate the ideological antagonism of these profoundly elitist factions, the liberals generally came to stand for individual liberties, democracy with checks on executive powers, free trade and were generally anti-clerical and supported the ideals embodied by the French and American Revolutions; while the conservative stood for an aristocratic authoritarian, and centralized government, and supported the privileges of the Catholic Church.

In 1829, a conservative alliance of pelucones (aristocratic ‘bigwigs’), estanqueros (tobacco monopolists led by Diego Portales) and o’higginistas (followers of the deposed autocratic independence leader Bernardo O’Higgins) defeated the liberal pipiolos and led to the establishment of the Conservative Republic, which would last until 1861.

The dominant figure of the first decade of conservative rule was Diego Portales, who despite never being President himself became the most powerful man in the country until his assassination in 1837. Portales wanted a strong and centralized government which would command full authority, ensure stability and embody patriotism and virtues (he spoke of the need to guide the fundamentally sinful citizens on the path of order and virtue). Although he was fairly uninterested by the drafting of 1833 Constitution, the text – which would serve as the basis of Chilean politics (in very different forms) until 1925 – took up many of Portales’ political views – a strong, respected and centralized government and guarantees of the Catholic Church’s predominant role in society. The new constitution inaugurated an era of political stability and stuttered economic development (the Chilean silver rush, until the 1850s).

Portales, keen to assert Chilean dominance over the Pacific, led the country into a controversial war with the Peru-Bolivian Confederation. The outbreak of war, opposed by large swathes of the Chilean elites, led to a military rebellion and Portales’ assassination in 1837. With Portales’ death, however, the rebellion was nipped in the bud and the Chileans, led by Manuel Bulnes, eventually defeated the Confederation in 1839. Bulnes became president in 1841, presiding over ten calm years of economic growth, creativity and colonization of the Chilean territory. In 1851, a brief revolution by liberals and rival conservatives opposed to president-elect Manuel Montt was defeated.

Manuel Montt’s second five-year term in office (1856-1861) saw the division of the ruling conservative elite over the ‘question of the sacristan’ (Cuestión del Sacristán), an issue which spoke to the role of the Catholic Church in politics. Ultramontane Conservatives, supporters of a strong Church, broke with Montt and his minister, Antonio Varas, who came to favour the supremacy of secular power over ecclesiastical power. Montt and Varista founded the National Party (Partido Nacional), which represented banks and corporate interests. The Conservative Party became a clerical party, often described as the mere political arm of the clergy. However, notwithstanding profound ideological differences and historical antagonisms, the Conservatives found common ground with the ostensibly anti-clerical Liberal Party (out of power since 1831) in opposition to the Montt government and in 1857, the two old parties formed an alliance, the Fusión Liberal Conservadora (the ‘fusion’). The Liberals’ alliance with the clerical Conservatives led to the creation, in 1862, of the anti-clerical Radical Party.

Liberal Republic (1861-1891)

José Joaquín Pérez, backed by the nacionales and the fusión, was elected President, unopposed, in 1861. His election marked the transition to the Liberal Republic, which governed the country until 1891. The Nationals, who had backed the president-elect’s candidacy, were gradually excluded from power after 1862, when Pérez formed a cabinet composed of Liberals and Conservatives. The transition from the Conservative Republic to the Liberal Republic was very much a negotiated elite agreement, with the simple transfer of power from one branch of the elite to another. The Liberals, who became predominant, used their control of the administrative apparatus to control elections and persecute opponents. The economic structure of the country, controlled by landowners and urban corporate interests, remained unchanged.

Pérez’s government was able to surmount differences between the Liberals and Conservatives on the ‘theological question’, with modest openings of the elite. In 1865, Catholicism was confirmed as the official religion but freedom of religion was recognized, and non-Catholics were given the right to their own churches and religious schools. A constitutional reform in 1871 barred the President from running for reelection. Economically, the end of the silver rush in northern Chile marked the beginning of the nitrate industry, originally in regions still controlled by Bolivia.

Pérez was succeeded by fusionista candidate Federico Errázuriz Zañartu, a Liberal. In domestic policy, the theological question came to poison relations between the parties of the fusión. In 1873, the Liberal-Conservative alliance broke up over the issue of education, with the Conservative minister responsible for public instruction wishing to permit more ‘freedom of education’ (more powers to Catholic private schools). The Liberals became the dominant force, in alliance with the Radicals, who were anti-clerical and committed to constitutional reform to reduce presidential powers and allow more civil liberties. The last years of Errázuriz’s presidency brought major constitutional reforms: reducing the quorum for both houses of Congress, electoral reform (1874), recognition of the right of assembly and limits on the President’s power to declare a state of siege. Between 1876 and 1886, the Liberals ruled in coalition with the Radicals.

Chile faced an economic crisis in the late 1870s. Chilean wheat exports faced tough competition from more centrally located Argentina as well as Russia and Canada, as lost the Californian market. The nascent copper mining industry also faced tough foreign competition and high production costs. The nitrate industry which would make Chile’s fortune until the 1920s was not yet fully developed, and the saltpeter deposits in the Atacama Desert were still under Peruvian and Bolivian sovereignty. Chilean expansionist desires and a thirst to gain access to the mineral-rich region clashed with Peruvian and Bolivian economic nationalism, and war was inevitable. Chile defeated Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), and subsequently annexed the contested mineral-rich regions. The loss of Bolivia’s access to the sea continues to arouse deep anti-Chilean resentments in Bolivia (and Peru, to a lesser extent) to this day; Bolivia still claims the lost territory and ‘recovery’ of its access to the sea is a symbolic priority for successive Bolivian governments.

The victory in the War of the Pacific led to the nitrate/saltpeter boom, with the country’s economy and treasury becoming dependent on nitrate exports (nitrate could be used as a fertilizer or for ammunition). European, primarily British, investors came to control a vast majority of the nitrate industry. The growth of the mining industry, first with nitrate and later with copper, expanded the governing elite. Unlike in other Latin American countries, there was a successful ‘marriage’ of the traditional landowning class and the new mining and manufacturing elites, with family ties between the various sectors of the economy. The mining boom also led to the appearance of an organized working-class in the waning days of the nineteenth century. Unlike in Argentina, the Chilean working-class was native-born, not foreign-born. This key difference would mean that Chilean workers had direct access to political action.

President Domingo Santa María (1881-1886) clashed with Rome over the nomination of the Archbishop of Santiago and between 1883 and 1885, his government passed a number of landmark ‘leyes laicas‘ which reduced the Church’s power. These laws included secular cemeteries (previously, non-Catholics could be barred from burial in Catholic cemeteries), the civil registry of births and deaths and civil marriage (which made it possible for non-Catholics to contract a valid marriage).

José Manuel Balmaceda became President of Chile in 1886. Balmaceda intended to leave his mark on Chile and take a much more active role in the management of the country. His main objectives included an ambitious campaign of public works, economic development, economic diversification and the unification of the fractious liberal movement into a single party. However, Balmaceda’s activism displeased Congress, which had been intent on establishing its hegemony over the executive branch. His desire to raise funds for public works project by raising taxes on mining in the north and his wish to break the foreign monopoly in the railways won him the enmity of mine owners and foreign capital.

When a new railroad in Argentina facilitated cattle exports from the Argentine pampas to Chile and lowered meat prices in Chile, Chilean landowners proposed to place a tariff on Argentine beef imports. This proposal raised the ire of Santiago’s lower middle-class of skilled workers, artisans and small merchants who united to oppose the bill (which was also opposed by mine owners). In Santiago, the lower middle-classes were mobilized by the Democrat Party (Partido Demócrata), a splinter of the Radical Party founded in 1887 which took a deeper interest in the socioeconomic conditions of the working-classes and artisans. The Democrat Party never achieved major electoral success, but its victory on the tariff issue and its articulation of mass demands showed how far Chile had come on the road towards mass politics.

In the meantime, Congress clashed with Balmaceda and his government founds its efforts frustrated by congressional opposition. According to the latest interpretation of the 1833 constitution, a president’s cabinet needed the confidence of both houses of Congress, which Balmaceda no longer enjoyed. The situation worsened in October 1890 as Balmaceda formed a cabinet led by Claudio Vicuña, who was seen as Balmaceda’s hand-picked successor for the presidency. Congress failed to produce a budget for 1891, prompting Balmaceda to extend the previous year’s appropriations. This was the last straw for Congressional leaders, who joined forces with the rebellious navy (the army remained pro-presidential). Between January and September 1891, the presidential and congressional forces – backed by the army and navy respectively – fought a civil war which claimed up to 10,000 lives and resulted in the rout of Balmaceda’s supporters and his eventual suicide at the Argentine embassy in September 1891.

Parliamentary Republic (1891-1925)

The civil war marked the end of the Liberal Republic and the beginning of the Parliamentary Republic in Chilean history, an era which would last to 1925. The President found his powers seriously circumscribed by Congress; the President and his cabinet was now responsible to Congress, which brought down cabinet after cabinet.

Partly as a result of this parliamentary system, which was unusual in a continent largely dominated by presidential systems modeled on the United States, Chile developed a stronger, impersonal party system in which parties were slightly more ideological (although differences were thin) and far less dominated by single caudillos (although personality still won over ideas in the parties); this proved a stark contrast with countries such as Brazil, Peru, Paraguay and later Argentina.

The multiparty system in Chile undermined the stability of the new parliamentary republic: parties proliferated to five by the turn of the century, with the Liberals, Conservatives, Nationals, Radicals and Liberal Democrats (the balmacedista party). A unión sagrada between the Liberals, Radicals and Conservatives quickly broke up (by 1894). Coalitions and alliances of parties, themselves unstable and fractious, became key in the new congressional-dominated political system. The Conservatives formed the Coalición, while factions of the Liberals and the Radicals formed the Alianza Liberal. The lines between coalitions were blurred, however. The Liberals were divided, with some elements joining the Conservatives in the Coalition and others allying with the Radicals in the anti-clerical and progressive Liberal Alliance. The Nationals and Liberal Democrats (ironically, the advocates of presidentialism proved the masters of the Machiavellian world of coalition politics) went back and forth between the two blocs, adding to the instability. President Federico Errázuriz, a Liberal and second President of the Parliamentary Republic (1891-1901), was elected President, backed by the Coalition, with a three vote majority in the electoral college against a Liberal candidate backed by the Liberal-Radical coalition.

Presidents were forced to form cabinets (with the Minister of the Interior acting as a sort of ‘Prime Minister’) which corresponded to whichever coalition controlled Congress. Given that coalitions never lasted their full terms, changes in coalition politics led to cabinets falling. Under the presidency of Germán Riesco (1901-1906), no less than seventeen cabinets came and went. Despite having been elected with the backing of Liberal Alliance, was compelled to govern with the Coalition between 1902 and 1904 after the Liberal Democrats briefly abandoned the Liberal Alliance. This chronic instability meant the the President was weak, unable to take bold policy actions.

Economically, the years until 1914 saw economic growth and the development of infrastructure (the Transandine Railway with Argentina, for example) on the back of the saltpeter industry. A new smelting process right after 1900 allowed the Chilean copper mining industry to take off. Gradually, copper came to replace nitrates as Chile’s main export, especially during the 1920s. The shift from nitrate to copper also led to major changes in the economic structure of the country, which would have capital importance on the country’s history. The copper mines were owned by a few American mining companies (Anaconda Copper and Kennecott Copper). The Americans displaced the British as the main foreign investors, and the US became Chile’s main export partner. The control of the copper industry by a few American-based companies meant that it provided little stimulus for the rest of the economy: heavy reliance on capital and technology meant modest levels of employment for Chilean workers, most equipment was imported and most profits were sent to the US rather than invested in Chile. Nationalist resentment would begin to grow as a result.

During the first decade of the new century, the rise of working-class activism meant that the old theological question was supplanted by the ‘social question’ as the main focal point of political debate. The rural exodus and industrialization led to poverty, unsanitary living conditions, overpopulation of urban areas and a high mortality rate. In the mines, working conditions were atrocious and extremely dangerous, an issue which did not preoccupy mine owners and the aristocratic elite much. Indeed, the political system until the 1920s remained heavily elitist in character. The two main blocs, divided by personal squabbles rather than ideology, only represented different factions of the wider elite: the Conservatives representing landowners and the Church, the Liberals and Radicals representing the industrial and commercial elites. The government was hostile to working-class activism and showed little concern with the conditions of the working-classes (Sunday rest was introduced only in 1907). Seeing strikes and protests as revolutionary challenges, the government used force to respond to such movements. In 1905, protests against a new tariff on Argentine beef imports degenerated into a riot. In 1907, a miners’ strike in Iquique ended in a bloody massacre. Trade unions and mutual aid societies grew in the late 1900s and early 1910s, and the Socialist Worker’s Party (Partido Obrero Socialista, POS), founded in 1912, became the first lasting socialist party in Chile. In 1922, the POS became the Communist Party of Chile (Partido Comunista de Chile, PCCh)

World War I and the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 led to an economic decline in the country, although the Allied demand for nitrates (used in ammunition) later led to an economic boom which lasted throughout the war years and compensated the loss of German markets. During the war years, the government also showed itself slightly more concerned by the social question, although largely as a means of undercutting rising militancy. Congress passed workmen’s compensation (1916), employer’s liability (1917) and a retirement system for railway workers (1919). Economic growth during the war, however, strengthened labour’s hand and by 1917 the labour movement became even more influential and strikes more violent. 1919 saw high levels of labour mobilization, and the government began intervening in labour conflicts, sometimes on the side of labour.

Arturo Alessandri, President of Chile, and his dog ‘Ulk’ (source: Wikimedia)

Some sectors of the elite – the most enlightened factions of the Liberals and Radicals – saw the impotency of the oligarchic elite and opened the door to middle-class and working-class participation in politics. In 1920, Arturo Alessandri, the candidate the Liberal Alliance (‘doctrinaire’ Liberals, Radicals and Democrats), attempted to build an alliance of the middle-classes and working-class on a platform which promised labour reforms and a stronger executive and was critical of the oligarchy. Alessandri lost the popular vote to Luis Barros Borgoño, the candidate backed by the Conservatives, moderate Liberals, Nationals and some Liberal Democrats. However, Alessandri won the electoral college vote 179 to 175 and was elected President.

Alessandri, like many of his successors, failed to live up to his ambitious agenda. Alessandri faced mounting labour unrest with the economic crisis and had to deal with the hostility of the oligarchy in Congress. Although he originally sided with labour in labour conflicts, within a few months of his election in 1921, he opted for the employers. Nevertheless, Alessandri’s proposals for a major labour code and social welfare package got bogged down in Congress, controlled by forces hostile to reform. The deadlock displeased both organized labour and the young officers of the military officers corps who, in September 1924, took matters into their own hands. During a session of Congress which discussed remuneration of congressmen, young military officers protested their low salaries by rattling their sabres (literally). The next day, a “military committee” presented Alessandri with their demands, which included passage of labour legislation and the dismissal of three ministers. Alessandri appointed General Luis Altamirano as Minister of the Interior, and facing such pressure, Congress quickly approved labour legislation which included an eight-hour workday, banning child labour, regulation of collective bargaining, workplace safety regulations and the legalization of trade unions (subject to close government supervision). But Alessandri felt as if he was losing his fight within the military and resigned as President, and left for exile in Italy.

Presidential Republic (1925-1952)

Altamirano’s junta was unstable and the young officers who had put him there soon rebelled when they felt that Altamirano had betrayed the ideals of their September 1924 revolt and began clamoring for Alessandri’s return. In January 1925, another coup take place and pro-Alessandri young officers formed a new junta. In March 1925, Alessandri returned to the presidency with the goal of writing a new constitution. In September 1925, a new constitution was approved by voters. The new constitution, which was Alessandri’s brainchild, created a presidential republic in which the President, now directly elected by voters to a six-year term, saw his powers strengthened. Ministers were no longer responsible to Congress, the legislative and executive branches were separated (ministers could not serve in Congress) and Church and state were separated.

Alessandri’s government cracked down on labour opposition. Protests in nitrate mining towns in March and June 1925 led to massacres, in which up to 2,000 workers were killed by the army.

Alessandri came to resent the growing power of his ambitious war minister, Carlos Ibáñez, a leader of the 1924 and 1925 coups. In October 1925, Alessandri resigned the presidency and the first direct presidential was held later that month. Emiliano Figueroa Larraín, backed by all the old parties and with Ibáñez’s blessing and endorsement, easily won the ensuing election with 71.5% against a candidate backed by the Communists and socialists. The new president was weak and became widely perceived as Ibáñez’s tool. In May 1927, after Ibáñez had exiled the President’s brother, he resigned and Ibáñez became interim President (as Minister of the Interior). Ibáñez was elected President in his own right later in 1927.

Carlos Ibáñez broke with the rather democratic (to an extent) traditions of Chile and exercised dictatorial powers. Opponents were jailed or exiled, he gained full control of Congress by nominating the parties’ candidates himself and he ruled by decree. The good economic climate of the late 1920s around the world cemented his power for some time; through foreign loans, he was able to expand the size of government and embark on large public works projects. A populist leader, Ibáñez passed some social legislation including a new labour code. However, the Great Depression of 1929 – which sent nitrate and copper prices crashing – hit Chile extremely hard, resulting in high unemployment and a reawakening of popular unrest. The government’s measures against the depression, including attempts to create a national cartel to sell nitrates abroad, proved unsuccessful. In July 1931, following large student protests, Ibáñez was forced to resign.

Chile entered a period of political instability following Ibáñez’s resignation. President Juan Esteban Montero (right-wing Radical), elected to the presidency in October 1931 over Alessandri, was a weak leader and his austerity policies were unpopular in restless times. He faced down a naval mutiny in August-September 1931, but after less than a year in office, he was overthrown by a military coup in June 1932. The coup’s ringleaders, including Marmaduke Grove, proclaimed a Socialist Republic which promised major social reforms (a savings and loans banks for low-income Chileans, stopped evictions, 36-hour workweek, wealth tax) but lasted only a few days as it was internally divided and met with much opposition (including from the Communists). Carlos Dávila, a coup leader who supported Ibáñez, overthrew the socialist leadership and seized power. In September 1932, a counter-coup overthrew Dávila.

Arturo Alessandri, backed by a centrist coalition of Liberals, Radicals and Democrats, triumphed in the October 1932 presidential election with 54.8% against 17.7% for Marmaduke Grove, backed by socialist groups. A year later, various socialist groups united to form the Socialist Party (Partido Socialista, PS), which adopted a revolutionary and Marxist platform but presented itself as an alternative to the dogmatic and sectarian Communists (who were marginalized because of Moscow’s ‘class against class’ directives).

Alessandri was no longer the fiery battler of his earlier days and his government were very conservative. Alessandri’s second presidency, however, saw the slow recovery of the country from the depression and the chaos of 1931-1932. Alessandri cracked down on opposition – be it military, leftist, Nazi or nationalist. Militias which had Alessandri’s blessing participated in the repression of opposition until their self-dissolution in 1936. The Radicals, reorienting towards the left, broke with Alessandri’s right-wing government in 1934. In February 1936, Alessandri declared a state of siege and temporarily closed Congress. Economically, Alessandri and his ultra-orthodox finance minister Gustavo Ross drastically reduced public spending and reduced the size of the state after Ibáñez’s expansion. With the recovery of demand for Chilean minerals, the economy grew, unemployment dropped considerably and the foreign debt was cut by 31%.

The 1938 presidential election was a highly polarized contest. Following the Comintern’s orders, the Communist Party adopted the Popular Front strategy, seeking broad alliances with the democratic bourgeois parties and non-proletarian groups to counter fascism. The Radicals, who had moved leftwards under Alessandri’s presidency, were the first to accept the Communists’ offer and a Frente Popular (FP) coalition was formed in May 1936. The Socialists joined the FP in 1938. Pedro Aguirre Cerda, a Radical (who had opposed the FP strategy), was nominated as the FP’s candidate after Marmaduke Grove, the PS favourite, dropped out. The Liberals and Conservatives, both of them very similar right-wing parties by this point, supported Gustavo Ross, Alessandri’s very orthodox finance minister who was reviled by the left. Some young Conservatives (Eduardo Frei Montalva), from the social Christian faction of the party, opposed the decision and founded the Falange Nacional, a party which originally praised Salazar and Dollfuβ. Former President Carlos Ibáñez, who still had a dedicated base of supporters, was also in the race, backed by an heterogeneous coalition which included the Nazis (the MNS had won 3.5% and 3 seats in the Chamber in 1937) and pro-Grove PS dissidents.

In early September, two months before the election, a group of young ibañista Nazis staged a coup attempt to overthrow Alessandri and install Ibáñez as dictator. Alessandri called in the military, who captured and kill 59 Nazis, perhaps on the President’s direct orders. The ‘massacre of the Seguro Obrero’ created a firestorm which hurt Alessandri and his candidate. Ibáñez dropped out of the race and endorsed the FP candidate. Pedro Aguirre Cerda won the election by only 4,000 votes over Ross.

There was nothing revolutionary about Aguirre Cerda’s Radical-led government, which included three Socialist ministers (including Salvador Allende as Minister of Health) but no Communist members. The FP government soon found itself worn down by tensions between the Socialists and Communists, divided by theoretical disagreements and competition for a similar electorate. The Communists and Socialists distanced themselves from the Radical government, with the Socialists shutting the door to the FP in 1940. The Communists made major gains in the 1941 congressional elections, winning 14% and 16 seats, up from only 4% in 1937.

Notwithstanding these internal divides, the government was relatively successful. Aguirre Cerda’s government supported government intervention in the economy (along social democratic or Keynesian principles) and import substitution industrialization (ISI) which was in vogue in South America around that time (and later). A teacher by trade, Aguirre Cerda promoted education and opened new regular and technical schools. His most memorable contribution to history was the creation of the Production Development Corporation (CORFO) in 1939, after the Chillán earthquake. CORFO, which still exists, aimed to promote economic growth and sovereignty, reconstruction and the development of basic industries through investments. CORFO helped establish state-owned oil, energy and steel companies.

Aguirre Cerda faced opposition from the right and the more fascistic of Ibáñez’s supporters. In August 1939, General Ariosto Herera attempted, unsuccessfully, to overthrow the government and install Ibáñez.

Aguirre Cerda died in office of tuberculosis in November 1941, and new elections were held in February 1942. Juan Antonio Ríos, representing the conservative wing of the Radicals, narrowly defeated the left-leaning Radical Gabriel González Videla in the Radical primaries. His opponent was Carlos Ibáñez, who this time received the backing of the traditional right-wing forces – the Conservatives and the majority of the Liberals. On the left, the Socialists and Communists, both on bad terms with the Radicals, were at best lukewarm towards Ríos’ candidacy and tried to do their own thing. However, up again Ibáñez, who was widely perceived as a fascist/authoritarian threat by the left, both the PS and PCCh made their peace with the Radicals and reluctantly endorsed Ríos, forming a makeshift Democratic Alliance. Ríos’ candidacy was also endorsed by the social Christian Falange Nacional, the agrarians and above all former Liberal President Arturo Alessandri and his supporters in the Liberal Party (Ibáñez being Alessandri’s arch-enemy). With such backing, Ríos easily won, with 56% against 44% for Ibáñez.

Ríos, as promised, formed a broad government with Radicals, Liberals, Socialists and members of other parties. On the diplomatic front, Ríos’ government was confronted with Chile’s problematic neutrality in World War II. Chile declared war, on Japan only, on April 11, 1945 – but Chilean sympathies under Ríos were with the Allies, having broken diplomatic ties with the Axis in early 1943. The United States fixed a discounted price for Chilean nitrates, which caused Chile to lose over $500 million. On domestic issues, he continued his predecessor’s policy of ISI and desarrollismo, although he dealt with a weaker economy and inflation.

Ríos’ government was undermined by partisan instability. The Socialists split over the issue of participation in government at their congress in 1943, where the anti-government faction led by Salvador Allende defeated a pro-government wing led by Marmaduke Grove, who left the PS to form his own party (the Authentic Socialist Party, PSA). The Communists criticized Ríos for his policy of neutrality and failure to declare war on the Axis. The right, particularly the Conservatives, felt that Ríos was being held hostage by the left. Ríos faced serious troubles within his own party, who disliked his broad government with the Liberals. In 1944, the Radicals issued a series of unacceptable demands on Ríos’ government, and he was left without any reliable base of support. The Radicals, Chile’s ultimate middle-of-the-road party, was finding itself torn – for the umpteenth time – between left and right. After being victorious in the 1944 municipal elections, the Democratic Alliance suffered loses in the 1945 congressional elections, winning only 41.8% to the right’s 45.7%. The Socialists, worn down by the split in party ranks, lost the most (-9 seats) but the Radicals and Communists lost ground as well.

Ríos, who had terminal cancer, withdrew from office in favour of his Minister of the Interior, the anticommunist Radical Alfredo Duhalde, in January 1946. He died in June 1946. During Duhalde’s interim presidency, the police cracked down on a strike in Santiago, killing six workers.

The 1946 presidential election was more open ended than ever. The Radicals were split, again, between left (Gabriel González Videla) and right (Duhalde), but with the right walking out, Gabriel González Videla was nominated as the Radical candidate, and received the the Communists’ endorsement and unofficial backing from Socialists. The Conservatives and the Falangists nominated Eduardo Cruz-Coke, the Liberals and right-wing Radicals (PRD) were behind Fernando Alessandri (Arturo Alessandri’s son and a Liberal senator) while the Socialists – on bad terms with the Communists – officially nominated anticommunist union leader Bernardo Ibáñez, although many Socialists backed González Videla and Grove’s PSA endorsed Alessandri. Gabriel González Videla won a plurality of the vote, 40.2%, against 29.8% for Cruz-Coke, 27.4% for Alessandri and only 2.5% for the PS candidate. In the absence of any winner with an absolute majority, the Congress, as per the constitution, would choose from the top two candidates. González Videla attracted Liberal, Falangist, Socialist and Communist votes and won 138 votes to Cruz-Coke’s 46 votes.

Gabriel González Videla’s government made history because the Communists, for the first time in the Americas, entered government with three ministers, but the Liberals were also represented. The Communists’ strength combined with the new Cold War arithmetic alarmed anticommunist public opinion. In the 1947 municipal elections, the Communists won a record 16.5% of the vote (more than the Liberals), sending the old parties into a frenzy. The Liberals demanded that the President dismiss the Communists from government, which he did. Like in France and Italy, the Communists’ withdrawal from government in 1947 marked the definite end of Popular Front-type alliances between communism and the ‘bourgeois’ democrats. The Communists became implacable foes of the Radical government, and mounted large general strikes in key industries against the government while the government denounced the Communists as the causes of political instability.

Under pressure from Washington, the government pushed Congress to adopt the Ley de Defensa Permanente de la Democracia (or ley maldita) which banned the Communists, struck their sympathizers from the rolls and banned them from running or holding office. The law, although approved by most parties (the right, most Radicals and Socialists, agrarians), stirred much controversy. The Socialists split over the issue (the anticommunists retaining the name PS, the pro-communists becoming the PSP), as did the Radicals but also the Conservatives (between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘social Christians’). After the fact, the President formed a Concentración Nacional cabinet with Radicals, Liberals, traditionalist Conservatives and the small Democratic Party. The Concentración Nacional right-wing alliance triumphed in the 1949 congressional elections over an opposition alliance of Falangists, Socialists, the PRD and the Agrarian Labour Party.

The Minister of Finance, Jorge Alessandri (another son of the former President), pursued orthodox austerity policies which displeased the Radicals who wanted pay increases for public servants (to reap their votes). When the Radicals backed a public servants’ strike, the Liberals and Conservatives left cabinet in early 1950. The President formed a government with the Social Christians and Falangists.

Mass Politics (1952-1970)

Carlos Ibáñez, who in 1948 had been involved in a military conspiracy, returned for one last shot at the presidency in 1952. Ibáñez, unlike in 1942, had little partisan backing – in his coalition, only the agrarians and the PSP were of any relevance – but he ran a populist and nationalist campaign in which he presented himself as the “general of hope” who would save Chile and root out corruption with his symbolic broom. He faced Arturo Matte, the joint Liberal and traditionalist Conservative candidate; Pedro Enrique Alfonso, backed by the Radicals, Social Christians and Falangists; and Salvador Allende, the candidate of the Frente del Pueblo alliance of the PS and the proscribed Communists. Appealing to all, but particularly the right and centre, Ibáñez won 46.8% against 27.8% for Matte, 20% for the Radical candidate and 5.5% for Allende.

Ibáñez’s second term was less successful than his first. By 1952-1958, Ibáñez was old and ailing, and delegated governance to his cabinet. He also lacked a strong support base in Congress, his supporters having failed to obtain a majority in the 1953 congressional elections despite doing fairly well. In 1955, the PSP withdrew from government and patched up with the PS. Things were complicated by rising inflation and the perceived failure of Radical ISI and desarrollismo. Ibáñez wanted to continue his populist policies, but was forced to look abroad for help for Chile’s economic woes. An American economic mission and the IMF prescribed neoliberal reforms, including easing trade barriers, removing subsidies and ending the automatic indexation of salaries. Ibáñez accepted only a few of their recommendations, but rising utility and public transit prices were unpopular. In Santiago, student protests against public transit fare hikes claimed 20 lives and material damages.

Some ibañistas still wanted Ibáñez to entrench himself as dictator, perhaps emulating his close ally Juan Perón in Argentina. Some military officers, perhaps pushed by Perón, created plans for a self-coup by the President and Ibáñez entertained them, but as always, he didn’t seem to care enough about anything to act on it.

Ibáñez had promised to repeal the ley maldita in his presidential campaign. He waited until the end of his term, in 1958, to actually do so. In the meantime, the Communists had moderated and talked of conquering power through democratic means – in alliance with the Socialists.

Ibáñez’s bizarre ‘general of salvation’ phase having ended in failure, Chile entered a period of polarized mass politics after 1958. This era was closely disputed elections, rising left-right polarization (especially after 1970), a growing electorate and a generally solid democracy. The 1958 election set the stage for the years to come.

Jorge Alessandri, the son of the former President and an independent right-winger, reluctantly agreed to run and received the backing of the right – the Liberals and Conservatives (and other minor parties), despite some Liberal misgivings about Alessandri’s candidacy. Alessandri went up against the left and the centre. In 1957, the Falangists and what remained of the Social Christians merged to form the Christian Democratic Party (Partido Demócrata Cristiano, PDC), a centrist and Christian democratic party which advocated a ‘third way’ between capitalism and socialism and was founded on social Christian principles, which had been influential in the Conservative Party since the early 1900s. Eduardo Frei Montalva, a co-founder of the Falange in the 1930s and former cabinet minister, was the PDC candidate. On the left, the Socialists and the Communists (now legalized) formed a broader coalition with smaller left-wing groups (including the PSP), known as the Frente de Acción Popular (FRAP). Salvador Allende, the long-time Socialist politician and medical doctor, was the FRAP’s candidate. The Radicals nominated Luis Bossay, who ran on a centrist platform supporting ISI and desarrollismo. The election was extremely narrow: Alessandri won with a weak plurality of 31.6%, while Allende, who had led a strong campaign and confirmed himself as the face of the Marxist left, placed a close second with 28.9%. Frei placed a solid third with 20.7%, while the declining Radicals won only 15.6%. An independent leftist candidate won 3.3%; Allende might have won without him, and he might have been planted by the right to weaken Allende.

Alessandri’s election was confirmed by Congress, with Radical support. The Radicals, although absent from Alessandri’s right-wing Liberal and Conservative cabinet (until 1961), eventually became close allies of Alessandri’s government. After the Liberals and Conservatives lost ground in the 1961 congressional elections, Radical support was indispensable to block PDC and FRAP opposition measures (with Radical support, the two opposition parties could override vetoes).

Alessandri proposed a classically conservative solution to Chile’s growing problems. Alessandri believed in free enterprise and free markets, and opposed the idea of a ‘paternalist state’. He felt that the state should limit itself to investing in infrastructures necessary to attract foreign and private investment. He reduced public spending, devalued the currency (fixed exchange rate with the dollar) and reduced tariffs. His policies, welcomed by the US but unpopular with Chilean lower classes, were somewhat successful in reducing inflation (down to 8% in 1961). However, the government’s mellow moves to convince American-owned copper companies to invest more of their profits locally were unsuccessful and the left demanded that copper be nationalized. Alessandri’s policies were complicated by the Great Chilean Earthquake (and tsunami) in May 1960 (the most powerful earthquake ever recorded, 9.5 magnitude) which killed over 3,000 people.

His government made some early moves on agrarian reform and launched large public works projects. Chilean agriculture remained quasi-feudal up into the 1960s, and both the right and left came to see the latifundios (and minifundios) as a drag on the economy. While the FRAP wanted fast-tracked agrarian reform, the right was more concerned about agrarian reform for the sake of increasing agricultural productivity, which had contracted since the 1950s. In 1962, Congress passed a law allowing the state to acquire land (and redistribute it) in return for compensation to landowners. The left found it ludicrously inadequate, but it was backed by the Catholic Church (which redistributed some of its own landholdings) and President Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress. With the Cuban revolution and the Cuban threat, the US started taking an active interest in Chile’s polarized and ideological politics.

As political interest shifted to Alessandri’s succession in 1964, the right formed the Democratic Front, composed of the Liberals, Conservatives and Radicals (who were the strongest party). The Democratic Front put forward the presidential candidacy of Julio Durán, a right-wing and anticommunist Radical, despite some Liberal and Conservative misgivings about bowing down to the Radicals’ numerical superiority. The conservative coalition emphasized anticommunism and the defense of democracy. In the 1963 municipal elections, the right won 46% of the vote, remaining the largest force ahead of the FRAP (30%) and PDC (23%). However, Durán’s candidacy took a hit in March 1964, following a by-election in the rural Conservative stronghold of Curicó. There, the PS-FRAP candidate won 39.7% against 33% for the Conservative candidate and 27.4% for the PDC. It became clear to the Liberals, Conservatives and the US that, with the non-leftist vote divided between Frei (PDC) and Durán (right), Allende could very well eek out a plurality win. The Liberals and Conservatives abandoned the Radicals and scurried to join up with Frei and the PDC, seen as the lesser evil against Allende.

Eduardo Frei, 1964 (source: PDC website)

The 1964 election was another election with stark differences between the candidates. Eduardo Frei, the PDC leader backed by the Liberals and Conservatives, campaigned on the platform of a “Revolution in Liberty” (a thinly-veiled jab at the left, depicted as revolution in dictatorship), promised agrarian reform and the “Chileanization” of the copper industry and rejected both economic liberalism and socialism. Allende, the FRAP candidate, wanted a pacific transition to socialism and a repudiation of capitalism and imperialism. Frei also led a ‘red scare’ campaign which played heavily on fears of “another Cuba” and the Soviet Union. The US took a strong and direct interest in the campaign; both because Frei was the last bulwark against “another Cuba” and his reformist Christian democratic agenda represented a promising alternative. The CIA spent over $2 million on Frei’s campaigned and paid for half of his campaign expenses, unbeknownst to the candidate. The Church Committee Report later showed that the US spent millions in covert actions in Chile to oppose the FRAP, with the US funding the PDC, the Radicals and the right-wing parties or funding various groups and media organizations.

It might have been overkill. Frei won a landslide, scoring 56.1% of the vote against 39.8% for Allende (still a sizable gain from 1958) and 5% for Durán, backed only by the Radicals. Frei’s landslide indicated the coalescing of the right around him, but also the popularity of his very reformist and ambitious agenda. Durán’s result, on the other hand, showed the repudiation of Alessandri’s conservative policies. In the 1965 congressional elections, only a few months after Frei’s election, the PDC won a landslide victory with 43.6% and an absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies. The FRAP did well enough with some small gains and 27.8%, but the Liberals, Conservatives and Radicals collapsed completely. The Liberals and Conservatives both won less than 10% of the vote, and only 6 and 3 seats each.

In May 1966, after the 1965 defeat, the Liberals and Conservatives (and a small ibañista party) merged to form the National Party (Partido Nacional, PN). Some of the PN’s values, such as nationalism, praise for the armed forces, criticism of parliamentary democracy and parties and rhetorical orientation towards “the middle-classes” (instead of the upper classes and business) and “work ethic” would find their way towards Pinochet’s political thoughts in the 1970s and 1980s.

Frei put his promises into practice, and his record was not negligible but because the results of his reforms failed to live up to high expectations, the “Revolution in Liberty” was not hailed as a success and hit a dead end in 1970. Frei’s government expanded the availability of education, built public housing and encouraged the growth of social groups and cooperatives (in line with the PDC’s communitarian ideology and as a bid to counter the left’s power in unions). The US actively supported the regime, either through open aid from the US government or multilateral agencies (World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank) or through covert financial support for Chilean anti-leftist groups and parties.

Frei’s two most important actions, however, came with respect to the hot button issues of the day: copper and agrarian reform. In 1967, Congress passed two laws – one allowing for peasant unionization and farmers’ syndicates, the other an agrarian reform law which replaced Alessandri’s law. Frei’s agrarian reform law allowed for the expropriation of large estates which were too big (over 80 ha or its equivalent), owned by corporations, abandoned or improperly operated. 3.5 million ha were expropriated, and 28,000 new farm owners. But this number fell short of the PDC’s goal of 100,000 new owners by 1970, and the left continued to demand more action. In the countryside, landless peasants began occupying and seizing land.

Frei wanted to take a moderate approach to the issue of copper. The issue was not whether copper should be in Chilean hands – economic nationalism ran deep, even on the right – but how the state should proceed. Unwilling to create strains with foreign investors and the US, Frei chose a centrist solution: Chile would buy shares in the companies, created mixed companies, while the mining companies would compelled to invest the proceeds from the sale of shares in new processing facilities. In 1965, after the PDC made its “Chileanization” of copper the main issue in the congressional elections, Congress approved Frei’s Chileanization law. In 1969, the government reached an agreement with Anaconda and Kennecott, the two American giants (la gran minería). Chile bought a 51% share in Kennecott’s El Teniente mine and Anaconda’s Chuquicamata mine, with a minority share in Anaconda’s other mines. However, mining production only increased by 10% and most of the rising export profits (due to an increase in world prices) went to the companies.

Frei’s Revolution in Liberty ultimately failed because he was unable to deal with a bad economy and political opposition. Inflation increased rapidly under Frei’s presidency, and the slow pace of Frei’s reformist policies disillusioned those on the left who wanted radical and rapid change and met with the right’s opposition, who disliked Frei’s economic interventionism and alleged ‘anti-patriotism’. The military was showing signs of unease; in October 1969, Frei faced a brief military insurrection (Tacnazo) and was forced to concede pay increases to the generals. Politically, the right (which had backed Frei in 1964), became very critical opponents of Frei and the PDC. In the 1969 congressional elections, in which the PDC retained the most seats but lost its absolute majority, the PN was extremely critical of Frei, accusing him of being anti-patriotic. In that election, the PDC’s support fell to 30.8% while the FRAP won 30%, the PN 20.7% and the Radicals 13.5%. Within the PDC itself, the leftist faction in the party, led by Radomiro Tomic, opposed Frei’s moderate policies and advocated for a leftist agenda close to that of Allende.

Allende and the ‘transition to socialism’ (1970-1973)

The frontrunner for the 1970 presidential election was Jorge Alessandri, the former conservative president who was backed by the National Party and Democracia Radical, Julio Durán’s right-wing split off from the Radicals. However, Alessandri, who was 74 in 1970, led a low key campaign and there were rumours that he was senile and suffering from Parkinson’s. The US was apparently certain that Alessandri would win, so the US/CIA took no direct role in funding Alessandri’s campaign. However, declassified documents have shown that Alessandri lobbied the CIA for financial assistance. His campaign received about $350,000 from International Telephone & Telegraph (ITT), which owned the Chilean telephone company at the time. The CIA spent about a million altogether in various covert anti-Allende activities in 1970.

The leftist FRAP expanded in 1969 to create the Unidad Popular (Popular Unity, UP), which included the Radicals (who had moved left), the PDC leftist splitoff Movimiento de Acción Popular Unitaria (MAPU) and the left-nationalist Acción Popular Independiente (API). Allende, however, struggled to impose himself as the UP’s candidate after three successive defeats and Socialist doubts about the viability of Allende’s moderate vía chilena al socialismo. Indeed, in 1967, the more radical wing, led by Carlos Altomirano, had gained the upper hand in the PS which defined itself as Marxist-Leninist and recognized armed struggle as a legitimate means to obtain power. Allende’s more moderate, democratic and pacifist option won out and he ran for the presidency a fourth (and final) time. Allende denounced the failures of Frei’s Revolution in Liberty, which the left considered as woefully inadequate and too pro-American. Instead, the UP offered a “Chilean way to socialism” which was democratic, pacifist and gradual – the socialist state would come via the democratic process and the rule of law. The CIA claimed that Allende’s campaign received $350,000 from Cuba and a slightly larger amount from the KGB and the Soviet Union.

The PDC nominated Radomiro Tomic, the representative of the party’s leftist faction who ultimately very much resembled Allende in his proposals (nationalization of copper, anti-capitalist). Tomic’s candidacy precluded any deal with the right, which besides had little interest in repeating the last-ditch alliance of 1964.

On September 4, Allende won 36.6% against 35.3% for Alessandri and 28.1% for Tomic. Many have wondered if Allende would have won if Chile had had the traditional two-round system in 1970: Allende only won a plurality of the votes, and a smaller percentage than in the 1964 election. Even if Tomic’s voters might have leaned left, it is doubtful that Allende would have been elected to the presidency had there been a runoff election. The UP never won an absolute majority of the vote, even at its peak in the 1971 municipal elections (where it came extremely close to 50%).

Given that he lacked an absolute majority of the votes, the election would be decided by Congress which would pick between the top two finishers. This had turned into a formality which confirmed the candidate who had won the most votes, but the uniqueness of the situation and Washington’s opposition to Allende complicated the process. Shortly after the election, President Richard Nixon made it known to the CIA that an Allende government would be unacceptable to the US. The CIA presented two plans: Track I and Track II (FUBELT). Track I intended to convince PDC congressmen to vote for Alessandri, who would then resign and allow Frei to run for ‘reelection’ legally. However, Tomic (who had a secret pact with the UP) recognized Allende’s victory and Frei opposed this gambit and it fell through. With Track II, the US sought to directly organize a military coup which would prevent Allende from taking office. The plot was to kidnap General René Schneider, the legalist/constitutionalist Commander in Chief of the Chilean Army, attribute the plot to the left and provoke a coup. However, the plan failed on October 22, when the bungled kidnapping attempt actually resulted in the kidnappers killing Schneider. Allende was elected by Congress on October 24, with 153 votes to Alessandri’s 35.

Allende’s economic plan for a Chilean transition to socialism included the nationalization of strategic industries, the nationalization of copper, accelerated agrarian reform, price freeze, wage increases and constitutional reform to create a unicameral people’s legislature. At the outset, there was optimism and polarization was still fairly low, allowing for compromises with the PDC (the UP did not have even a plurality in Congress). Coal, steel, most private banks and other key industrial sectors were nationalized early in Allende’s presidency. Action was also quick to come on another landmark UP promise: the nationalization of copper. A law nationalizing la gran minería was passed unanimously by Congress in July 1971 – a sign of how deep economic nationalism ran in Chile, even on the right, and how Frei’s Chileanization policy had been perceived as a failure. The mining companies were to be compensated, however Allende’s government subtracted what it called “excessive profit” from the calculation of compensations which meant that neither Anaconda or Kennecott were compensated (in fact, Allende claimed that they owed Chile millions).

This decision incensed Nixon, who had been determined from the start to make the Chilean economy “scream”, and the US mounted an invisible blockade of Chile. Total US economic aid went from $80.8 million in 1969 to $8.6 million in 1971 and $3.8 million in 1973. World Bank loans were withheld and Inter-American Development Bank aid dried up, from $46 million in 1970 to $2 million in 1972. In the days which followed Allende’s election in September 1970, companies had already started laying off workers and sending capital abroad. American firms like ITT and Nestlé supported their government’s covert actions to strangle the Chilean economy.

In the first year, Allende’s redistributive policies were fairly successful. The price freezes and 40-60% wage increases boosted consumer buying and did not originally create inflation: in 1971, the GDP grew by 8%, inflation fell to 22%, employment increased and industrial growth reached 12%. Social security coverage was expanded, pensions were increased and the government provided half of Chilean children with half of litre of milk, free of charge, every day. Riding on this success, the UP won 49% in the 1971 municipal elections, the UP’s strongest result.

The UP used Frei’s agrarian reform law to speed up the process, with rapid expropriations of large estates. By September 1973, over 4000 properties had been expropriated (6.4 million ha): the latifundio structure which had dominated for centuries was dead. However, the agrarian reform unfolded chaotically and violently in the countryside: organized by revolutionaries, peasants seized over 2000 properties, landowners died defending their land and expropriations came too quickly to ensure that the services the new owners needed were there. It was the same thing in industrial relations: workers took matters into their own hands, occupying management offices until expropriations were announced.

By 1972, the economy went into a nose-dive. A lot of factors collided to create a catastrophic situation: the lack of foreign aid and investment from the US’ boycott, a sharp dip in copper prices worldwide (the Chilean economy being dependent on copper), a balance of payment deficit, new social policies created huge deficits, the government’s inflationary wage increases, the depletion of foreign exchange reserves by 1973, collapsing exports and rising imports. Deficits rose, inflation skyrocketed (the government was pumping money to cover the deficit) and food shortages became commonplace in 1972 and especially 1973. The government was also hurt by deliberate sabotages from merchants and landowners who wanted the UP government to fail.

The violence in the countryside foreshadowed the polarization of Chilean society as a whole after the successful first year. The UP and the broader left was divided between those who wanted a moderate, peaceful and democratic transition to socialism and those who advocated for rapid and revolutionary change. Allende, the Communists, the Radicals, a faction of MAPU and some Socialists supported a moderate way; the Communists wanted to find compromise with the PDC and warned against creating a violent environment. The radical wing of the Socialists, most of MAPU and the extra-parliamentary Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) wanted revolutionary change, including through violence if necessary. The MIR, founded in 1965, was closer to the revolutionary traditions of the post-Cuban Revolution Latin American left (Che Guevara): they felt that the only way to overthrow capitalism was through the armed struggle.

In June 1971, far-left terrorists (expelled from the MIR in 1969) assassinated Edmundo Pérez Zujovic, the PDC Minister of the Interior whom they held responsible for a massacre in Puerto Montt which killed 10 peasants who occupied an estate. Afterwards, the PDC broke off cooperation with the UP and formed a coalition with the PN, known as the Confederación de la Democracia (COFED). The COFED won two by-elections in January 1972 – a victory possible in part thanks to CIA financial support to right-wing candidates (the CIA funded the PDC and PN throughout Allende’s presidency). The COFED, which held a majority in Congress, became locked in a struggle with Allende’s government. It attempted to impeach Allende’s interior minister, held responsible for violence and it passed an amendment which nullified a 1932 decree with Allende was using to nationalize industries without congressional approval (Allende vetoed the bill). The language in the media became violent. Right-wing newspapers such as El Mercurio, which was extensively funded (perhaps even controlled) by the CIA, viciously attacked the UP; the left-wing media joined in, with equally as virulent attacks on the right. The far-right terrorist group Patria y Libertad, funded by the CIA, engaged in terrorist attacks against left-wing/governmental officials and public utilities.

The right took to the streets beginning with Fidel Castro’s controversial three-week visit to Chile in 1971. Nightly cacerolazos began to denounce Allende’s policies. By mid-1972, the situation had deteriorated further. In August 1972, one-day boycotts by shopkeepers protested the UP’s economic policies. Beginning in October 1972 and until September 1973, the country was paralyzed by a truckers’ strike, which may have been indirectly funded by the CIA. Other groups soon joined the truckers On the other hand, the UP could mobilize equally as impressive demonstrations in support of the President. Responding to this, in November 1972, Allende named three military officers to cabinet, including General Carlos Prats, the legalist Commander in Chief, as Minister of the Interior.

The March 1973 congressional elections confirmed the polarization. The COFED won 55.6% and retained an absolute majority in Congress, but the UP won a solid 44.1% and actually won more seats than it had in 1969. Within the UP, the Radicals, the ambiguous and opportunistic partner, collapsed to a mere 5 seats (23 in 1969). The PDC also lost, while the PN made minor gains. On these results, the COFED did not have the two-thirds majority it wanted to override vetoes and impeach Allende. Yet, it claimed victory on basis of retaining an absolute majority; while the UP claimed victory on account of registering substantial gains from 1969 and 1970. Allende tried to reach an agreement with the PDC; in this, he was backed by the Communists but the Socialists opposed any compromise with the PDC. Eduardo Frei and Patricio Aylwin, the PDC’s leaders, were also hostile towards Allende.

Allende was also locked in a judicial battle with the Supreme Court, which had invalidated several nationalizations. The UP refused to comply to the court’s orders.

General Carlos Prats, who was seen as the guarantor of the armed forces’ loyalty towards the elected government (following the ‘Schneider doctrine’), resigned from cabinet after the 1973 elections. The military was becoming increasingly divided, and talk of civil war increased. On June 29, 1973, Lt. Colonel Roberto Souper led an unsuccessful coup attempt (Tanquetazo). La Moneda, the presidential palace, was attacked by tanks. Pro-government troops led by Prats struck back and the revolt was crushed that same day. In late July, Allende’s naval aide-de-camp was assassinated by the far-right; a few days later, there were talks of dissent in the Navy and a potential coup attempt by naval officers. On August 9, Allende formed a new ‘military’ cabinet which included uniformed men: Prats returned as Minister of Defense.

In late August 1973, the Chamber of Deputies approved a resolution condemning “grave violations of the constitutional and judicial order”, claiming that Allende sought to install a totalitarian regime. The next day, General Carlos Prats resigned as Commander in Chief, understanding that he had lost the support of the military. On his recommendation, he was replaced by General Augusto Pinochet, a soldier esteemed for his professionalism and apolitical stances.

By September 1973, the political system was deadlocked, the economy was on the verge of collapse (inflation at over 300%, salaries falling, 5% dip in GDP) and polarization of society was bordering on violence. To quell the situation, Allende gave in to the opposition’s demand that he hold a plebiscite on his politics; however, the UP’s radicals, including the PS, opposed any compromise. By September 10, defense minister Orlando Letelier had managed to convince the Socialists to agree to Allende’s plebiscite.

However, senior commanding officers in the military were conspiring to overthrow the government. The lead conspirators were General Gustavo Leigh, the Commander in Chief of the Air Force, and Vice Admiral José Toribio Merino; the military, conservative politicians, economists and some US Navy personnel had been regularly conspiring since 1972 at the least. By September, a number of PDC and PN members were calling on the armed forces to intervene to restore order. On September 9, Pinochet joined the conspiracy. Unlike in June, the coup had the backing of all branches of the armed forces and the police.

Unlike in 1970, the US was not directly involved in preparations for the coup, although the CIA had forewarning of the conspiracy by July 1973; however, Nixon was pleased by the coup and Henry Kissinger told him that if the US had not been involved, it had done everything it could to make the coup successful. The Nixon administration had spent millions between 1970 and 1973 in covert actions to wreck the UP government.

On the morning of September 11, 1973, the armed forces took control of the major port city of Valparaíso and the coup succeeded throughout Chile, except Santiago, with barely any opposition. Informed of a coup, Allende headed to La Moneda in Santiago, where he would entrench himself until the end. Allende refused the new military junta’s demands that he step down immediately and later turned down offers from the military offering him safe passage abroad. Upon his refusal to surrender, tanks opened fire and La Moneda was bombed by fighter planes. By early afternoon, Allende committed suicide and the junta had seized power.

Military dictatorship (1973-1988)

The coup was brutal and bloody from the outset. Leftist leaders and sympathizers who did have the chance to flee the country were arrested, tortured and in most cases murdered. The brutality of the military was to set the scene for the years to come.

The armed forces never intended for the coup to be a transitory measure to ‘restore order’ and promptly restore civilian democracy, as the PDC had hoped for when its leader, Eduardo Frei, welcomed the coup (as did Alessandri and González Videla). Upon taking power, the junta – in which Pinochet quickly moved to assume full control – suspended constitutional guarantees, dissolved Congress, banned parties (PS, PCCh) or declared them “in recess” (PDC, PN, Radicals), declare a state of emergency and set a strict curfew. Some early supporters of the coup – most famously Frei but also Patricio Aylwin – would quickly become opponents of the regime, realizing that they had seriously overestimated the constitutional commitment of the armed forces.

The military’s proclaimed goal was national reconstruction. Their goals had a lot in common with those of Diego Portales in the 19th century (Pinochet invoked Portales’ ideals on more than one occasion) and with the theory of decadencia popularized by conservative authors such as Francisco Antonio Encina and Alberto Edwards. Like them, they idolized a strong, hierarchical state which would guide Chile’s development, restore order, remove the Marxist ‘cancer’ (nationalists loathed Marxism as a ‘foreign ideology’, many of them also disliked Christian democracy for the same reasons) and end inefficient parliamentary and party politics.

President General Augusto Pinochet and the junta (source:

During Pinochet’s regime, over 3,000 people were killed by the secret police (DINA and CNI) or the armed forces. Tens of thousands more were tortured, detained or forced into exile. The utter brutality, disregard for human rights and basic liberties by the Pinochet regime must outweigh any policy successes his regime might have had. The members of the junta, particularly Leigh, were committed to eradicating the ‘Marxist cancer’ and purged society (including the military officer corps) of anybody suspected of being a ‘Marxist’. In 1973, General Stark’s Caravan of Death – a military death squad – crisscrossed the country to execute 75 individuals, most of whom had turned themselves in and posed no threat. The regime also infamously threw opponents from helicopters into the ocean.

During the military regime, Chile and its intelligence services (DINA and CNI, led by Manuel Contreras) formed the vanguard of Operation Condor, the campaign of oppression and terror organized by South American military dictatorships (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia etc) with the CIA’s collaboration and material support – Contreras was a CIA asset and DINA/CNI contracted Michael Townley, an ex-CIA professional assassin. France is also suspected of having supported Condor. Some of Chile’s most famous operations as part of Condor included the 1974 assassination of Carlos Prats in Buenos Aires and the 1976 assassination of Orlando Letelier (Allende’s former ambassador to the US and senior diplomat) in Washington DC. In 1975, DINA killed 119 members of the MIR in Argentina.

Besides torture and ‘disappearances’, the regime suspended freedom of speech, press, assembly (etc.) and cracked down on any sign of opposition.

As in other South American dictatorships, left-wing guerrilla warfare against the government was very much unsuccessful. They failed to build a large base of support with the civilian population, limiting their armed struggle to isolated terrorist actions and attacks on military personnel. Many of the revolutionary guerrilla groups were badly hurt and weakened by state repression. In 1980, the exiled Communist Party decided to adopt a “popular mass rebellion” strategy and created a military wing, the Frente Patriótico Manuel Rodríguez (FPMR), which began operating in 1983.

Pinochet inherited an economy on the verge of collapse. Unsure of how to act himself, Pinochet turned, in 1975, to a group of neoliberal technocrats educated at the Catholic University of Chile and the University of Chicago, where they had been heavily influenced by Milton Friedman’s economic theories. These “Chicago Boys” set out to apply ‘shock therapy’ to the economy, which they felt had suffered from excessive government intervention and needed to be massively deregulated. Pinochet explained that the goal was to make Chile a nation of owners/entrepreneurs, not a nation of proletarians.

Initial shock therapy included a 20% cut in public spending, laying off 30% of civil servants, raising the VAT and privatization of a number of state-owned enterprises. In privatizing many state-owned firms, Pinochet undid much of Allende’s nationalizations and returned many of them to their original owners while others were sold off (mostly to local business conglomerates or multinationals) As Friedman had warned Pinochet, the first collateral effects of shock therapy were severe: inflation still raging, a 12% fall in GDP (in 1975), a boom in unemployment (16%), a 40% reduction in the value of exports and falling real wages. However, by 1977, growth soared to 10% of GDP, inflation was falling rapidly but unemployment remained high.

The one sector of the economy which Pinochet did not touch was copper, whose nationalization in 1971 remains one of Allende’s most famous actions. The 1980 constitution declared copper resources to be inalienable property of the state, although the government opened new mineral concessions to private investors leading some to decry a ‘denationalization’ of copper. Otherwise, however, Pinochet undid a lot of Allende and past president’s economic and social reforms. In 1980-1981, the old PAYGO pensions system was changed to a capitalization system run by private pension funds. In 1981, the military junta, whose members had opposed Frei and Allende’s university reforms and associated them with Marxist student dissidence, imposed a counter-reform which atomized major universities, placed more power in private sector hands and forced all students to pay for their education. The government also reformed the healthcare (creation of private insurers, Isapres), social services and labour market in line with neoliberal precepts and in the view, for the latter, of controlling and limiting trade union activity.

The government faced difficulties in 1978. In the United States, President Jimmy Carter was very critical of Pinochet’s human rights record and American courts demanded Contreras’ extradition for the Letelier assassination. Within the military junta, General Gustavo Leigh, known as one of the hardliners in 1973, became openly critical of Pinochet – his style of leadership, the transformation of the junta into a personality cult around Pinochet, the economic policies – and was dismissed from office by the junta’s members, replaced by General Fernando Matthei. Relations with Argentina, a fellow right-wing dictatorship, deteriorated rapidly following a boundary dispute in the Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego; on more than occasion, Chile and Argentina came close to war and relations remained cool afterwards – Pinochet backed the British in the Falklands War. Relations with Peru and Bolivia, two historical rivals where anti-Chilean sentiment still runs deep, were also complicated by boundary conflicts left unresolved by the Chilean victory in the War of the Pacific.

To gain an ounce of legitimacy for his regime, Pinochet held a plebiscite in 1978 in which voters were asked were asked if they backed Pinochet, “in his defense of the dignity of Chile” in the face of “international aggression”. The vote was widely seen as a sham, and the yes option won 75%.

In 1980, Chileans were presented with a new constitution to replace the 1925 constitution, which the junta felt had led to the political crisis of 1973. The constitution, still in place today (with major reforms), reduced the powers of Congress, created a Constitutional Tribunal and a National Security Council. With regards to the transition to democracy, the new constitution granted Pinochet an eight-year term while the junta took legislative and constituent powers for a ‘transitory’ period lasting until 1990. At the expiration of Pinochet’s term, a plebiscite would be held in which voters would approve or reject the candidate put forward by the junta. The plebiscite held in September 1980 to approve the draft gave way to a more open and ‘democratic’ campaign in which the no campaign was granted some limited means to campaign. The no campaign, led by former President Frei, held a large meeting in Santiago in August 1980 which was the first public demonstration in opposition to the government. However, the fairness of the vote was questioned by the opposition and foreign observers, and the campaign was still heavily biased in favour of the yes. The yes option, predictably, won 67% against 30.2% for the no.

Former President Frei died in January 1982, officially from infection following a low-risk surgery; however, the courts have since claimed that Frei was poisoned with toxic substances, probably by DINA on Pinochet’s orders.

The Chilean economic miracle came to abrupt stop in 1982, when the country was hit particularly hard by the Latin American debt crisis which had begun in Mexico. The Chilean crisis was caused by high interest rates, a fall in copper prices, its exposure to global economic cycles and an overvalued currency (pegged to the dollar). Pinochet’s decision to devalue the currency proved disastrous, as Chileans indebted themselves in dollars and the country’s large debt increased further. Banks fell bankrupt, and the government temporarily abandoned the Chicago Boys to nationalize some banks. The country was rocked by the first major strikes and protests against the government’s policies, which became increasingly violent as the government refused to hear the opposition. Overall, in 1982, the GDP plunged 14% and nearly one third of the population was unemployed.

After temporarily abandoning neoliberal policies, Pinochet signaled a return to such policies in 1985 with the nomination of Hernán Büchi as finance minister. Public spending was reduced again, the peso was devalued to favour exports, a new round of privatizations (steel, electricity, communications, sugar, LAN Chile airline, banks nationalized in 1982), Central Bank control of interest rates, cutting government subsidies and reducing tariffs. Chile’s economy was further deregulated and open to international market competition. The results were favourable: the second Chilean economic miracle, with 5-10% yearly growth rates throughout the rest of the regime’s existence; many feel that Chile’s present-day economic stability and performance is at least partly due to Pinochet’s economic reforms. The success of Pinochet’s economic policies after the 1982 crisis became one of the regime’s strongest arguments in the 1988 plebiscite. However, the economic miracle came at the cost of equality: during the Pinochet regime, the lower middle-classes and working-classes saw their real wages fall, poorer social services as a result of systematic privatization and income inequality increased. To this day, Chile is one of the world’s most unequal countries, with a Gini index of 52.1 (2009) placing it 17th in the world and behind only Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, Paraguay and Bolivia in Latin America. Income inequality was even more drastic in 1990; although it remains high today, poverty remains low by regional standards and Chile has the HDI in South America.

The 1980s were otherwise marked by increased domestic and foreign opposition to the dictatorship. As Chile became one of the last standing dictatorships in South America after the fall of similar regimes in Brazil, Argentina and even Paraguay, Pinochet became even more isolated and the focus of international pressure and condemnation. Even President Ronald Reagan, whose election had marked a less hostile attitude towards Pinochet, began pressuring Pinochet to liberalize in 1985. Nevertheless, Pinochet was still viewed favourably by conservative circles in Washington, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, apartheid South Africa, and maintained amicable relations with China. The Soviet Union had broken diplomatic ties after 1973, but Moscow never cared much for Chile – even under Allende.

In 1983, opposition parties led by the PDC united to form a Democratic Alliance (AD) which included, besides the PDC, the Radicals, the Chilean Social Democracy Party (founded in 1971 as a moderate social democratic splinter of the Radicals which left the UP in 1972) and moderate factions of the very divided Socialist Party. The Communists, who still defended the armed struggle against the regime, organized the Movimiento Democrático Popular (MDP) with Clodomiro Almeyda’s radical faction of the PS and the MIR. The opposition remained divided amongst itself and the moderate parties like the PDC were unsure of what role the Socialists and Communists should play in a coalition. The inclusion of those parties would play into Pinochet’s hands, as he exploited middle-class fears of a return to 1973. In 1984, Pinochet rebuked his interior minister’s willingness to negotiate with the opposition.

In 1983, the opposition began organizing Jornadas de Protesta Nacional – civilian demonstrations against the government. Faced with a brutal state, many of these demonstrations often ended in bloodshed or reprisals. In July 1986, following what would be the last of these demonstrations, two young protesters were beaten and burnt alive with gasoline by soldiers who later took them to a barren shantytown to leave them to die. One later died of his burns, while the other was badly wounded and burned.

Domestically, the armed struggle against the regime globally failed. In 1986, the regime intercepted 80 tons of arms shipments to the FPMR. In September 1986, the FPMR’s assassination attempt on Pinochet failed, although five people were killed in the attack. The CNI cracked down on the organization, killing 15 of its members in June 1987 during the so-called ‘Operation Albania’. The FPMR’s failure led the Communists to reevaluate their strategy of armed struggle, which had clearly failed. The PCCh broke its ties with the FPMR (which continued to operate as a radical terrorist group even after 1990) in 1987.

In accordance with the 1980 constitution, the government called for a plebiscite for October 5, 1988. The candidate ‘put forward’ by the ruling junta was, unsurprisingly, Augusto Pinochet himself who therefore ran for another eight-year term in office (until March 1997). If the yes won, Pinochet would take office for a second term effective March 1989, and organize congressional elections to substitute the ruling military junta. If the no won, Pinochet’s term would be extended to March 1990, at which point he would hand over power to a democratically elected President and Congress. Previously, in 1987, the junta had allowed for the creation of political parties (although the PCCh was still banned).

The (yes) campaign was backed by the government and right-wing parties, including, among others, the present-day Independent Democratic Union (Unión Demócrata Independiente, UDI) and National Renewal (Renovación Nacional, RN). In February 1988, the opposition parties had formed the Coalition of Parties for the No, better known in Spanish as the Concertación de Partidos por el No or Concertación. The Concertación included the PDC, the four factions of the PS, Ricardo Lagos’ moderate social democratic Party for Democracy (PPD), the Radicals, the Social Democracy Party, the two factions of MAPU, the Izquierda Cristiana (IC), the Humanist Party (PH) and other centrist and centre-left parties.

One month before the vote, political propaganda was effectively legalized when both campaigns were granted equal airtime for campaign ads (albeit not at the same showtimes…). The no campaign soon stood out for its superior campaign ads, which were popularized in the excellent 2012 Chilean film No. The no campaign struck an optimistic note, focusing on the future (rather than reminders of Allende) and focusing on issues such as human rights, civil liberties and democracy. It also drew attention to the Pinochet personality cult, and warned against ’25 years of Pinochet’ (if he ruled until 1997). The no campaign’s jingle began ‘Chile, la alegría ya viene‘ (Chile, happiness is coming) and the Concertación’s logo was a rainbow symbolizing political plurality.

On the other hand, the  campaign was largely negative and the government-led campaign was a trainwreck. It began with scare campaigns which reminded voters of the political and socioeconomic crisis which Chile had been in back in 1973 when Pinochet took over, equating Pinochet’s defeat with a return to the UP. If it was positive, it was to highlight the regime’s strong suit – the economy and the Chilean economic miracle; nonetheless a strong tactic given that many wavering voters were still considering Pinochet because they saw him as a safe bet and were pleased with the strong economy. However, the no’s optimistic and rights-focused campaign was able to attract many of those undecided middle-class voters who had bad memories of the Allende years but were unhappy with Pinochet’s human rights record.

The yes campaign also played a lot on Pinochet, which might have been counterproductive in that it reinforced the Concertación’s claims of a personality cult. The government’s image experts tried to give Pinochet a more humane and less martial image, remaking him as a paternalist and likable grandfather rather than the stern coupist from the 70s. Their ad campaigns also tended to have a micro focus, highlighting several economic gains or infrastructure projects in specific regions. Notice in the ‘s ad below the presence of all these themes – notably the somber beginning telling us of food shortages in 1973 and the UP taking away “the most basic human right – the right to bread” by its policies. On a black background, the message is very clear: seguimos adelante o volvemos a la UP (moving forward or return to the UP).

Given its trainwreck of a campaign, the yes campaign was forced to go on the offensive against the no campaign, resorting to mocking its jingle and ads. However, the yes campaign still had numerous advantages over the no: first and foremost, control of an authoritarian state apparatus which still tended to see any dissent as dangerous. Many Chileans still lived in fear of the regime and hesitated to express opposition to it; many no supporters also had deep suspicions that the vote would be manipulated.

Early results in the evening communicated by the regime indicated a strong lead for the yes, leading the opposition to fear that the vote was rigged. It soon became clear to the government, however, that they had been defeated. General Fernando Matthei claimed in his memoirs in 2003 that Pinochet had wanted to ignore the results of the plebiscite; Matthei later claimed that this had not happened. The no vote triumphed with 56% of the vote.

Transition and consolidation of democracy (1988-2000)

Chile became a democracy after a negotiated transition to democracy in which the outgoing military junta and government ensured that they would retain significant influence and power over Chilean political life, particularly as it pertained to the role of the military and impunity for human rights violations committed under Pinochet.

The first step was to reform the 1980 constitution to make it functional in a liberal democratic society. Pinochet and the UDI wanted minor reforms, while the RN and Concertación favoured deeper reforms. Finally, the government and opposition reached an agreement on a constitutional reform in July 1989. The President’s power was reduced (curtailing the use of states of emergencies, removing his ability to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies, term reduced to six years), the National Security Council was to be balanced between military and civilian members, Marxist parties were legalized, the process for constitutional reforms was slightly simplified, and fundamental rights were protected. Yet, a number of “authoritarian enclaves” subsisted: Pinochet imposed the binomial electoral system, the Senate would have ‘nominated Senators’ (civilian and military) and ‘Senators-for-life’ (ex-Presidents who served their full term) and the President could not unilaterally dismiss the commanders in chief of the armed forces.

It was also agreed upon that Pinochet would remain Commander-in-Chief of the army until 1998, Pinochet stacked the Supreme Court with 9 new judges, the mayors nominated by the regime would remain in office until 1992, public servants hired by the regime could not lose their jobs and the Concertación agreed not to touch a 1978 amnesty law which granted amnesty for crimes committed between 1973 and 1978 except for the Letelier case. 91.3% of voters approved the reforms in a referendum in July 1989.

Presidential and congressional elections were held in December 1989. The nomination of the Concertación candidate was a complicated and convoluted process. In the PDC, Patricio Aylwin won an internal primary marred by serious allegations of fraud by Aylwin’s camp (Carmengate), defeating former party president Gabriel Valdés and Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, the son of the former President. Aylwin, to the party’s right, had been an implacable foe of Allende’s government and backed the 1973 coup, before becoming an opponent of Pinochet’s regime. Valdés, however, was on the left of the PDC and had supported an alliance with the left against Pinochet. Aylwin’s candidacy, by virtue of his leadership role in the 1988 plebiscite and the PDC’s strength, was acclaimed by the other parties.

The pro-Pinochet right, formed by the RN and UDI, eventually nominated Hernán Büchi, the Minister of Finance and architect of the second wave of neoliberal policies after 1985. Towards the centre-right, however, Francisco Javier Errázuriz, an independent businessman backed by small centre-right parties but also the far-right Avanzada Nacional, also ran.

Aylwin, by far the strongest candidate, won easily with 55.2% against 29.4% for Büchi and 15.4% for Francisco Javier Errázuriz. The Concertación won a majority in both houses, but the addition of the nine nominated senators gave the right a majority in the Senate. The binomial system started working its wonders for the right, which won 40% of the seats in the lower house despite winning only 34.2% of the vote. In contrast, the Unidad para la Democracia alliance formed by the leftist faction of the Radicals and a Communist-led party, won 5.3% but only two seats.

Aylwin’s presidency and the democratic transition was greatly helped by Chile’s economic health, which made for a less chaotic and more orderly transition than in Brazil or Argentina, whose first post-dictatorship presidents were hit very hard by huge economic crises. As part of the negotiated transition, the Concertación agreed to leave intact Pinochet’s neoliberal economic reforms (things such as the private pension funds, the privatizations etc). Aylwin’s government was therefore committed to maintaining the economic ‘success story’, but sought to increase living standards for poorer Chileans and redistribute wealth more fairly. Under Aylwin’s term, spending on healthcare and education was increased, as were social benefits. The results were successful: poverty fell by 10% between 1990 and 1993, growth remained high, inflation dropped further to 13%, unemployment fell to only 5% and workers saw their real wages increase considerably.

However, Aylwin’s presidency was complicated by tense military-civilian relations and an unrepentant Pinochet, who held considerable power as commander in chief of the army and whose men still held important jobs in the judiciary and bureaucracy. Aylwin created the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation in 1990 and published its report on human rights violations during Pinochet’s regime in 1991 (Informe Rettig), which claimed that 2,279 people had died or disappeared as a result of human rights violations or political violence under the military regime. Aylwin’s desire to bring crimes to justice, however, were severely complicated by the military’s obstinate refusal and the various amnesty laws it had passed. The 1978 amnesty law effectively blocked prosecution of senior military officials, and the Supreme Court – which was still pro-military – did not apply the president’s doctrine of investigating crimes before granting amnesty. However, Manuel Contreras, former head of DINA, was sentenced to seven years in prison in 1993 for his role in the Letelier assassination (not covered by amnesty).

In 1991, right-wing senator Jaime Guzmán, a prominent figure under the Pinochet regime (he designed the binomial electoral system) was assassinated by the FPMR.

Pinochet had poor relations with Patricio Rojas, the PDC Minister of Defense, although he had better ties with Aylwin and the government spokesperson. Two incidents posed a major threat to the transition in 1990 and 1993, both precipitated by Pinochet. In 1990, Pinochet mobilized the army for ‘exercises’ to prevent an investigation into the Pinocheques scandal (the payment of $3 million in cheques by the army to Pinochet’s son to buy a bankrupt company owned  [unofficially] by Pinochet’s son). In 1993, after a media report that the case would be reopened, Pinochet organized a meeting with high-ranking officers at army HQs (near La Moneda), accompanied by armed soldiers in combat fatigues. The pressure worked: Aylwin’s successor ordered the case closed for ‘reasons of state’.

Aylwin’s term lasted only four years by general agreement at the time of transition. Before the 1993 election, the Concertación (which took its current form with the PDC, PS, PPD, Radicals and Social Democrats) held a presidential primary in May 1993. Senator Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle (PDC), the son of the former president, won handily with 63.3% over Ricardo Lagos (PPD), backed by the left-wing parties of the coalition. Lagos, minister of education until 1992, had gained notoriety for a strong performance in a TV debate in the 1988 plebiscite in which he had directly accused Pinochet of dishonesty by initially promising not to stand again in 1988. The right, grouped as the Union for the Progress of Chile, nominated Senator Arturo Alessandri Besa, the grandson of Arturo Alessandri. Alessandri was something of a last resort, given that a phone tapping scandal had kept Senator Sebastián Piñera from running.

Frei was elected by a large margin, winning 58% against only 24.4% for Alessandri. José Piñera, the brother of Sebastián Piñera and architect of the pension privatization and labour reform under Pinochet, won 6.2%. The Concertación maintained its absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies, winning 70 seats to the Unión’s 50 seats. Within the governing coalition, the PDC retained its leadership with 37 deputies against 15 apiece for the reunited PS and the PPD.

On the far-left, a coalition led by the Communists won 6.4% but no seats. Penalized by the binomial system, the Communists, so strong before 1973, were furthermore divided amongst themselves.

Frei’s presidency was beset by economic problems and the contentious Pinochet case. His presidency started smoothly enough, with strong economic growth until 1997 and a stronger presence on the regional and international scenes (failed negotiations to join NAFTA, Mercosur associate membership, APEC membership). Frei, elected on the promise of ‘growth with equity’, continued Aylwin and the former regime’s orthodox financial policies while working to reduce poverty. Further privatizations were undertaken and finalized; privatization having gone “virtually to the maximum”, investors turned to Argentina.

In the 1997 congressional elections, the Concertación and the right-wing Union for Chile saw little changes in their relative strength. The former held its majority in the lower house, the latter held its strong minority. The PDC suffered some loses, as did the PS, while the PPD and the new Radical Social Democratic Party (PRSD, merger of the Radicals and Social Democrats) made gains. Four candidates, two independents and two centrists, won seats outside the two major blocs. But the Communists, whose coalition won 7.5%, failed to win any seats.

However, by 1998 and 1999, Chile was hurt by the Asian economic crisis (which impacted all of Latin America, some countries harder than others) but also by several environmental crises, including droughts in 1996 and 1998-1999 which hurt the agricultural sector but also created energy crises because of Chile’s dependence on hydroelectricity and floods in 1997. Growth fell to 3.2% in 1998 and Chile was in recession in 1999 (-0.8%) after an average growth rate of 7%; unemployment rose to 12%. The erratic policies of the finance minister and the Central Bank were criticized and aggravated the recession.

Results of the 2000 presidential runoff by comuna (source:

Chile was criticized for its relative inaction on pending human rights cases and its failure to repeal amnesty for murders. In March 1998, Pinochet stepped down as commander in chief of the army and took his seat as senator for life that same day. In October 1998, while Pinochet was in London to receive medical treatment, he was arrested and placed under house arrest on an international arrest warrant issued by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón. Spain had initiated judicial proceedings against the military juntas in Chile and Argentina, initially for human rights abuses against Spanish nationals but later expanded to include non-nationals. Garzón’s Spanish case was a watershed moment in international law, being largely founded on the new concept of universal jurisdiction.

A sixteen-month long legal battle was fought in the House of Lords on the matter of Pinochet’s extradition to stand trial in Spain. The House of Lords ruled that Pinochet did not have immunity for crimes such as torture, though it ruled that Pinochet could only be prosecuted for crimes committed after 1988 (when the UK implemented anti-torture legislation). The case divided Chilean society and presented the Concertación government with a serious problem. President Frei and his foreign ministers (both from the PS) were against his extradition, arguing that Spain lacked jurisdiction (sovereignty) and that Pinochet should only stand trial in Chile. However, the Communists, domestic human rights NGOs and several Socialists (including Allende’s daughter Isabel Allende, a PS deputy; and human rights lawyer Juan Bustos) backed the extradition. The Chilean armed forces and right were strongly opposed to Pinochet’s extradition and trial. Abroad, the case against Pinochet was supported by human rights NGOs, Amnesty International, the UN and the Belgian, French and Swiss governments. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former President George H.W. Bush called on Britain to release Pinochet.

In January 2000, British Home Secretary Jack Straw controversially ruled against his extradition and Pinochet returned to Santiago in March 2000, where he was warmly greeted by the new commander in chief of the army but also faced thousands of protesters. That same month, Congress approved a constitutional amendment granting ‘ex-Presidents’ immunity. In May 2000, Pinochet’s parliamentary immunity was lifted, clearing the way for him to stand trial in the Caravan of Death case.

In the midst of this firestorm, the 1999-2000 presidential election was the most competitive election in the post-Pinochet era. For the Concertación, Ricardo Lagos, who had served as Frei’s public works minister until 1998, handily won the open primaries against the PDC President of the Senate Andrés Zaldívar, a longtime politician (minister under Frei) and considered close to Aylwin. The right, grouped as the Union for Chile, nominated Joaquín Lavín, a former Chicago Boy and rather popular UDI mayor of the affluent suburban municipality of Las Condes in the Greater Santiago. The Communists nominated the PCCh’s secretary-general and senior politician Gladys Marín. Lagos ran a poor campaign, allowing Lavín to capitalize on a growing desire for change (with the economic crisis) and growing support for the right among centrist voters (perhaps because Lagos was to the left of both his predecessors). In the first round, Lagos won 48% against 47.5% for Lavín, while the other candidates all did poorly – the Communist candidate won only 3.2%; many fearing Lavín’s victory because of his right-wing and pro-Pinochet past.

Before the second round, Lagos reshuffled his campaign team to better integrate the PDC. He narrowly won with 51.3% against 48.7% for Lavín.

Chile in the twenty-first century (2000-2010)

Ricardo Lagos’ presidency began with a series of difficulties which badly hurt the Concertación and the executive branch, but Lagos’ popularity had increased to high levels by the time that he left office in 2006.

On the economic front, recovery from the economic crisis which hit the country was slow and difficult and unemployment levels remained high. Lagos’ government maintained orthodox fiscal policies which were praised by the US government and his government finalized a series of landmark free trade agreements with the US, the EU, South Korea and China. These free trade agreements were generally well perceived, especially by employers, and led to a sharp increase in the volume of exports. However, unemployment remained high at nearly 10% throughout Lagos’ presidency. Lagos was criticized for his proximity to powerful economic actors.

Like his predecessors, Lagos’ government introduced a number of new social programs or reforms to reduce poverty or tackle joblessness. Some of these policies included unemployment benefits (paid for by employees, employers and the state); healthcare regulations establishing guarantees of access, quality, timeliness and financial protection; a system of social protection – including subsidized access to utilities and social services – for families in extreme poverty; and twelve years of compulsory schooling.

In a traditionally conservative country, the legalization of divorce in 2004 was a major move forward. It had been preceded, under Frei’s administration, by the legalization of homosexuality and the legal recognition of gender equality.

In the first years of his government, until 2003, the administration went from crisis to crisis and scandal to scandal. In late 2002, a businessman claimed that he had to pay the Undersecretary of Transportation some 15 million pesos in bribes in return for approval of a project in the city of Rancagua. In January 2003, 8 individuals including the Undersecretary of Transportation and two PDC deputies were found guilty. However, the largest corruption case to fall on the government was the MOP-GATE, involving bonuses paid to employees of the Ministry of Public Works, embezzlement of public funds and irregularities in the tenders for public works projects. The PS Minister of Transportation and Public Works was forced to step down in January 2002 for his involvement in MOP-GATE and other bribery scandals. He later claimed that ministers, undersecretaries and men in the president’s inner circle received similar bonuses; the President recognized the practice but said it had been practiced by past administrations to supplement the regular salaries of senior bureaucrats.

The number of corruption cases of all kinds and public interest in such cases increased during Lagos’ presidency. In 2006, three members of the Concertación claimed that there was an “ideology of corruption” and that the parties in the ruling coalition used taxpayers’ money to finance political campaigns, often by using public funds destined for other purposes (unemployment, research etc) or ties to private businesses. Nevertheless, despite publicized cases of political corruption and conflict of interest, Chile is one of the least corrupt countries in Latin America alongside Uruguay. The Corruption Perceptions Index (2012) placed Chile in 20th position, around the same level as the United States, the UK, France and Japan.

The Concertación suffered loses in the 2001 legislative elections, barely retaining its majority in the Chamber of Deputies. The right-wing Alliance for Chile gained 10 seats, winning a total of 57 seats to the ruling coalition’s 62 seats. Furthermore, the PDC was no longer the largest single party – that honour now went to the conservative UDI.

Lagos’ presidency coincided with the ‘Red Tide’ in South America, with the election of left-wing leaders such as Néstor Kirchner (Argentina), Lula (Brazil) and Hugo Chávez (Venezuela). Although the Concertación coalition leans towards the centre-left, it has often opposed more populist and ‘radical’ left-wing leaders such as Chávez. Relations between Venezuela and Chile were complicated in 2002 when Santiago recognized the coupist government which briefly overthrew Chávez and later in 2004 when Chávez backed Bolivia’s demands for access to the sea. Instead, the Concertación’s policies leaned heavily towards integration into free trade agreements and the globalized economy. Generally on good terms with Washington, relations were somewhat strained by Santiago’s opposition to the Iraq War in 2003.

On human rights issues, 2003-2004 saw a national commission on torture was formed and released a report (Valech report) which found about 30,000 legitimate accusations of torture by witnesses. Contreras was sentenced in several cases; he is currently serving some 25 sentences totaling nearly 300 years in prison.

In the Pinochet saga, questions over his health and ability to stand trial delayed the cases against him in the Caravan of Death and over 100 other complaints. Pinochet resigned from the Senate in 2002 and gradually withdrew from public life. However, in May 2004, the Supreme Court ruled him fit to stand trial, but he suffered a stroke a few months later.

Pinochet’s image of personal probity took a huge hit in 2004 when the US Senate that Pinochet was hiding millions in offshore bank accounts which had been opened in 1990 and likely served to launder money that he had made on weapons traffic or illegal sales of weapons to Croatia, while he was commander in chief of the army. The state opened a criminal investigation against him.

In August 2005, with Lagos’ term drawing to an end, a ‘package’ of constitutional reforms were approved. These reforms included shortening the presidential term from 6 to 4 years, eliminating nominated and lifelong senators, granting the President the power to dismiss military commanders and reducing the powers of the National Security Council.

As Lagos’ popularity increased, so did the Concertación’s hopes of holding the presidency in 2006. In 2004, the Concertación won the local elections by a 10 point margin over the Alliance. Ahead of the presidential election, the Concertación had two strong candidates: the PDC’s foreign minister Soledad Alvear and the PS defense minister Michelle Bachelet. Bachelet, the daughter of an air force general killed by the military regime and a victim of torture herself, had made a good impression as health and later defense minister under President Lagos. Particularly, her tenure as defense minister – the first woman to hold that portfolio and the first to have been tortured by the armed forces – significantly increased her notoriety and popularity. As defense minister, she oversaw an improvement in military-civilian relations and the first signs of repentance by the armed forces. In 2004, the commander in chief of the army recognized and apologized for the army’s role in human rights violations. Alvear dropped out of the primaries in May 2005 and Bachelet was acclaimed as the Concertación’s candidate.

Joaquín Lavín (UDI), the right’s candidate in 1999-2000 and the main presidential contender for the Alliance, found himself challenged by Sebastián Piñera, a liberal businessman from the RN, the more moderate of the Alliance’s two parties. In the first round, held in December 2005, Bachelet won 46% of the vote. Piñera narrowly defeated his rival Lavín, taking 25.4% against 23.2% for the UDI’s candidate. The only other candidate, Tomás Hirsch (Humanist), backed by the Juntos Podemos Más coalition including the PCCh, won 5.4%. In congressional elections, the Concertación made gains.

Results of the 2005-2006 presidential election by comuna (source: Saint Brendan’s Island)

Following a tense runoff campaign, Bachelet won the presidency in January 2006 with 53.5% of the vote. Bachelet became the first woman to be elected president of Chile, and the first member of the PS to win the presidency since Allende in 1970.

Bachelet’s presidency, however, had very little to do with Salvador Allende’s turbulent presidency. She governed very much as consensual and pragmatic moderate, which made her wildly popular by the time she left office in 2010.

At the outset, the new president soon saw a sharp dip in her popularity and she handled a number of contentious issues and crises. Her first challenge came with large student protests only a few months after her inauguration. I will come back to the issue of student protests and education later, but the students’ demands expressed opposition to the Chilean education system, which was structured by the late military junta and in which the government plays a much weaker role than in other OECD countries. Bachelet drew criticism for her slow response to the crisis, although she announced negotiations in June 2006, which gradually led to the movement’s decay over the winter. Her government agreed to several concessions to student demands and passed a new law on education, but as the 2008 and 2011-2013 protests have shown, education remains very much of an unsolved issue in Chile.

In February 2007, her approval ratings in Santiago took a big hit following the roll-out of the Transantiago integrated public transit, an ambitious and large-scale initiative to better integrate and manage chaotic public transit in the capital which was launched by the previous administration. However, a number of mistakes in design and implementation and the attitude of certain companies involved in the project led to a disastrous roll-out, which was widely disapproved by public transit users who saw their commute times increase and significant chaos in the Greater Santiago. Her approval ratings fell into the red in the winter of 2007 for the first time since taking office. In March 2007, her Minister of Transportation was forced to resign after the right had announced its intentions to remove him from office (the Chilean Congress may ‘constitutionally accuse’ public officials and the Senate votes to impeach them if the Chamber of Deputies ruled the accusation valid). Bachelet announced a number of contingency measures and the system improved significantly in the next months. So did her approval rating.

Economically, Chile’s economy continued to perform very strongly with growth rates of about 5% in 2006 and 2007, buoyed by the record high prices of copper. Her government decided to save the copper profits, instead of spending them – as some in the ruling coalition wanted – in social services. When the economic crisis hit the country in 2009, the government’s past orthodox policies and copper profit savings allowed it to implement a Keynesian fiscal stimulus policy which was hailed by the OECD. Chile was in recession in 2009 and unemployment increased to over 10%, but it would prove only a slight hiccup. During the presidential transition period in February 2010, Chile was badly hurt by an 8.8 earthquake and tsunami which killed over 500 people. Bachelet has been criticized for negligence during the earthquake/tsunami. Economically, again, Chile’s orthodox economic policies during ‘boom’ years provided the state with funds during the reconstruction process.

However, the government’s economic policies have faced criticisms from trade unions. In August 2007, the CUT (Chile’s main trade union conglomerate) called for a strike, in which over 600 people were arrested and about 30 policemen injured.

In December 2006, Augusto Pinochet at the age of 91. Despite facing over 400 criminal charges ranging from human rights abuses, murder, kidnapping to tax evasion, he never faced trial for any of his crimes. Despite being a former President, Bachelet refused to organize a state funeral and only the Minister of Defense attended his funeral.

The Concertación was implicated in a number of corruption scandals in 2006 and 2007. The government’s sports organization funds were siphoned off to pay for the campaigns of Concertación politicians. PPD Senator Guido Girardi was found to have used fake bills from a nonexistent companies to justify campaign expenses; this fake company was later revealed to have been used by right-wing politicians as well, including Piñera.

When she left office in 2010, Bachelet’s approval ratings stood at about 84%.

However, very little of that popularity rubbed off on the Concertación. The old ruling coalition’s image had been badly hurt by corruption scandal and the widespread perception that it had turned into a stale and complacent old coalition with very little new ideas of its own. There was a major desire for change, and, to a certain extent a rejection of both traditional coalitions on the left and right. In 2008, the right-wing Alliance won the municipal elections, the first defeat for the Concertación in a nationwide election since the restoration of democracy.

The right-wing coalition transformed itself into the Coalition for Change (Coalición por el Cambio) and Sebastián Piñera, the RN’s 2005 candidate and runner up to Bachelet in 2006, was acclaimed without opposition as the Coalition’s candidate. Piñera is a billionaire ($2.5 billion in 2013), making most of his fortune through profits made in the 1980s with the introduction of credit cards in the country and investments in a wide range of companies, including LAN Airlines, where he was a minority shareholder. On the Chilean right, Piñera is very much of a moderate and has very little political ties to the old military regime. He comes from a Christian Democratic family, and he claims that he voted no in 1988. However, he served as Hernán Büchi’s campaign manager in the 1989 election and participated in a 1998 demonstration against Pinochet’s detention in London. Serving as a senator for the RN between 1999 and 1998, he was a major contender for the presidency in 1993 but his involvement in a tapped phone conversation about a fellow right-wing presidential hopeful and another scandal forced him to withdraw.

The Concertación’s candidate was former President Eduardo Frei, by now a senator. Although he handily defeated his single rival in the coalition’s internal primaries, his candidacy was challenged by several dissident Socialists led by deputy Marco Enríquez-Ominami (MEO), a young (36) Franco-Chilean filmmaker and the son of the MIR’s co-founder, killed by the regime in 1974. MEO had sought to run in the primaries, but the PS did not endorse him and was therefore unable to put forward his candidacy. Instead, he ran as an independent in the presidential election, backed by a coalition of independents and small left-leaning parties including the Humanists, who abandoned the Communists (whose candidate was former PS leader Jorge Arrate).

Piñera’s campaign dealt with the challenge of winning the presidency despite the incumbent president’s record high approval ratings. Responding to this challenge, Piñera ran an ideologically moderate campaign which focused on the notion of change and differed little, ideologically, from the Concertación. He also dropped the more nationalist symbolic references of the right, notably by changing the traditional campaign colours from the white/blue/red of the national flag with the colours of the rainbow (the Concertación’s famous symbol since 1988). Frei’s campaign, lagging behind the right and hurt by MEO, tried to capitalize on the popularity of the incumbent, with relatively little success. Frei carried some baggage from his association with the 1999-2000 economic crisis and he is quite uncharismatic. MEO’s campaign successfully capitalized on a strong desire for change, especially with younger voters. Making heavy use of social media, MEO campaigned heavily on change and took more leftist stances than the Concertación on issues such as education or moral issues (abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage).

In the first round in December 2009, Piñera won 44.1% against 29.6% for Frei and 20.1% for MEO. Arrate won 6.2% of the vote. In the congressional elections, the Coalition took a bare plurality in the Chamber of Deputies, winning 58 seats to the ruling coalition’s 57 seats with 3 seats going to regionalist independents and two seats going to independents. The coalition backing MEO won only 4.6% of the vote and won no seats. The Communists, for the first time, ran candidates within the Concertación and won three seats, returning to Congress for the first time since 1973.

The second round, in January 2010, was closely fought. Frei successfully drew voters from MEO or the Communists, likely those who were uneasy with the prospect of the right regaining power for the first time since the transition. It was, however, not quite enough. Sebastián Piñera, the runaway favourite for months, won with 51.6% of the vote. He became the first right-wing president since the transition, and the first right-wing candidate to win the presidency democratically since Jorge Alessandri in 1958.

Piñera’s government

Sebastián Piñera leaves office early next year with low approval ratings, with well over half of respondents disapproving of his performance – and this is despite an improvement in his numbers as he became a lame-duck president and was out of the spotlight with the presidential campaign. In 2011, his disapproval ratings hit 70%, the lowest support for any president since the transition. Besides a number of unpopular policy decisions, major protests and scandals, Piñera is not respected by many and often dismissed as something of a lightweight. The Economist controversially called him an inept politician, and a series of slip of the tongues (not remembering names, saying that Robinson Crusoe actually existed, mispronunciations, grammatical mistakes) or faux pas (sitting behind President Obama’s desk, signing the German President’s guestbook with Deutschland, Deutschland über alles) have made him the object of ridicule in Chile – his piñericosas have become as popular as Bushisms were in the US.

Results of the 2009-2010 presidential election by comuna (source: Saint Brendan’s Island)

Piñera’s unpopularity has little to do with the economic results in the past four years: the Chilean economy, statistically, is thriving. Growth has been stable at roughly 5% since he took office, unemployment is down to 6% – the lowest in decades, inflation is contained and the public accounts are in good order. The president’s approval ratings on jobs and the economy are good: in October 2013, 58% and 52% respectively approved his his management of jobs and the economy.Economic strength is no longer good enough for Chileans, who by large are increasingly aware of and concerned with income inequality. Many are increasingly critical of the neoliberal economic model which, on the whole, has given the country economic and political stability since 1989.

Piñera’s cabinet included a large number of technocrats and ostensibly independent (although right-leaning) figures – The Economist said that nearly half of his ministers resigned corporate directorships to take their jobs. Among others, Piñera’s finance minister, Felipe Larraín had previously worked for the Angelini group, a large business conglomerate. The large place given to technocrats in his cabinet unnerved some politicians within the right-wing Coalition, who would have preferred a more political cabinet. The ties between many ministers and the private sector led to numerous accussations of conflict of interests and forced some ministers to resign from their posts. In July 2011, a new energy minister remained only three days in office after the media found that the national energy company owed money to his private construction firm. Before taking office, Piñera sold most (but not all) of his shares, notably in LAN Airlines and the cable TV station Chilevisión. He tried to keep his stake in Colo Colo, Chile’s most successful football club, but was forced to sell his stake when he was accused of meddling in the football association. The business-friendly makeup of his cabinet was welcomed by the private sector and the right, but critics felt that he was insufficiently attentive to conflicts of interest. The elitist allure of it all may also have generated feelings that Piñera did not understand or sympathize with poorer Chileans.

Piñera took office in the midst of a tragedy (the earthquake a few days before), and indeed his inauguration in March 2010 was disturbed by 6.9 aftershock. During his presidency, he has had to deal with a number of similar tragedies or crises including a fire at a Santiago prison in 2010 which killed 81 inmates, wildifires in Araucanía and a volcanic eruption in 2011. What gave Piñera incredible notoriety (and a positive image) abroad was the August-October 2010 mine disaster in Copiapó in the Atacama desert. Following a cave-in at a small privately-owned copper-gold mine, 33 miners were trapped about 700m underground. A bit over 10 days after the accident, the 33 miners were discovered to be alive. The government took charge of the rescue effort following an outpouring of local and international sympathy and interest. In October 2010, all 33 miners were rescued by a capsule descended through a hole drilled in the ground. Piñera took a leading role in managing the rescue efforts, which were intensely scrutinized and followed by media around the world. His approval rating peaked at 63% in October 2010 following the mine rescue. However, as time has passed, there have been concerns that relatively little has changed in mine safety in the country and some criticized Piñera for turning the event into something of a media circus. His repeat use of the letter sent by the 33 miners in August to inform rescuers that they were alive was mocked and became a famous piñericosa.

Piñera’s second and third years in government (2011-2012) were largely defined by large protests, which many saw as the largest protests since the return of democracy and as a sign of growing discontent with the neoliberal economic model which had been previously widely accepted by most Chileans.

In January 2011, the national energy company’s decision to cut natural gas subsidies (increasing prices by 16.8%) for customers in the Magallanes region (the southernmost region) led to major protests. Protesters blocked roads, stranding cars who were trying to cross from the Argentine provinces of Tierra del Fuego to Santa Cruz via Chile as well as tourists in a national park. Within days, the Minister of Energy (along with the Minister of Transportation and the Minister of Labour) were replaced in a cabinet shuffle and the government agreed to a compromise, which increased natural gas prices by only 3%. In January 2011, the President’s approval rating fell 6 points to 41% and his disapproval rating was higher than his approval rating for the first time.

The government’s approval of the HidroAysén hydroelectricity project (a plan to build five dams in the Aysén Region) sparked regional protests against the project in April-May 2011, and polls showed that nearly three-quarters of respondents opposed the project. Protesters opposed the plan because they feared its negative social and environmental impact, or because they felt it was unnecessary. The harsh methods employed by the police against demonstrators were denounced by Amnesty International and the Spanish press. Although judicial challenges all the way to the Supreme Court failed in 2012, the project was put on hold in May 2012. Piñera’s approval ratings took a sharp dip in May 2011 (-5) and disapproval of his environmental policies jumped 7 points to 63%.

Education in Chile – a primer

Above all, however, Piñera’s presidency will have been defined by the student protests which began in May 2011 and which, while petered out somewhat, have continued into 2012 and 2013.

Education is a highly politicized topic in most countries, but it is probably even more so in Chile because of the high politicization of students and the circumstances in which Chile’s contemporary education system was designed in the 1980s. In the 1960s and 1970s, responding to a new wave of student activism, the administrations of presidents Frei and Allende reformed the management of Chilean universities, granting managerial and financial autonomy to universities and more powers to students and professors. At the time of the 1973 coup, universities were a high place of political activism, particularly on the left but also on the right. The PCCh and PS’ youth organizations (JJCC and JS) were strong, but revolutionary movements such as the MIR and Christian left offshoots of the PDC (MAPU and Izquierda Cristiana) were quite influential as well. On the right, the gremialista movement led by the Catholic University’s Jaime Guzmán opposed the reforms and were hostile at the transformation of universities from elitist academic institutions to politicized hotbeds of opposition. Gremialismo‘s criticism of Marxism, Christian reformism (including Christian democracy) and liberal democracy appealed to a wider conservative public of small business owners, traditionalist Catholics, employers and the upper middle-class. After the coup, gremialismo rose to influence in the new government and its views were close to those of the Chicago Boys technocrats (ostensibly apolitical, limited government, the state as an abstract and aloof force which gave free rein to the Church and the free market).

Pinochet’s regime was naturally hostile to universities and students, which were seen as dangerous hotbeds of ‘revolutionary’ dissent and opposition which needed to be whipped back into order. The junta immediately purged universities from students, academics and professors which were judged to be dangerous elements. The Valech Commission found that between 1978 and 1990, a quarter of political prisoners were students and the Retting Report found students to be the main victims of forced disappearances.

In the 1980s, Pinochet completely reformed the Chilean educational system at all levels, under the guises of “liberty of education” and with the aim of reducing government intervention in education at all levels, giving more power to the private sector. The 1980 constitution guarantees “freedom of education” by granting parents the ‘preferential right’ to educate their children and to choose which schools to send their children to (Article 19). The constitution has also been interpreted to guarantee the ‘principle of subsidiarity’ (principio de subsidiariedad), which curtails the state’s intervention in most spheres and only compels it to ‘contribute to creating the social conditions which permit each and every one of those composing the national community the greatest spiritual and material fulfillment possible’ (Article 1.4). Only four days before leaving office in 1990, Pinochet promulgated a new constitutional organic law (the LOCE) which remained in place until 2009.

The overall performance of Chile’s education system set against Latin America has been fairly good: high test scores and high student aptitude on major subjects. However, in the OECD, it has the second-lowest results on the PISA test (after Mexico) and a large share of funding comes from private sources.

In primary and secondary education, the regime decentralized responsibility and management of public schools to the individual municipalities – claiming that municipalities would best respond to the individual needs and environments of the community. At the same time, the government created a school voucher system which allowed families to send their children to public (municipal) schools, private subsidized schools (which may screen students). In 1993, the Concertación allowed these schools to ask parents for a voluntary ‘co-pay’ (either admission fees or monthly tuition fees). In some schools, co-payments are mandatory; most schools ask for some kind of top-up fees, which in many cases are close to the monthly minimum wage). These schools thus receive subsidies from the state based on their student population. Since 1990, there has been a significant increase in private subsidized schools, which now include 54% of students while only 39% attend municipal schools.

Municipal schools often tend to be underfunded or unequally funded based on the socioeconomic level of the municipality, meaning that many schools have deficient infrastructure and lack access to new technologies. Private schools, which attract a wealthier clientele, have far better financial resources and often receive donations from private businesses. As a result, the education system is segregated by wealth, with better-off families sending their children to well-funded (often privately run, for-profit) schools which achieve better test scores; while poorer families attend underfunded municipal schools which have significantly lower results. Critics of the system have gone as far as calling it educational apartheid.

Post-Pinochet governments have done relatively little to alter the system at this level, except increasing subsidies and technical assistance to municipal schools. Public educational spending in Chile is only 4% of GDP, compared to over 5% in most OECD countries and below the UNESCO’s 7% recommendation. The LOCE was only replaced by a new general law on education in 2009 under Bachelet’s administration, but even this new law did not fundamentally alter the structure of the educational system. Her government raised the voucher to $100 per month with an extra $50 for poorer children, but her former finance minister Andrés Velasco has said that the value of the voucher must be doubled if poor children are not to lose out. In November 2011, the Piñera government proposed to increase the value of the voucher.

Post-secondary education was also transformed by the military junta in 1981, after having purged dissidents. Overall, his reforms aimed to allow the private sector to enter the university ‘market’ and abolish the ‘disruptive’ reforms of the Frei/Allende administration (co-government and university autonomy). The University of Chile and the State Technical University systems were atomized regionally, with 14 new public ‘traditional’ universities being created (mostly in 1981). The University of Chile (UCh) and the University of Santiago (former Technical University, USACH) only retained their Santiago seats. These 16 public universities and nine private universities, 6 of which are Catholic, are known as ‘traditional’ universities, form the Rectors’ Council, administer the Prueba de Selección Universitaria (PSU) admission exam (similar to the SAT) and receive funding from the state although they all charge tuition fees.

Pinochet also allowed private citizens to set up their own universities, legally non-profit entities. There are 34 private universities, all but one of which were founded after 1981. These universities are private properties and do not receive funding from the state. By law, they are required to be non-profit entities, but in practice most of these private universities are run like profit-seeking businesses – their owners often set up property companies which charge rent to the universities. Several politicians on both sides are shareholders in these ‘for-profit’ universities, in open defiance of the law. In 2012, the Universidad del Mar, a private university, was involved in a major corruption scandal after the rector accused the managing committee of filling their pockets (by ‘paying rent’ to the ‘property company’ which they owned) instead of paying faculty and staff. The university in question had been accused of having bribed the government board in charge of accreditation and of being a front for a money laundering operation.

All universities charge tuition fees, which form about 80% of all spending on higher education. Overall, 77% of expenditure in higher education comes from private sources (mostly households), the highest in the OECD (average: 30%). To help finance their studies, the government offers students with grants or loans. Students may receive grants on the basis of their PSU results, although this discriminates against poorer students who often have lower PSU results. Others may receive loans. Students at traditional universities may receive loans at 2% interest from the government, conditional on certain conditions including PSU results. All students, including those at private universities, may receive state-guaranteed bank loans at 5.8% interest. About 60% of students receive grants or loans, but oftentimes these do not cover the entirety of tuition fees. In many cases, families may only send their children to post-secondary institutions by taking on large debts.

To add to these problems, educational segregation continues in higher education. The traditional universities are the most prestigious and attract wealthier students, while private universities often attract poorer students with lower PSU results. Poorer students are more likely to drop out as well. Furthermore, attendance at universities and technical colleges is now over 1 million, up from only 200,000 in 1990. Therefore, as more people attend and graduate from universities, the premium they hold in the labour market falls and universities no longer provide the advantages they did when they were reserved to a minority.

2011 student protests

The demands expressed by students since 2011 are little different from those they expressed in 2006; most of the Bachelet government’s reforms fell short of their demands and failed to meet many students’ grievances.

The Confederation of Chilean Students (Confech), a confederation of student federations, the most important of which is the Student Federation of the University of Chile (FECh), called for a demonstration in Santiago in early May 2011, attended by over 15,000 students. Beginning in June-July, students at many universities went on strike, while universities and some high schools were occupied by students which blocked access to classes. A demonstration on June 15 was attended by nearly 200,000 people across Chile, including 80,000 in Santiago; making it one of the largest demonstrations since 1990. As the Minister of Education, Joaquín Lavín, responded unsatisfactorily to the Confech’s demands, the student mobilization swelled even further. On June 30, about 400,000 people (according to organizers) demonstrated across the country, with about 80-200k in Santiago.

The Confech’s original demands included increasing public spending on higher education, equal opportunities for university admission, democratization of universities. As the movement progressed, students have demanded free post-secondary education and an effective oversight of the ban on profiteering; non-educational demands have included a constituent assembly to write a new constitution and a re-nationalization of copper (Pinochet did not privatize what Allende had nationalized in 1971, but small and newer copper mines are mostly private now). In secondary education, protesters demands included state control (rather than municipal) over education, prioritizing the right to education over the freedom of education, repealing the 2009 law on education and public financing of schools (rather than by local councils and parents through top-up fees).

The government remained reluctant to negotiate; Lavín claimed that the protests represented a ‘politicized’ (and leftist; most student feds are dominated by the extra-parliamentary left, including the Communists) minority of students from traditional universities. However, a few days later, in early July, the President announced a gran acuerdo nacional, promising more investment in education, a supervisory board to enforce the banon profiteering but opposed the nationalization of education.

Student leaders, represented by FECh president Camila Vallejo, rejected the proposals and organized an alternative committee backed by teachers, secondary school students, miners, indigenous students (Mapuche) and others. Another protest was held in mid-July, largely pacific although a few radicals and vandals went wild. Organizers alleged an excessive police response, criticizing the usage of tear gas. Since June, students had denounced police brutality, excessive force

Public opinion was very much on the side of the students; polls showed that a large majority backed the movement and their demands, Camila Vallejo became one of the most popular leaders and the president’s approval rating fell to 36% in May, 31% in June and 29% in July. Piñera’s disapproval rating on education shot up 16 points between April and May 2011 (34% to 50%) and increased to 75% in July.

On July 18, Piñera shuffled his cabinets, replacing his spokesperson and shuffling Lavín from education to planning. Felipe Bulnes became Minister of Education, and issued a call for students to stop their strikes and sit down for negotiations. At the same time, however, the President caused an uproar with student groups when he called education a ‘consumer good’.

Student leader Camila Vallejo (source:

In August 2011, the government came out with a second set of proposals. They included a constitutional guarantee to a quality education, state control over public education and increased grants and loans. The Confech and professors rejected the proposals, and called for a strike on August 4, despite it not being authorized by police. When students tried to meet, police responded with water cannons and tear gas while some subway stations were blocked off to students. Over 800 people were arrested on August 4, 90 policemen were wounded and a department store vandalized. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights decried the limits on fundamental freedoms (speech, assembly) and excessive use of force.

On August 9, a general strike called by Confech and the CUT rallied 70-150k demonstrators in Santiago, where nearly 400 were arrested. On August 17, minister Bulnes issued a third series of proposals, which this time included a mixed system of grants for poorer students and reducing the interest rates on state-guaranteed private bank loans to 2%. Again, Vallejo and the Concertación rejected the proposals as insufficient, particularly as pertaining to profiteering and student indebtedness. There were more huge demonstrations in Santiago and across Chile in mid-August.

On August 24-25, the CUT backed by the Concertación and criticized by the government, called for a general nationwide strike in support of the Confech’s demands. The government’s numbers indicated a lower than expected turnout, with 14% rather than the customary 20% absenteeism; but on the second day, organizers claimed 500,000 participants across Chile. On the same day, a policeman killed a 16-year old student (they claimed the shots were fired in the air).

Preliminary negotiations between the President, the Ministry of Education and organizations including the Confech and the Rectors’ Council were held beginning in September 2011. The Confech declined to adhere to the ministry’s agenda and new demonstrations and cacerolazos took place throughout the month. Despite talks of divisions within Confech and disillusionment within the broader movement, a new day of paralyzing mobilizations on September 22 were a success, with 180,000 participants. The movement was hitting a standstill as negotiations failed because neither side were willing to compromise or accept the other side’s basic demands. The movement started petering out, although demonstrations continued into late 2011 and early 2012. In December 2011, Felipe Bulnes was replaced as Minister of Education by Harald Beyer.

The movement returned with large marches in April and June 2012. The movement, by 2012, had radicalized and those who tried to occupy schools were promptly dislodged by the police. There were more demonstrations in late 2012 and 2013.

In April 2013, the Senate impeached Harald Beyer, accusing him of not doing enough to fight profiteering in universities. His dismissal from office was poorly received by most Chileans, who saw it as a grubby act of revenge by the Concertación which wanted to ‘get back’ at the right who had impeached Michelle Bachelet’s Minister of Education, Yasna Provoste, in April 2008 for negligence in a subsidy scandal. The Concertación’s congressmen also had eggs on their faces when it turned out that the accusation case against him was plagiarized from previous cases and even stated wrong laws in a number of places.

The student movement was consistently supported by public opinion. In September 2012, 70% agreed with the students’ demands although 62% disapproved of the forms the demonstrations had taken by then. Piñera’s approval rating hit an historic low of 27% in August 2011 and 26% in April 2012, and his approval remained below 35% for most of the rest of 2011 and 2012. Only in 2013 did his approval rating break 35%, hitting 40% in October 2013. A huge majority of respondents in polls have disapproved of Piñera’s management of education: 81% in August 2011, and still 74% in October 2013. His education ministers have also faced low approval ratings: Beyer left office with 28% in March 2013, while his successor, Carolina Schmidt, saw her approval rating fall from 71% to 35% as she was shuffled from the minister responsible for women (SERNAM) to the education ministry.

Student leaders, especially FECh president (2010-2011) Camila Vallejo, who is a member of the Communist Youths (JJCC), gained international notoriety and, in many cases, acclaim. Students across Latin America, notably in Brazil and Mexico (where students have been behind a less successful anti-government movement, #YoSoy132), welcomed her with open arms Some, however, have criticized her for apparent double-standards: she is critical of the government and Pinochet’s legacy, but as a Communist she supports and visited Cuban leader Fidel Castro and spoke approvingly of the Cuban communist regime

As the movement went on, it became a wider protest against the dominant neoliberal economic model. Vallejo described the protests as the end of  “the cultural hegemony of the neoliberal model imposed on Chile during the military dictatorship” and that “the problem was structural”. The Economist said that “Piñera has thus become the butt of the pent-up frustrations of the past two decades”.

What is also significant of these protests (and others which took place under Piñera’s administration; from HidroAysén to Magallanes to Mapuche protests) is that while they express opposition to the government, they were organized totally independently from the Concertación, the opposition coalition which lost to the right in 2009-2010. The protests were organized independently, through the Confech and other social movements, who made use of social media (very popular with young Chileans) and the protests also featured flashmobs, among other ‘innovations’. Many student leaders were hostile to the Concertación, although opposition politicians (somewhat shamelessly) latched on to the protests and adopted the Confech’s demands wholesale (after not doing anything for them from 1990 to 2010). The Concertación’s approval throughout the movement remained low – lower than that of the Alliance/Coalition (whatever random name the right calls itself by now). In August 2011, only 17% approved of the job done by the opposition coalition while 22% approved of the job done by the right. Only in April 2013 did the Concertación’s approval barely surpass those of the right – although both of their numbers have been atrocious (21% and 20% in October 2013). Over 70% also disapprove of the job done by either house of Congress.

Candidates and issues

This presidential election was the most heavily contested in Chilean history since the restoration of democracy. No less than nine candidates qualified to run (candidates must obtain 35,000 signatures if they are independents or 20,000 if backed by a political party).

There were two major changes to the electoral system since 2009: voting was made voluntary although registration of all eligible voters over 18 was made automatic (the previous law, passed by Pinochet, made voting mandatory but registration manual); open presidential primaries organized by the national electoral service (Servel) were held for both main coalitions on June 30. The automatic registration of voters, first used in last year’s municipal elections, caused some controversy when administrative mistakes and the lack of valid death certificates automatically registered Salvador Allende and thousands of desaparecidos as eligible voters!

The Concertación coalition re-branded itself as the Nueva Mayoría (New Majority) as it expanded to include the Communists, the Movimiento Amplio Social (MAS) and the Izquierda Ciudadana. The Communists, who are relatively moderate, ran their own candidate in 2009 but their candidates ran on Concertación lists for Congress in the congressional elections that year. In 2012, the PCCh ran in coalition with the PPD and PRSD in the municipal elections, in which the Concertación between the Concertación Democrática (PS, PDC) and the Por un Chile justo (PPD, PRD, Communists etc). The MAS was founded in 2006 by PS senator Alejandro Navarro (who was on the PS’ left) and ran as part of MEO’s coalition in the 2009 election. The Izquierda Ciudadana was founded in June 2012 from the merger of various parties, most prominent among which was the Izquierda Cristiana, a Christian left (and pro-Allende) offshoot of the PDC founded in 1971 and which had become a revolutionary socialist party. In 2005, they backed the Communists’ Juntos Podemas Más coalition while in 2009 they joined the Concertación.

Bachelet’s campaign poster in the primaries (source: Wikipedia)

The favourite for the Nueva Mayoría nomination was Michelle Bachelet, the former president who left office with approvals over 80% in 2010. Earlier in 2013, she resigned from her international job as head of UN Women and announced her candidacy. In the primaries, she faced three opponents: the former mayor of Peñalolén Claudio Orrego Larraín (PDC), Senator José Antonio Gómez (PRSD) and former finance minister Andrés Velasco (independent). There were little differences between the candidates: Orrego, from the PDC’s conservative wing, stood out with conservative views on moral issues; José Antonio Gómez, the PRSD’s party boss, comes from the left-wing (aguirrecerdistas) of the PRSD (Gómez notably called on nationalizing pensions altogether and a constituent assembly); Andrés Velasco, Bachelet’s finance minister, is a US-educated liberal technocrat whose decision to save rather than to spend the windfall from copper revenues made him popular during the economic crisis.

Bachelet, far ahead of the pack, focused on her “grassroots ties” and her platform was quite to the left of what she governed as between 2006 and 2010. She was backed by the PS, the social democratic PPD, the MAS, IC and the Communists. Some Communists wanted to back Gómez, but Vallejo (a candidate for the Chamber of Deputies) and party leader Guillermo Teillier endorsed Bachelet. On June 30, Bachelet won the nomination with 73.1% against 13% for Velasco, 8.9% for Orrego and 5.1% for Gómez. For her rivals, the primaries were unsurprisingly a bloodbath; but especially so for the PDC, which is increasingly uneasy about the leftist direction of the opposition coalition, particularly the alliance with the Communists (similarly, some Communists are uneasy about the PDC. Gómez, who had already run unsuccessfully in the 2009 primaries against Frei, was humiliated and finished. Only Velasco’s good result allows him to look towards 2017.

Bachelet’s platform was fairly left-leaning, compared to the Concertación’s traditional centrism. The three main pillars of her platform were education reform, tax reform and a new constitution.

On education, prodded by the student movement, Bachelet’s landmark promise was free post-secondary education within six years. By the end of her term, she promises that the poorest 70% will have access to free post-secondary education, and then expanded to the remaining 30% of the population after she leaves office in 2017. However, she has provided very little additional information on how she intends to pursue such reforms, leaving many student leaders skeptical. Andrés Fielbaum, the outgoing president of the FECh, wonders if Bachelet’s promise for free education means direct financing of institutions or just expanding grants and loans. He is also skeptical of her promise to end profiteering in all levels of education (including general education). Bachelet’s platform promises to give public funding only to non-profit educational institutions; many wonder if this subtle discrepancy means that schools not financed by the government will be allowed to make profits.

Other educational reforms she promises included gradually ending co-payments by parents, ending municipal control of schools by placing them under a decentralized agency in the Ministry of Education, ending all forms of screening in schools, improving teacher training, creating new government agencies in higher education to control the ban on profiteering or to promote better relations with educators.

Her education plan, she says, would require extra funding of 1.5-2% of GDP per year. This would presumably be raised through her tax reform, the second main axis of her platform which she says would raise an additional $8.2 billion (her total spending promises amount to $15.1 billion). Chile’s tax system favours the rich, although it has proved rather effective at promoting private savings and investments. However, Chile only raises 21.4% of its GDP through taxes, the second lowest in the OECD after Mexico (which is also currently moving forward on a tax reform to increase revenues). The OECD found that only 17% pay personal income taxes; combined with indirect taxes, this make Chile’s tax system regressive. Bachelet’s reform would increase tax intake by 3% of GDP, 2.5% of which would come through tax reforms and 0.5% through tougher measures on tax evasion.

Bachelet’s tax reforms include increasing the corporate tax from 20% to 25% (already increased from 18.5% by the government recently) and reducing the personal income tax rate for the top bracket from 40% to 35%. Her biggest change to the tax system, however, is her promise to eliminate the Taxable Profits Fund (FUT), a fund created under Pinochet in 1984 to promote private savings. The FUT allows businesses to declare profits as assets and ‘save’ them; they may then pay a discounted income tax on them. The FUT’s critics say that it has become a tax avoidance scheme, allowing wealthy businessmen to indefinitely defer tax payments. Bachelet’s platform argues that the FUT does not exist anywhere else in the world and that it has outlived its utility. Bachelet denies charges that her tax reforms would hurt investment, and her platform talks of incentives for investment (especially for small and medium businesses, known in Spanish as PyMEs).

Her third major project is a new constitution, to replace the 1980 constitution. Although almost all authoritarian enclaves have been reformed out of the constitution since 1989, Bachelet says that Chile needs a new constitution which is more democratic and does more to guarantee human rights and civil liberties. Her proposal joins growing demands from social movements, notably students, for a new constitution. Some of the rights she wants protected by a new constitution include: right to life, physical integrity, right to equality (no discrimination on sexual, ethnic etc grounds; gender equality), right to personal security, right to due process, rights of the child, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, socioeconomic rights, recognition of indigenous peoples and protection of sexual orientation/gender identities. On more concrete grounds, she would likely do away with the ‘principle of subsidiarity’ and replace it with a ‘social state’ (estado social, y democrático de derecho) with greater responsibilities for socioeconomic solidarity. She wants to change the electoral system (abolish binomial system), lower the quorum for accepting laws (the current constitution requires higher quorums for changing certain laws), reaffirm the separation of Church and state and greater decentralization (directly-elected regional executives). Bachelet is, however, very ambiguous on how she intends to change the constitution: the platform only says it must be elaborated in a ‘democratic, institutional and participatory’ process.

Bachelet promises a pension reform, with the creation of a public pension fund (AFP) to complement the private AFP created by the pension reform in 1981. Chile’s pension system, another Pinochet legacy, has been criticized because it is vulnerable to global economic cycles and pensioners usually receive only a small share of the pre-retirement salaries (37% for women, 60% for men). In 2008, Bachelet’s government had passed a pension reform which aimed to cover poorer individuals with a taxpayer-funded pension system (SPS) and to reduce administrative costs. But criticism has not stopped, and many on the left and the CUT want the private AFP gone completely.

Her platform has also taken liberal stances on moral issues, in a conservative and still rather religious country. She wants to have an “open debate” on same-sex marriage and send a bill to legalize same-sex marriage to Congress. Unlike in the United States, same-sex marriage has not created culture wars (although a majority still probably oppose it), although homosexuality was only legalized in 1999 and the fight for homosexual rights was long and tortuous. Chileans are now broadly accepting of homosexuality, the Pew Global Attitudes Survey (2013) found 68% acceptance for homosexuality and only 24% disapproval (the second highest in Latin America behind Argentina, and higher than the US). The issue gained national prominence in March 2012, when neo-Nazi skinheads murdered Daniel Zamudio, a 24-year old gay man. The hate crime sparked a wave of indignation. In November 2011, the Senate approved an anti-discrimination bill 23 votes to 11 (most of the UDI and RN voted against). Her platform also promotes a gender equality law which would protect gender identity.

Chile is one of a handful of countries where abortion is illegal in all circumstances, including in cases of rape or threat to the mother’s life, and it is punishable by imprisonment. Chile actually had more liberal abortion laws in the past, having legalized therapeutic abortions in 1931, but Pinochet banned it without exceptions in 1989. The 1980 constitution (Article 19) protects the life of the unborn. The generally low-key issue made headlines in July 2013, when an 11-year old girl who was raped and impregnated by her step-father. She decided to keep her baby, a decision which Piñera (who is pro-life) said proved her ‘depth and maturity’. The incident reopened the abortion debate, and Bachelet proposes to decriminalize abortion in cases of threat to the mother’s life, rape or unviability of the fetus. Pro-choice groups such as Amnesty International feel that she does not go far enough.

On the right, the RN and UDI’s perennial coalition was known as the Alliance (Alianza) this year. The UDI, founded in 1983, finds its roots in Jaime Guzmán’s gremialista movement (see the section on education above) and is the most conservative of the two parties on the right. Almost all of its leaders were supporters of Pinochet’s regime until the end (or the sons/daughters of regime supporters), although most high-ranking UDI leaders such as Joaquín Lavín, Pablo Longueira and Andrés Chadwick have moderated their past support for Pinochet but others such as Iván Moreira and Cristian Labbé (a former DINA agent) still publicly support the former dictator. The UDI remains strongly influenced by gremialismo; but although it has usually been a strong supporter of limited government and the ‘principle of subsidiarity’ it has shifted towards talking of a ‘social market economy’. It does remain extremely socially conservative; it speaks of “Western and Christian civilization”, “Christian values” and views social reforms (abortion, gay marriage) as part of a new Marxist hegemonic strategy. The RN, founded in 1987, largely by Pinochet supporters, is the more liberal of the two. It is more supportive, nowadays, of the free market and neoliberalism than the UDI and it is also more enthusiastic about democracy and anti-totalitarian than the UDI.

The Alliance’s nominating process was chaotic. The right’s strongest candidate was Laurence Golborne, an independent engineer and businessman who became wildly popular with his management of the miners’ rescue while Minister of Mines (2010-2011), who later served as Minister of Energy and finally Minister of Public Works. He resigned to run for president in December 2012, and was seen as one of the right’s best hopes against Bachelet. He was the most popular cabinet minister when he left office, with 76% approval ratings. He had successfully maintained high levels of support despite his role in the Magallanes gas crisis (he supported the fare increase) and revelations of conflict of interest in the HidroAysén project. Golborne, backed by the UDI, was set to run against Andrés Allamand, a founding member of the RN and the very popular former Minister of Defense (until Dec. 2012). In April 2013, however, Golborne soon found himself embroiled in two major scandals. First, the Supreme Court fined Cencosud, the holding company which Golborne had managed before joining cabinet, for abusive practices. Later, it was revealed that Golborne had failed to declare his share in a property company in the British Virgin Islands. This last revelation proved fatal and he was forced to drop out. Lacking a candidate, the UDI turned to Pablo Longueira, the Minister of the Economy and a respected longtime member of the UDI.

Both candidates were very similar on the issues, and the campaign was fairly boring. Longueira defeated Allamand by a tight margin; 51.37% against 48.62% (22,198 votes). Overall, turnout in the right’s primaries – despite them being far more competitive (but ironically less combative) – was much lower than in the Nueva Mayoría primaries: 72.6% of votes cast in the latter, only 27.4% in the former. Overall, turnout was 22.2% (considered as decent).

The Alliance’s troubles, however, didn’t stop there. Allamand’s defeat demotivated him, but his decision to run for Senate (by taking the spot given to his spokesperson, Carolina Parot) was somewhat controversial. Then on July 17, Longuiera, citing a medically diagnosed depression, dropped out. The right, panicking, evaluated its options – backing an independent candidate to focus on congressional races, pick Allamand as a replacement, pick another replacement from within UDI/RN ranks or pick two replacements (one from each party). The first option would likely have killed the right in congressional elections, and Allamand was not a strong pick and the RN itself was disorganized and lacked strong candidates. Eventually, the UDI kind of imposed Evelyn Matthei, the Minister of Labour and Social Security.

Matthei, another senior politician, is the daughter of General Fernando Matthei, commander in chief of the air force between 1978 and 1991 and a member of Pinochet’s ruling junta. Ironically, both Matthei and Bachelet were childhood friends, living on air force compounds where their fathers were commanders. Those ties were strained by the military coup: Matthei backed the coup, although he was abroad in September 1973, while Bachelet was pro-Allende. He was arrested on the day of the coup, detained and tortured at the Air Force Academy (which was now led by Matthei). He died in March 1974 from a myocardial infarction as a result of the torture he had suffered. Victims’ families associations have sought to prosecute Matthei for his alleged role in the torture. In September 2012, a court rejected their attempts and judged that there was insufficient evidence to prove Matthei played any role in Bachelet’s death. Matthei, still alive at 88, denies all charges and still considers the late general his ‘friend’ but admits he lacked courage at the time.

Matthei was fairly popular as labour minister (left office with 55% approval) but is known as the ‘Iron Lady’ for her confrontational style; as minister, she clashed with parliamentarians on a few occasions.

Matthei’s campaign poster: “Evelyn – winning together” (source: Wikipedia)

Matthei’s platform is fundamentally conservative, standing out from the rest of the field on a number of major issues where almost all other candidates favour some kind of reforms. In most cases, Matthei defends the status-quo, arguing that the ‘Chilean model’ has been successful and that major reforms are either unnecessary or unwise. Although I doubt Piñera had much interest in the presidential race given the UDI-RN spat, Matthei underlined the outgoing president’s strong-suits – the strong economy and low unemployment rate.

Unlike the other candidates, therefore, Matthei didn’t really stand out with any groundbreaking proposals of her own. Her main promises include 600,000 new jobs, increasing the state-funded basic pensions, subsidizing public transit for seniors and tougher crime laws (more police, jail without parole for repeat offenders; she supports two current bills which would criminalize verbal harassment against police and an anti-encapuchado bill against masked vandals). Healthcare is also a top issue for her, and her platform talked about 100 new clinics, freedom of choice for all in the public health insurance system (FONASA; the poor who are automatically covered, may not currently choose their healthcare providers – which requires additional co-pays), reducing wait times and better management of hospitals.

Matthei opposes free post-secondary education, unlike all other candidates. Matthei, like the incumbent president, say that free education would be regressive because it would offer state funding to poor and rich students alike. An OECD report warned against free higher education for the same reasons. She struck a populist note here, but during a debate she also said that the rich should not foot the bill for free higher education. Like the incumbent government, her solution for access to post-secondary education lies in better grants and loans. Matthei also supports continued use of co-payments in general education and was fairly vague on the future of municipal schools. Her platform’s education planks mostly emphasized other issues: promoting and expanding pre-school (voluntary) education, increased basic salaries for teachers and a special subsidy for 1,000 ‘priority’ schools.

Matthei opposes Bachelet’s proposals for tax and pension reform. Abolishing the FUT, she says, would dangerously stifle investment. Matthei also opposes the creation of a public AFP; for her, problems with AFPs are due to low employee contributions. Therefore, she wants to increase the level of mandatory contributions to the system (10 to 14%).

Evelyn Matthei also opposes Bachelet’s proposal for a new constitution. Matthei prefers small constitutional reforms, such as decentralization, term limits for congressman and local officials, reducing presidential powers and more citizen participation. She also opposes Bachelet on moral issues: Matthei supports civil unions but not same-sex marriage and she opposes any change to abortion laws (although she did support legalizing therapeutic abortions in 2010).

Matthei recently lambasted Bachelet’s proposal for a secular state, reaffirming her commitment to traditional Christian values. She even went as far as committing her “future government, if that is God’s will and I arrive there, to a path in which nothing contradicts the teachings of the Bible.”

Back for a second time was Marco Enríquez-Ominami, the PS dissident who won a record 20.1% running as an independent in 2009. As aforementioned, MEO, who holds dual Chilean and French citizenship, is the son of MIR cofounder Miguel Enríquez, who was killed in 1974. Before entering politics in 2005, MEO was a filmmaker who directed movies, telenovelas or documentaries. Elected to Congress as a Socialist in 2005, he left the party to run as a dissident/independent in 2009. In 2010, after his successful presidential candidacy, MEO founded his own party, the Progressive Party (PRO). A coalition led by MEO’s PRO won 4.5% in last year’s municipal elections, winning 45 seats and 7 municipalities (including Arica, a regional capital). This year, MEO formed a small coalition, Si tú quieres, Chile cambia (if you want, Chile changes) with the PRO, the Liberal Party of Chile (formerly known as Chile Primero, founded in 2007 by PPD leaders who had denounced corruption in the PPD) and the allendista faction of the PS. Chile Primero/the Liberals had backed the right-wing Coalition in 2009, but new leaders took over in 2010 and gradually broke with the right.

MEO’s campaign poster and slogan/coalition (source:

MEO’s platform was clearly left-wing. The cornerstones of his platform were what he defined as three universal (free) rights: education, healthcare and pensions. He also wants to convene a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. As in 2009, he was very critical of the conciliatory and conservative political system which has predominated since 1990; while he claims that he supports competition and the free market, he was also very critical of the neoliberal philosophy dominant in education, healthcare and pensions.

MEO’s educational platform coincided with Bachelet and other candidates on issues such as ‘de-municipalizing’ education, abolishing co-payments, ending educational segregation and free education. Where they differ, he claimed, was that Bachelet sees education only as an economic problem, whereas MEO said that the entire system’s philosophy of competition (which replaced, he said ‘a humanist vision’ in the 80s) needs to go. His platform indeed placed significant emphasis on replacing the standardized tests (SIMCE) with decentralized, region-specific, multidimensional and multi-functional assessments.

The ‘right to healthcare’, which would be constitutionally guaranteed, means a universal healthcare system for all and the construction of new hospitals and clinics.

MEO was strongly critical of the AFPs, which he contends have failed in their initial goal of reducing public spending, fail to guarantee decent pensions and expose pensioners to the global financial whirlwinds. He also highlighted the high administrative costs and commissions charged by the AFPs, one of the more contentious points of the system. His platform proposed to introduced a mixed system, with a universal state-funded PAYGO pension pillar and additional, voluntary private AFPs which would be strictly regulated – a 7% limit on administrative costs and co-responsibility if they have negative returns.

How would he finance all this (his platform said this would cost 5% of GDP)? MEO’s platform supported the re-nationalization of copper, abolishing the FUT, increasing the corporate tax to 26%, a wealth tax of 1% on wealth above $1 million, reducing military spending and closing tax loopholes.

Political reform through a new constitution was also a major axis in MEO’s campaign. His political reforms included: a constitution guaranteeing human and social rights, a semi-presidential republic with a unicameral Congress (creation of a Prime Minister, two-term limit for presidents, PR electoral system), a federal state and increasing citizen participation (referenda etc). Unlike Bachelet, MEO was clear in how he intended to achieve this: a constituent assembly.

Running as an independent was Franco Parisi, a ‘TV economist’, most famous for his TV and radio appearances to explain economic concepts in ‘simple terms’. In 2011, he began hosting a TV show with his brother called Los Parisi: el poder de la gente (the power of the people). Parisi’s independent presidential candidacy took up el poder de la gente as its slogan and popular catchphrase.

Although Parisi is described as centre-right and even neoliberal, his platform was largely populist and anti-establishment. On economic policies, he proposed a mixed-bag of policies to help entrepreneurship (lowering interest rates on bank loans, deferring companies’ first payment of the VAT, allowing personal bankruptcy). He also supported a state-funded AFP, abolishing the FUT, raising corporate taxes to 26%, reducing the VAT on basic foodstuffs from 19% to 10%, removing the tax on books (which is very high in Chile), adjusting the minimum wage to GDP per capita, free education (in ‘traditional’ universities), shortening undergraduate studies and clearing shantytowns. He also strongly supported alternative energy, specifically hydropower and solar energy. Parisi did not emphasize the topic as much as some of the other candidates, but he too backed a new constitution and abolishing the binomial system.

However, ideology and policy weren’t his main preoccupations. A lot of his appeal, which grew rapidly during the campaign, was based on an anti-system and anti-politician rhetoric which accused the main politicians of having ties with special interests (contrasted with Parisi’s own ‘independence’) and of being responsible for all the country’s woes. His supporters saw in him a refreshing, independent candidate who took up their disillusionment with the political system; his critics saw in him a populist demagogue.

Parisi’s success, largely by taking up RN and centre-right voters, worried Matthei. On October 20, she accused him of owing workers in high schools he owned some 500 million pesos and said that he was unfit to be a candidate.

Parisi’s YouTube campaign jingle proved to be pretty popular; although in my eyes it’s only repeating mindless slogans of the kind ‘the power of the people’ or ‘a united country cannot go backwards’.

Marcel Claude, an economist, academic and activist, was the candidate of the Humanist Party (PH). Politically, while firmly on the left today, he was more on the right in the 1970s: in 1973, he was in the PDC’s youth movement and opposed Allende (today, he praises him) and was a member of the PPD until 1995. Claude was the candidate of the Humanist Party, supported by smaller unregistered left-wing parties grouped as the Todos a La Moneda (also stylized Tod@s a La Moneda; meaning Everyone to La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago). The Humanists, founded in 1984, are a left-libertarian, humanist, ecosocialist and pacifist party. They had been the second wheel to the Communists in the Juntos Podemos Más coalition, until the Humanists broke with them to back MEO in 2009. The Communists had been proving too keen on working with the Concertación for the Humanists’ tastes.

Claude had one of the most left-wing platforms, along with Roxana Miranda (who differs from Claude mostly in that she’s more provocative and crazier).

One of the main axes of the Claude campaign was a call for a new constitution drafted by a constituent assembly, to replace the “undemocratic and illegitimate” pinochetista constitution. The new document would increase citizen participation (direct elections of the judiciary, direct democracy with initiatives, popular veto referenda, participation in public services), create a federal state, abolish the ‘principle of subsidiarity’, eliminate the idea of the family as the ‘fundamental nucleus of society, better promote human rights and create a ‘multinational, pluricultural and multilingual’ society (recognition of the native peoples). Claude said that he wanted to ‘start fresh, like Chávez, Morales and Correa did’.

Obviously, Claude fully supports same-sex marriage and adoption rights as well as the legalization of abortion on demand.

On economic issues, his campaign argued for a new economic model with a strengthened state to stop the devolution of power to multinational corporations. Concrete proposals included nationalization of all natural resources (including copper), abolishing the AFPs  (‘eradicating them from the face of the earth’ as he said) in favour of the PAYGO system, raising corporate taxes to 35%, a 25% royalty on foreign investments in major natural resources, reducing the VAT to 16% and exempting basic necessities from it, and reducing defense spending. It also proposed a universal healthcare system with no co-pays or out-of-pocket expenses, a free and high-quality education system (with 25% of the budget to be spent on education) and a right to housing.

His diplomatic policy emphasized pacifism (constitutional ban on war, adopting the Tlatelolco Treaty), removing all foreign military bases from Chile and promoting Latin American integration. In a break with basically every major politician in Chile, Claude proposed a solution the Bolivian sea access issue through shared sovereignty – a very radical proposal in Chile.

Alfredo Sfeir, an economist and spiritual leader (Zambuling Institute for Human Transformation), was the candidate of the Green Ecologist Party (Partido Ecologista Verde, PEV). Like in most of South America, the Chilean greens are weak and often seek alliances with other parties. Before Sfeir, only one green candidate ran for president – environmentalist economist Manfred Max Neef, who won 5.6% in 1993. In 2009 and  2012, the PEV was part of MEO’s coalition.

Of course, traditional environmental and sustainable development issues, from a fairly ‘deep green’ (skeptical of globalization, anti-materialistic, humanism) perspective, were big in his platform. It promoted new forms of economic development which would be totally sustainable, green entrepreneurship programs, entrenching principles of corporate responsibility and calling on all businesses to report their contributions to the green economy. Sfeir also called for a national energy policy taking into account human needs (including future generations). A lot of his proposals also emphasized the need for rural development: more schools, universities, hospitals/clinics and so forth in rural areas.

Like other candidates, Sfeir supported a new constitution and free education.

Sfeir attracted attention for his rather quirky behaviour and fashion (many compared him to Count Dooku in Star Wars), and his left-field views on some issues. Likely because he’s also a spiritual leader, post-materialistic values and spirituality were fairly central to proposals: replacing GDP with a measure of human well-being, promoting spirituality and emphasis on human development and well-being rather than materialistic values. On healthcare, for example, he said that he wanted to develop and expand the use of alternative medicines.

Roxana Miranda’s campaign poster: “Roxana is the people: we will write the constitution” (source: Wikipedia)

Roxana Miranda, a social activist, was the candidate of the leftist Equality Party (Partido Igualdad). Miranda, who proudly stated during debates that she had been arrested several times during protests, drew attention because of her colourful, provocative and outspoken personality. In debates, she was reprimanded for using props: a copper pipe to show that she supports copper nationalization, public transit cards to ask the main candidates if they knew how much they cost or what they looked like and a spoon (for some reason). She declined to talk about crime at a debate because the criminals, she said, were in Congress. Her platform referred to the location and date as ‘the south Pacific of Abya Yala’ (a pre-Colombian native name for the Americas) in ‘the year 2013 of the calendar of the conquistador‘. Defining herself as a protest vote, her detailed platform was far-left, anti-capitalist and populist. While she likely realized that a lot of her proposals were silly or totally unrealistic, she sought to draw attention to inequalities in Chile.

Extremely critical of the neoliberal model, Miranda’s platform advocated ‘overcoming capitalism’ with measures such as popular control of the means of production, re-industrialization, workers’ self-management, eliminating the ‘socially regressive’ VAT and replacing it with higher corporate (up to 33%) and income taxes, a 60% tax on luxury goods, nationalization of natural resources, a new agrarian reform (breaking agribusiness) and rationing copper production. Socially, Miranda wanted to abolish the AFPs, abolish the private healthcare providers (Isapres), guarantee a right to housing, and free public education with a “socialist and revolutionary orientation”.

Her platform also proposed radical political reforms, to break what she called the ‘oligarchic-dynastic regime’ and the ties between capitalists and the state. Her proposals included a new constitution to be drafted by all citizens. She called for decentralization, rights and autonomy for indigenous peoples (the Mapuche), direct elections of all offices (including the judiciary), subjecting politicians to recall, transforming the armed forces to defend from ‘capitalist reactions’ and placing the armed forces under popular control within a regionally-integrated defense system. Miranda openly said that Chile is a bad neighbor, and she is very supportive of Latin American integration – defined here as a revolutionary anti-capitalist goal. Among other things, she considered ceding full sovereignty to Bolivia over a strip of land to give them access to the Pacific.

Ricardo Israel, an academic and lawyer, ran for the Regionalist Party of Independents (Partido Regionalista de los Independientes, PRI). The PRI was founded in 2006 by the merger of two small regionalist parties. The PRI is a minor party, but it has been of some importance because it has attracted a few dissident members of the Concertación to its ranks, most famously PDC Senator Adolfo Zaldívar, who joined the party in 2009. In the 2009 elections, the PRI-led coalition won three seats in the Chamber – all three were former members of the Concertación and two were incumbent deputies.

Israel was something of a reluctant candidate, it seems, because the PRI originally sought to back Franco Parisi, who refused because he wanted to remain independent from all parties. Unsurprisingly, Israel’s campaign attracted very little attention from anybody and apparently focused a lot on his conservative stances on abortion or gay marriage.

Chile is a very centralized state, despite the great geographic diversity throughout the thin but long country’s 4000km from north to south. Santiago has traditionally concentrated all political and economic power; businesses, politics, universities and so forth remain heavily centered in the Greater Santiago which is also the country’s wealthiest region. Chile’s fifteen administrative regions were created during the military regime, solely for planning purposes (tellingly, they had no official names and were just numbered – today, regions have names but also keep a number). Only with the transition did decision-makers begin to have some interest in decentralization, deconcentration of government departments (today, all but four ministries are ‘deconcentrated’ with regional secretariats, SEREMIs, in each region) and the regions as a level for popular participation in governance. Yet, decentralization is still at a very early stage – the regions are administered by an Intendant, appointed by the President, and regional councils (CORES) were not directly elected until this year. The rise of popular participation in daily politics (Chile having been a very elitist country for a long time, and still is today), the greater presence of social movements and democracy in and of itself have led to demands for regional autonomy, democratization at the regional level and decentralization.

Regionalism as the expression of distinct regional/national identities (on cultural, ethnic, linguistic, religious etc grounds) is fairly weak in a centralized nation-state like Chile; however, there are strong regional demands for more decision-making power and greater regional equity in economic and social development. The southernmost regions of Aysén and Magallanes in Patagonia, which are very isolated and basically disconnected from the rest of Chile (Magallanes can only be accessed by road through Argentina, and the road to Aysén includes three ferries), have been at the forefront of regionalist demands and sentiments – as seen through the 2011 Magallanes and 2012 Aysén protests.

Basically all candidates in this election promised some kind of decentralization through greater democratization and greater regional equity in distribution of resources. Bachelet wants intendants to be directly elected, Matthei wants part of the taxes on infrastructure projects in a region to go to the region itself, other candidates go as far as promising a federal state. That might explain why Israel’s regionalist platform didn’t attract much support.

Indeed, his planks on regionalism weren’t exceptional compared to the others (Miranda and Claude went further, it seems, in their demands for decentralization and federalism…). He proposed a ‘regional state’, with more democratization (direct election a president of the regional government, regional input in SEREMI nominations), regional management of key infrastructure (health, public education, environment) and judicial decentralization. On education or healthcare, Israel did put greater emphasis on the need for regional equity (rural areas and isolated regions having poorer schools and less post-secondary options). He also proposed a new constitution, although it would be built through input from various institutions, the international community and citizens.

Israel was generally left-leaning on economic issues (but emphasizing the middle-class and small businesses), with the platform stressing the “correction of the neoliberal economic model and the economic concentration in the markets” and proposed things such a state-funded AFP, a public universal healthcare system, free higher education for all but the wealthiest two income levels, reforming commercial business licensing laws (biased towards big retailers) and ending the privatization of water. He opposed, however, nationalizing copper – instead, he wanted stricter conditions and tax law on private mining companies (Chile has very generous conditions for mining companies) and ‘Chileanization’ of copper refinement with at least 51% of copper extracted to be refined by a mixed public-private enterprise.

Israel was the only candidates besides Matthei to be on the record opposing same-sex marriage and abortion under all circumstances.

The last candidate, Tomás Jocelyn-Holt, was a PDC deputy between 1994 and 2002. He ran a low-key campaign and never attracted significant support. His claims to fame are his family ties (he is the great-grand grandchild of former President José Manuel Balmaceda, and the great-nephew of former President Carlos Ibáñez) and falling off his bicycle on his way to a debate in October. He then used a bicycle as his campaign logo.

Jocelyn-Holt’s platform was liberal and progressive, fairly unremarkable. His four axes of focus were democratic reforms, tax reform, civil and cultural rights and strengthening the state’s role in healthcare and education. In a field where basically all candidates except Matthei argued in favour of a new constitution, Jocelyn-Holt only proposed reforming the current constitution with measures such as the election of Intendants, redistribution of seats in Congress, making ministers responsible to Congress, allowing the President to dissolve Congress, term-limits for congressmen, a judicial reform and constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights. His tax reform included cutting the VAT and personal income tax, eliminating the FUT and removing the VAT from books. Jocelyn-Holt had fairly liberal stances on civil and cultural rights and moral issues: same-sex marriage and adoption, a gender identity law for transsexuals, legalization of therapeutic abortion in certain circumstances and decriminalization of marijuana. On healthcare and education, he proposed ‘demunicipalization’ of schools, ending co-pays, freezing tuition fees, moving towards free post-secondary education for 4/5 of the population, and a mandatory basic public insurance system for all.

Jocelyn-Holt placed emphasis on the youth – his slogan was atrévete por un Chile joven (dare for a young Chile) – and proposed things such as tax incentives for youth entrepreneurship projects.

40 years after the coup

September 11 marked the fortieth anniversary of the military coup of 1973 which overthrew Salvador Allende. Forty years on, even if an increasing share of the electorate was born after the 1988 plebiscite and/or after the transition in 1990, the issue continues to polarize and divide Chile. It became clear when President Piñera organized a commemoration of the coup at La Moneda, inviting all former Presidents and all presidential candidates. The opposition, however, refused and Bachelet organized her own event at the Museo de la Memoria, a museum dedicated to human rights violations under Pinochet. No former President attended Piñera’s official event, and only three presidential candidates came (Matthei, Sfeir, Israel). Although both Piñera and Bachelet said broadly the same things – the need for greater truth and reconciliation – the competing events underlined how politicized the Pinochet legacy remains in Chile.

Many on the left accuse the right, particularly the UDI, of being interested in polishing their image and washing off their past support for the regime. Within the Concertación, the PDC, which practically asked for the coup in 1973, has also been hard at work trying to rewrite its history and pretend as if it stood by Allende. A small minority on the right and far-right still hold Pinochet in high esteem, as the man who ‘liberated’ the country from Marxism and the threat of socialist ‘totalitarianism’ and made country an economic miracle. Matthei tried to downplay the memory of the coup and the regime, but she said that she had no reason to ask for forgiveness because she was 20 in 1973. On the other hand, moderate UDI Senator Hernán Larraín apologized for his party’s actions in the past.

A June 2013 poll by CERC asked Chileans their opinions on a number of questions related to the coup and the regime. The results showed a net increase in negative opinions towards Pinochet and his regime. 41% blamed Pinochet for the coup (+ 6% who blamed the military), up from 24% ten years ago. Only 13% blamed Allende or communism, down 3% since 2003. However, there were stark political divides on that issue: a majority of UDI and RN supporters blamed Allende or communism (55%), only 9% and 18% respectively blamed Pinochet. In contrast, a majority of PDC, PPD and PS supporters blamed Pinochet. Chilean youths were also more likely to blame Pinochet than their elders: 47% of those 18-25 blamed the former dictator, while only 36% of those over 61 blamed him. However, younger respondents are also far more likely to have no opinion on the question: over 30% of those under 40 had no opinion, only 15% of those over 61 did.

Similarly, 68% of respondents felt the military had no reason to stage the coup, up 20% since 2003 and 14% since 2009. Only 16% said the military had reasons to do what they did; in 2003, 36% shared that opinion. Again, however, a majority of right-wingers say that the military had reasons (69% and 52% for the UDI and RN respectively), over 80% of Concertación parties’ supporters said the military had no reason. The oldest voters were 10 points more likely to say that the military had reasons than the youngest voters.

63% defined the coup as destruction of democracy and 18% as liberation from Marxism, up 9 and down 6 from 2009 respectively. The right, again, was far more likely to see the coup as liberation from Marxism – with 69% of UDI and 53% of RN supporters seeing it in those terms.

Interestingly, after declining consistently since 2004, the share of those who said the divisions created by the regime have not been forgotten shot up this year to 74%. Partisan and generational agreement is much higher on this question. Similarly, 75% said that the legacy left by the military regime were still there.

Chileans have usually seen Pinochet’s legacy in gray rather than black and white terms, but the poll showed a 14% increase (to 37%) of those who said his regime was only bad; the proportion of those who say it was only good (7%) and mixed (40%) are at historic lows, and the number of those who had no opinion (16%) is much higher than in the 1990s and early 2000s. Younger Chileans are, unsurprisingly, those who are the most apathetic on this issue, with 38% having no opinion. 76% of respondents consider Pinochet as a dictator (+10 since 2009) and only 9% see him as one of Chile’s best leaders. Even UDI and RN supporters, in majority, see him as a dictator.


Turnout was 49.33% in the first presidential and congressional elections in which voting was voluntary but registration automatic. In 2009, when voting was compulsory, turnout was 87.66%. In the 2012 municipal elections, the first elections with the new rules, turnout was about 43%. However, the size of electorate (registered voters) increased by 63.8%, from 8,285,186 in 2009 to 13,573,143 this year. In 2009, 7,264,136 votes were cast; in this election, 6,696,229 votes were cast. Therefore, despite the expansion of the electorate by 64% since 2009, the number of votes cast fell by 7.8%.

The reasons for the low turnout is likely widespread disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the political system (in a recent poll, 50% identified with neither the left or right, and 25% did not place themselves on a left-right scale of 1-10) and major parties, as well as the low interest in the campaign and election given how Bachelet was the runaway favourite. Indeed, for months the only question has been whether Bachelet would win in the first round or in the second round, not whether or not she’d win. Adding to this, Matthei was a poor candidate whose nomination (‘imposed’ by the UDI on the RN and RN irritations at it all) hurt her, as might have her image as a very conservative and right-wing candidate (in a poll, 41% of respondents placed her in the most right-wing position on a left-right scale of 1-10, and she is one of the most unpopular politicians in Chile).

Turnout was likely very low with young voters, the most uninterested and dissatisfied with politics. In a CEP poll in September-October 2013 asking voters if they had voted in the 2012 municipal elections, 77% of voters aged 18 to 24 said they hadn’t voted (against 49% in the whole sample). In the past, these were the voters who were the least likely to bother registering to vote, because not voting once registered meant stiff fines.

The results were as follows:


Michelle Bachelet (Nueva Mayoría-PS) 46.69%
Evelyn Matthei (Alianza-UDI) 25.02%
Marco Enríquez-Ominami (Si tú quieres, Chile cambia-PRO) 10.98%
Franco Parisi (Ind) 10.11%
Marcel Claude (Todos a La Moneda-PH) 2.8%
Alfredo Sfeir (PEV) 2.35%
Roxana Miranda (Igualdad) 1.25%
Ricardo Israel (PRI) 0.57%
Tomás Jocelyn-Holt (Ind) 0.19%

Chamber of Deputies (Cámara de Diputados)

Nueva Mayoría 47.74% winning 67 seats (+10)
PDC 15.56% winning 22 seats (+2)
PS 11.13% winning 15 seats (+4)
PPD 11.02% winning 15 seats (-3)
PCCh 4.11% winning 6 seats (+3)
PRSD 3.64% winning 6 seats (+1)
Independents 2.18% winning 4 seats (+3)
MAS 0.1% winning 0 seats (nc)
Alianza 36.17% winning 49 seats (-9)
UDI 18.92% winning 28 seats (-9)
RN 14.9% winning 19 seats (+1)
Independents 2.35% winning 1 seat (-2)
Si tú quieres, Chile cambia 5.44% winning 1 seat (+1)
Liberal 0.27% winning 1 seat (+1)
PRO 3.8% winning 0 seats (nc)
Independents 1.38% winning 0 seats (nc)
Humanist Party 3.36% winning 0 seats (nc)
Independents outside coalitions 3.32% winning 3 seats (+1)
Nueva Constitución para Chile 2.78% winning 0 seats (nc)
Independents 1.18% winning 0 seats (nc)
Igualdad 1.08% winning 0 seats (nc)
PEV 0.53% winning 0 seats (nc)
PRI 1.16% winning 0 seats (-3)

Senate (Senado)

Nueva Mayoría 50.65% winning 12 seats (+1) – total 21 seats
PDC 16.52% winning 2 seats (-3) – total 6 seats
PS 16.15% winning 4 seats (nc) – total 6 seats
PPD 12.35% winning 3 seats (+2) – total 6 seats
MAS 3.47% winning 1 seat (nc) – total 1 seat
Independents 2.02% winning 2 seats (+2) – total 2 seats
PCCh 0.14% winning 0 seats (nc)
Alianza 37.99% winning 7 seats (-1) – total 16 seats
RN 16.24% winning 2 seats (-1) – total 8 seats
UDI 14.68% winning 5 seats (nc) – total 8 seats
Independents 7.08% winning 0 seats (nc)
Nueva Constitución para Chile 3.91% winning 0 seats (nc)
Independents 2.12% winning 0 seats (nc)
Igualdad 1.57% winning 0 seats (nc)
PEV 0.22% winning 0 seats (nc)
Humanist Party 3.47% winning 0 seats (nc)
Si tú quieres, Chile cambia 2.45% winning 0 seats (nc)
Independents outside coalitions 1.52% winning 1 seat (nc)

An interactive Google Map of the results (presidential).

As it turned out, Michelle Bachelet will have to wait until December 15 and the second round to claim victory. In the first round, Bachelet won 46.7%, falling short of winning by the first round. She trounced her closest rival, right-wing candidate Evelyn Matthei, by 21.7% and will certainly go on to defeat her by a considerable margin in the second round next month.

As soon as Bachelet entered the race, the outcome was never in doubt. She crushed opposition in the Nueva Mayoría primaries in June, successfully expanded the old Concertación coalition to include some social movements and integrate the Communists (despite PDC misgivings) and the certainty of her victory was further reinforced when her strongest rival, Golborne, dropped out and when the very right-wing UDI dominated the primaries and the post-primary candidate replacement process.

Bachelet remains the most popular politician in Chile, although in large part that popularity is for her as a person, because the Concertación remains very unpopular (low 20s approvals) and a lot of the old party bosses in the Concertación are quite unpopular, both on the left and right. However, her favourable/positive ratings dropped from 85% in the summer of 2010, right after she left office, to 61% in the last CEP poll in September-October 2013. She still stood at a 75% favourability rating in November-December 2012. This drop, fairly significant, coincides with her return into active politics. As a former president working for the UN, she maintained stratospheric approvals; as she returned to active politics, she faced the normal criticisms, attacks and extra scrutiny from the media and rivals, meaning that her approval ratings naturally took a hit.

Bachelet ran a smart campaign, however. She knew that she was the runaway favourite, and she focused on keeping her high poll numbers up and staying clear of trouble. As in the primaries, Bachelet faced attacks from left, right and centre; she was often criticized for being vague in her proposals and not showing up to a debate. Some on the left dislike Bachelet, feeling that she isn’t progressive enough and that her proposals, on matters such as education and a new constitution, are either vague or the product of political opportunism. However, Bachelet remained above the fray and didn’t really engage in the mudslinging. Her alternative event on September 11 was very successful, and she mostly played a statesman card in the destabilizing political debate which unfolded around the commemoration of the 1973 coup.

On the other hand, Evelyn Matthei’s campaign faltered, almost from the start. The RN, as noted above, disliked the way in which she was ‘imposed’ by the UDI on them. The RN played little role in her campaign, largely focusing on the congressional elections. Likewise, Piñera – who might be eyeing a return in 2017-2018 – gave Matthei a halfhearted endorsement and has preferred to act as a statesman in the waning months of his term. Piñera, who is said to be fed up with the UDI, angered a lot of the far-right and pinochetista rightists (including a lot of the UDI) in September when he closed down the Cordillera luxury prison, where ten high-ranking military officers sentenced for human rights violations (including Contreras) are imprisoned. The Cordillera prison had comfortable amenities for its criminals: free time, TV, sports, internet and even weekend passes. In a country with overcrowded and run-down prisons, the opulence in which Chile’s famous criminals lived angered many people. But closing the prison angered its inmates (General Odlanier Mena, the former head of the CNI and Contreras’ nemesis, committed suicide in protest) and the small minority of unrepentant supporters of the former regime, who happen to make up a considerable share of the right-wing base.

Matthei was unable to gain ground during the campaign, after an already difficult start. She sustained damage from all parts in September and she was unable to regain lost support in October. Her platform attracted little interest. Matthei’s conservative stances on issues such as education, political reform or tax reform were out of touch with most Chilean voters, who have more left-wing views on those issues. In fact, the only area where Matthei and most voters might be in agreement is same-sex marriage, and that hardly featured as a top issue in this campaign.

She won only 25% of the vote, barely more than Arturo Alessandri Besa’s 24.4% in 1993 – keeping in mind that he was the last recourse after more prominent candidates pulled out and that the right abandoned his campaign (even took his funds) to focus on congressional elections. Ultimately, though, she did place second – something which was in doubt after some polls in the waning days of the campaign showed her collapsing and Parisi surging, with her lead over him down to single digits. She successfully rallied part of the right, likely the core electorate, around the flag. While her spat with Parisi, after she accused him and his brother of owing about $200,000 to employees in a private high school they owned (Parisi responded by attacking her husband’s business dealings), might not have helped her; it might have hurt Parisi as he was surging and threatening Matthei’s spot in the runoff.

Results by comuna of the presidential election (source: Saint Brendan’s Island blog)

Parisi in fact placed fourth, with only 10.1%. Marco Enríquez-Ominami won third place with 11% of the vote. MEO had won over 20% of the vote in 2009, so his result this year is far from spectacular. Placing third, however, is a good surprise for him. In 2009, MEO’s success owed to the unpopularity of the Concertación and its candidate (Frei); he successfully assembled a coalition of malcontents on the left. However, hurt by Chile’s electoral system and the two-coalition system it creates, he was unable to transform his personal success into political support for his new party, the PRO. In the 2012 municipal elections, the PRO-led coalition won only 4.5% and it has looked a lot like a personal project rather than a credible party. As his star had faded since 2009 and his party had failed to get off the ground, MEO was not a strong contender this year, although he remains a popular politicians with 45% favourability (CEP, Sep-Oct 2013). Furthermore, he was no longer alone in rallying anti-Concertación voters in this election – other candidates, left and centre/right, did the same. Nevertheless, MEO ran a relatively solid campaign which improved his image. Coming out in third, his result has improved public perception of his name/party.

For the second round, MEO has said that Bachelet has already won. For his part, MEO will cast a blank vote, marking his ballot ‘AC’. The AC refers to a popular campaign for a constituent assembly, called Marca Tu Voto (mark your vote), which called on voters in the first round – and now in the second round – to write ‘AC’ on their ballots. The Servel ruled, in the first round, that ballots which expressed a preference for a candidate and were marked AC would be valid, displeasing the right. The Marca Tu Voto campaign claimed that it won 8% of the vote based on its observers in precincts across Chile. Besides MEO, who proclaimed after the first round that his candidate was the constituent assembly, the campaign has received the backing of many politicians on the left/centre-left (including the Nueva Mayoría, which supports constitutional change but has not officially endorsed the idea of a constituent assembly), such as senator Guido Girardi (PPD), Camila Vallejo (PCCh) and student leaders/candidates Giorgio Jackson and Gabriel Boric.

Franco Parisi ended up doing poorly, placing only fourth with 10% of the vote. As noted above, his momentum in the last few weeks was likely halted by Matthei’s revelation of the scandal involving him and his brother. While he denied it and Matthei did not really gain from it, it bogged him down into an argument with her and likely hurt his credibility.

None of the five other candidates did well. Taking a very left-wing stance, Marcel Claude and Roxana Miranda won 4.05% of the vote between the two of them. They were never strong contenders and did not get much media attention; but Claude’s campaign failed to get off the ground and Miranda’s campaign was meant to attract attention to her cause/ideas (and attack the ‘establishment’) rather than win many votes. Claude failed to unite the anti-Concertación left like the Juntos Podemos Más coalition had done in 2005 and 2009 (5-6%). Alfredo Sfeir, the colourful green candidate, won 2.4%, a disappointing result given that the campaign had revealed him to be a reasonable gentleman (he did not attack his rivals).

Israel and Jocelyn-Holt, little known and ignored by the media (except for the latter’s bicycle accident), did very poorly. Jocelyn-Holt’s 0.2% is the worst result for a presidential candidate in Chilean history.

When Bachelet and Matthei meet in the second round, Bachelet will win easily. It would be surprising if Bachelet won by any less than ten points; she will likely win between 55% and 65% of the vote. Matthei will win some votes from Israel and Parisi, although a lot of the latter’s voters might prefer abstention. The other candidates were all centre-left or left-wing, and Bachelet should easily won their votes, at least the votes of those who bother showing up. The 2006 and 2010 runoffs were more disputed than the first rounds, but it won’t be the case this year. Bachelet will win easily, and there’s absolutely no doubt about that. Therefore, with even less incentives to turn out, we can except turnout to be even lower – perhaps much lower – in the second round.

Socioeconomic groups in the Greater Santiago, 2002 Census (source:

Chile has 346 comunas. Matthei won only 10 of them, five of which are in the Metropolitan Region of Santiago. In the Greater Santiago, Matthei predominated in the city’s affluent and leafy suburbs, old right-wing strongholds. In Vitacura, the wealthiest municipality in Chile whose municipal government funds a pro-Pinochet group, Matthei won 66.8% against 12.7% for Bachelet. In Lo Barnechea, which includes the nouveau rich suburb of La Dehesa, she won 63.7% against 16.9%. By far, these were Matthei’s two best towns in the country; in the Greater Santiago, she also topped the poll in the upper middle-class suburbs of Los Condes, La Reina and Providencia – with 58.8%, 36.6% and 41.7% respectively. Together, these five municipalities have the highest HDIs in Chile. Interestingly, Parisi did poorly in those places – his best performances came from lower-income and mixed/middle-class towns in the Greater Santiago; in contrast Sfeir did quite well in Santiago’s affluent suburbs, winning up to 9.6% in Providencia.

In the Greater Santiago’s poorer suburbs, however, Bachelet often won over 50% of the vote: 58.4% in Lo Espejo, 58.1% in La Pintana, 57.3% in San Ramón, 54.7% in Cerro Navia and 54.2% in Pedro Aguirre Cerda. These municipalities have much lower HDIs – for example, Lo Espejo ranks 226 out of 341 and near the bottom of the Metro Region, and they are largely made up of lower middle-classes, as defined by Chile’s socioeconomic classes (see also this document). Bachelet also won by comfortable margins in generally middle-class or socially mixed suburbs like Peñaloén (45.6%), La Florida (41.2%), Macul (41.4%) Maipú (39.6%), Quilicura (43.2%) or Santiago itself (35.4%, Matthei did well with 27.2% because it has some rather affluent areas too). Crucially, outside of Santiago proper, Matthei performed below her regional and national average in these towns; however, MEO did quite well, winning over 18% in Quilicura and Puento Alto (middle-class as well).

In the Valparaíso region, Bachelet won 44.5% against 25% for Matthei and 11.4% for Parisi. Matthei won one municipality, Zapallar (with 40.7%), an affluent tourist resort. She came close in other tourist resort towns which are quite well-off, such as Concón (33.3% vs 34.2%), Viña del Mar (32% vs 35%) and Algarrobo (37.4% vs 39.3%). In the major port city of Quintero, Bachelet took 46.4%. She also won 44.2% in Valparaíso itself.

In general, Bachelet – and Matthei, to a much lesser extent – did best in poorer rural areas; while the other candidates – MEO, Parisi – had their strength largely concentrated in cities, suburbs or large towns.

In regional terms, Matthei’s best region was Araucanía, an agricultural region with the largest indigenous (Mapuche) population (about 25% of the regional population) which is also the poorest region in the country. She won 29.3%, still miles behind Bachelet (49.6%). In the region, Matthei won Pucón, an adventure tourism town on a lake which has the highest HDI in the region (28th in the country), with 38.4% of the vote. She also performed well in remote mountainous area, with a mixed indigenous and white population, which has bred numerous conflicts with the Mapuche over forestry contracts (and the governments have used an anti-terrorism law to crack down on the Mapuche; Matthei supports the anti-terrorism law). The comunas with a Mapuche majority (in 2002), however, showed stronger support for the left.

Outside the traditionally conservative stronghold of Araucanía (it was the strongest region for the yes in 1988, with 54%), however, Matthei did poorly in ‘rural’ regions, while Bachelet often won over 50%. She won 55.7% in Coquimbo, a rural and agricultural region (with some mining), which is a traditional Concertación/PDC stronghold. Further south, Bachelet took 56.6% in Maule and 53% in O’Higgins (the full name is Región del Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins – quite wordy!), fairly poor regions where the Concertación has been strong in the past. Maule is a poor, rural, agricultural (wine in the Central Valley, subsistence farming in the Cordillera de la Costa); O’Higgins is similar, although the El Teniente mine in Machalí boosts the region’s affluence somewhat. Interestingly, the Concertación’s best results in the region usually come from the poorest agricultural villages in the coastal regions and parts of the Central Valley; Bachelet won ‘only’ 47.5% in Machalí, where both MEO and Parisi did well (over 10% of the vote).

Further north, Bachelet’s performance was patchy in the traditionally solidly left-wing mining regions of the Atacama. In the region of Atacama, Bachelet won 51.5%, doing well in mining communities such as Diego de Almagro (66.7%), Tierra Amarilla (59%) or Caldera (54.2%) but also in poorer communities with smaller mines and more agriculture/fishing. However, in Antofagasta, a major mining centre and old left-wing (miners) stronghold – it was the strongest anti-Pinochet region in 1988 (39.3% yes) – Bachelet won only 39.7%. This region is notable because Parisi, for some reason, placed second with 21.7% – Parisi also did well, in third, in neighboring Tarapacá (19.6%) and Atacama (13.3%); in Antofagasta, Parisi did best in the mining centre of Calama (24.3%) but also Antofagasta itself (21.9%). In Tarapacá, another important mining region, Bachelet took 36.6%; Matthei won two comunas here – Colchane and Camiña, two poor isolated Andean communities with a large indigenous majority.

Moving further south, Bachelet won 50.8% in the Biobío region, where her support was spread out fairly equally throughout the region (it was the case in many other regions as well). Biobío is a diversified region, with poorer rural communities (subistence farming and viticulture), a major industrial and mining area around the Gran Concepción and forestry. The industrial Gran Concepción has usually been a Concertación stronghold, and Bachelet did fairly well; but Parisihad some strong results in places like Talcahuano (23.4%) and Coronel (17.3%), two major industrial centres.

Bachelet also broke 50% in Los Ríos (53.5%), Los Lagos (53.3%), Aysén (51.7%) and Magallanes (50.9%). Except for the latter, which is a distinct regional subculture in itself – and one of Chile’s wealthiest regions outside of Santiago – these regions are poor, either rural or rugged and in many cases a lot of the communities are hard to access, especially in the winter months. Amusingly, Matthei won the comuna of Antártica, a geographically massive but demographically tiny comuna (46 votes cast) which covers Chilean claims in Antarctica, with the votes cast at Villa Las Esmeraldas, a permanent settlement populated largely by a mix of military, civilian defense/civil aviation personnel and rotations of scientists/academics. The military presence there, as well as in the Tierra del Fuego municipality of Cabo de Hornos (Puerto Williams) likely explains why they’re conservative strongholds. Matthei won 19 votes in Antarctica, or 42.2%; Bachelet placed fourth with only 5 votes and 11%. In Cabo de Hornos, Bachelet won 235 votes to 205 over Matthei.

Congressional results


Composition, by coalition, of the Cámara de Diputados (2014-2018)

The Nueva Mayoría made gains in both houses of Congress. In the Chamber of Deputies, it gained 10 seats from 2009, while the right lost 9 seats. Overall, the Nueva Mayoría will hold 56.7% of the seats, its largest majority in the Chamber since the 1997-2001 congressional term. In the Senate, where the larger sizes of the constituencies make it even more structurally conservative and resistant to change, the Nueva Mayoría scored a net gain of one seat, which will give them 21 out of 38 seats – or 55.3%.

The Nueva Mayoría ‘doubled’ (that is, won both seats in a district; often referred to in Chile as a doblaje) the right in 10 out of 60 districts, while the right doubled in only one district. In the Senate, the Nueva Mayoría ‘doubled’ the right in two out of 10 constituencies.

Much attention was paid to the congressional elections, which were often more interesting than the headline presidential contest. Fulfilling Bachelet’s ambitious reformist agenda will require large majorities in Congress. Indeed, one of the more criticized aspects of the 1980 constitutions is that some issues, require a larger majority than the regular 50%+1 majority. This is not only the case for constitutional changes, but also on issues such as education, the electoral system, local and regional government, mining or the armed forces. Unfortunately for the Nueva Mayoría, they fell short of a four-sevenths and three-fifths majority which would have allowed them to pass major reforms, including some constitutional reforms, without requiring support from independents and the right.

Passing a tax reform will be a cakewalk for Bachelet, given that taxation (and other issues, such as marriage) only require a traditional 50+1 majority, which would be easily attainable for the government unless there are internal divisions within the majority (for example, PDC opposition to liberalizing abortion laws). However, modifying the existing law on education (the Ley General de Educación) would require a ley orgánica constitucional (organic constitutional law) which need four-sevenths in both houses (69 deputies and 22 senators). Changing the current law on elections would also require such a majority.

Composition, by coalition, of the Senado (2014-2018)

Composition, by coalition, of the Senado (2014-2018)

Amending certain parts of the constitution requires a three-fifths majority (72 deputies, 23 senators). Given that the constitution currently freezes the number of seats in the Chamber to 120 (but the Senate’s size is no longer fixed) and that most proposals to reform the binomial system would increase the number of seats in the Chamber, most agree that changing the electoral system would, in practice, require a three-fifths rather than four-sevenths majority. However, certain chapters of the constitution – including Chapter I (institutional bases and founding principles), Chapter III (constitutional rights and duties), Chapter XI (armed forces) or Chapter XV (constitutional reform) – require an even larger super-majority of two-thirds in both houses (80 deputies, 26 senators). The constitution excludes any reform through the means of a constituent assembly, meaning that constitutional reforms may only be done within the limits set by the constitution itself.

Bachelet’s promise to adopt a new constitution is extremely vague, except that it sees Congress as the one with constituent power. Seemingly, the Nueva Mayoría is still considering its options and was waiting to see how the new Congress would be made up.

Today, a constitutional reform requiring a two-thirds majority will need to have support from at least part of the right. There is, however, a potential escape hatch for the government if it is committed to constitutional reform and it lacks congressional support to do so: in cases of disagreement between the President and both houses of Congress, the President may call a plebiscite on the text which Congress approved or insisted upon but which the President vetoed. This is the only matter on which the President may call a plebiscite, according to the constitution. The Constitutional Tribunal is charged with ruling on the constitutionality of plebiscites if called upon by either house of Congress.

Constitutional reform will certainly prove to be a daunting task for the new government: despite its commitment to a new constitution, it will find it tough to find a congressional super-majority to work with it on the issue and it will likely need to find a constitutional/legal way of writing a new constitution. The judiciary may involve itself in the process: the right may very well appeal any government decision with regards to changing the constitution to the Constitutional Tribunal or the Comptroller General of the Republic. In an interview, a constitutional lawyer in Bachelet’s constitutional team did not rule out recourse to the ‘original constituent power’ (the people) if their reformist/institutional solution fails. He argues that a “constituent Congress, a constituent assembly and a constituent referendum are all viable mechanisms”.

Composition, by party, of the Cámara de Diputados (2014-2018)

Composition, by party, of the Cámara de Diputados (2014-2018)

Within the Nueva Mayoría, the main winners were the Communists and Socialists. The Communists doubled their representation in the Chamber of Deputies, electing six of their nine candidates, including their three incumbent members. The Communists have been favourably inclined towards participating in broader coalitions with a left-leaning tint as a means of winning power/increasing their influence since the days of the Popular Front with Pedro Aguirre Cerda. They have certainly been far keener to work with the centrist/centre-left Concertación parties than their erstwhile colleagues in the extra-parliamentary left, be they the Humanists or some social movements. After having played it alone until 2009 and paying the price for it because of Pinochet’s binomial system, the Communists have made their peace with the idea of working with the Concertación parties and they have been reaping the rewards of that strategy since 2009. With 6 deputies, the Communists will play an even more important role within the coalition and will be pressuring Bachelet’s government to fulfill its platform promises. The Socialists increased or maintained their caucuses in both houses of Congress.

Although the PDC increased its caucus in the Chamber of Deputies from 19 to 22, the results were pretty sour for the Christian Democrats. Already left badly weakened by Claudio Orrego’s humiliating third place finish behind the independent Andrés Velasco in the primaries, and rattled by the ‘leftization’ of the coalition with the integration of an ever-stronger Communist Party; the PDC can barely hide its dismay, bewilderment or faint annoyance at the results. As I’ll explain below, the PDC lost one of their leading senators and the way in which some of the progressives in the Nueva Mayoría have been treating the PDC has annoyed and disturbed the PDC leadership, which is already not overly enthusiastic about Bachelet and her campaign team.

Finally, the old Concertación had historically been dominated by a PDC-PS axis – with the moderate PS leadership being close allies of the PDC in the power politics in the old Concertación (see the PS leadership’s endorsement of Frei in the 2009 primaries, which led MEO to leave the party), against a ‘progressive bloc’ of the PPD, PRSD and now the Communists. In the 2012 municipal elections and this year’s CORES election, the Concertación/Nueva Mayoría actually ran two lists: one made up of the PDC-PS axis, the other made up of the three progressive parties. However, the results of the congressional election, with the defeat of ‘pro-axis’ PS incumbents and their replacement by ‘progressive’ Socialists, has led many to declare the death of the PDC-PS axis.

On the right, the main loser was the UDI, which lost 9 seats in the lower house. Although the UDI remains both the largest party in Congress and the largest party in the Alliance, it came out badly scalped from the election while the RN escaped relatively unharmed. Furthermore, the UDI’s main leaders – who were either defeated or did not run because they were cabinet ministers (Joaquín Lavín) – now find themselves outside of Congress, while the RN’s up-and-coming figures are in Congress. With Matthei’s near-certain defeat, the RN appears to be on good footing to reclaim leadership of the right and perhaps lead the right on a more liberal course than than UDI’s traditionalist conservatism.

The Nueva Mayoría’s strategy seems to include a bid to ally with social movements to pressure the right into not blocking reforms, although this will likely be tough to do in practice given the natural hostility of social movements towards risks of being coopted by major parties or their hostility towards the government in general. PPD Senator Ricardo Lagos Weber also talked of exploiting the latent divisions within the right, by attracting centrist and liberal right-wingers from the RN.

Senators elected in 2013, by party

Senators elected in 2013, by party

Overall, the Alliance’s candidates won 36.2% of the vote, over 10 points better than Matthei did in the presidential race. Meanwhile, the Nueva Mayoría’s 47.7% in the congressional elections is less than 1% above Bachelet’s result in the presidential election. Those ‘third party’ presidential candidates like MEO who also stood candidates for Congress did much better than their congressional candidates, as is almost always the case. MEO’s coalition won 5.4% of the vote and won only one seat, which went to the small Liberal Party’s leader. Marcel Claude’s Humanist Party won 3.4%, not a bad result. The Nueva Constitución para Chile alliance, made up of Roxana Miranda’s Equality Party and Sfeir’s greens won only 2.8%. The PRI, which stood only 26 candidates and had two incumbents running, did very poorly with only 1.2%.

One of the most discussed outcomes of the congressional elections were the victories of four leaders of the student movement. The movement’s most famous icon (and something of an idol for the left and student movements elsewhere in the Americas and the world), Camila Vallejo (PCCh/JJCC), ran in district 26 (La Florida). Vallejo, who is 25, was the president of the FECh between November 2010 and November 2011, until she was narrowly defeated by Gabriel Boric in the student union elections in November 2011. She was handily elected with 43.77% of the votes on her name, against 24.15% for incumbent UDI deputy Gustavo Hasbún. In district 19 (Recoleta), Karol Cariola, the secretary-general of the Communist Youths (JJCC) and a close friend of Vallejo, won 38.47% of the vote, placing first with a comfortable lead over UDI incumbent Claudia Nogueira (24.84%).

In district 22 (Santiago), the Nueva Mayoría ran no candidates but backed Giorgio Jackson, the president of Student Federation of the Catholic University (FEUC) between 2010 and 2011 and a Confech spokesperson during the 2011 student protests, who ran as an independent (or actually backed by his unregistered party, Revolución Democrática). Jackson did not endorse any candidate in the first round, which annoyed the PS, but as expected he gave his support to Bachelet in the second round. With no opposition from the Nueva Mayoría, despite earlier talks that the PS and PDC were looking to run candidates against him, Jackson won very easily with 48.17% of the vote. On the right, an interesting race saw Felipe Kast, a former Minister of Planning (2010-2011) and leader of a new liberal movement (Evolución Política), defeat incumbent UDI deputy Mónica Zalaquett, the sister of the former UDI mayor of Santiago Pablo Zalaquett. Kast won 19.54% against 18.6% for Zalaquett, narrowly taking the second seat.

PCCh deputies-elect Karol Cariola and Camila Vallejo (source: The Clinic)

Vallejo and Cariola, who will certainly become the Communist Party’s two most emblematic deputies in the next Congress, represent a faction of the student movement which has accepted integration into the established political system and the old coalitions. By no means, however, is that attitude shared by most of their colleagues in the student movement: by and large, the student movement remains skeptical of the desirability to work within the institutions and the system to achieve change and even fewer of them are amenable to working with the old Concertación parties which they often criticized as much as the right. Most student leaders, including outgoing FECh president Andrés Fielbaum and his successor Melissa Supúlveda (an anarchist and libertarian socialist), have been critical of Bachelet’s program on education. A few days before the election, Supúlveda said that she wouldn’t vote for either Vallejo or Jackson, became “the possibilities of transformation are not in Congress”; she backed no presidential candidate (although some of her supporters backed Marcel Claude) and said that she would not vote altogether. This view is widely shared by many in the movement, some of whom even consider Vallejo to be a ‘traitor’ for integrating the political system (although that’s always been the Communists’ strategy) and many of whom who do not trust Bachelet and the major parties. 

Therefore, Vallejo and Cariola’s victories owe more to their personal and partisan strategies (that is, an alliance with the other parties in the Nueva Mayoría) than to any wave of support in their favour from the student movement. This is not to deny that they’re both popular star politicians who are the new public faces of the Communist Party or that their election owed a lot to their work on the ground (Cariola was victorious in one of the few congressional open primaries); but ultimately their victory was rendered possible by their alliance with the Nueva Mayoría and Bachelet rather than the result of student mobilization.

In this CNN Chile interview with Vallejo (in Spanish), she defends her party’s strategy and her own role therein and attempts to reconcile her participation in the student movement with her participation in the congressional majority of the new government. Expressing the traditional attitude of the Communist Party (indeed, she refers to the PCCh’s behaviour under Allende and Aguirre Cerda), Vallejo says that student demands can be addressed from within the system, but she also notes that they will have ‘a foot in Congress, a foot in the streets’ – to transform the institution and fulfill the demands of the movement.

She kind of avoided giving a strong answer on the question of how she would deal with the inevitable compromises and horse-trading which is central to law-making in Chile (she wants to bring in social movements in the process, notably on education reform). Vallejo, Cariola and other student leaders in Congress are placed in a delicate position, that of dealing with compromise, watered-down legislation and unfulfilled grandiose election promises. Will they become part of “the system” – turning into the kind of acclimated parliamentarians which other student leaders revile – or will they be able to stick to their ideals, even if it is at the cost of breaking with the coalition to which they owe their victories?

One of those who did not trust the major parties was Gabriel Boric, the president of the FECh (2011-2012) and leader of the Izquierda Autónoma movement (a Marxist/Gramscian party which argues in favour of autonomy from established left-leaning parties), who ran in district 6o (Magallanes/Punta Arenas) – facing full slates of candidates from both the Nueva Mayoría and the Alliance. Boric, who defeated Vallejo in the FECh elections in 2011 largely by criticizing her ties to the national Communist Party, did not endorse Bachelet in either the first round or in the second round, although he says that he’s open to dialogue. Boric won 26.2%, placing first of all candidates and second behind the Nueva Mayoría’s slate (32.07%) but ahead of the Alliance’s slate (22.24%). Izquierda Autónoma candidates in two other districts won 6.6% and 10.8% respectively.

In district 21 (Providencia), Maya Fernández (PS), the granddaughter of Salvador Allende (her mother was Beatriz Allende, one of Allende’s three daughters, who committed suicide in Cuba in 1977), won the most votes with 31.31% against 28.55% for incumbent deputy Marcela Sabat (RN), the daughter of the RN mayor of Ñuñoa. However, another political offspring, José Labbé (UDI), the son of the controversial former pinochetista mayor of Providencia Cristián Labbé lost, winning 13.6%.

In district 1 (Arica), Vlado Mirosevic, the leader of the Liberal Party, was able to win a seat. He won 21.25%, which when combined with the 3.17% for the other candidate on MEO’s coalition’s list (24.4%) was barely more than the votes cast for the Alliance’s candidates (24%). The incumbent PPD deputy lost reelection narrowly to the other Nueva Mayoría, former regional intendant Luis Rocafull (PS) – 21.6% to 22.4%.

In district 6 (Vallenar, Atacama region), former education minister Yasna Provoste (PDC), famous for having been impeached by Congress during Bachelet’s presidency, made her return to politics, winning 43.86% of the vote. Along with the 13.28% for three-term deputy Alberto Robles (PRSD), this allowed the Nueva Mayoría to ‘double’ the Alliance (20.6%) and MEO’s coalition (22.2%). Again, the binomial system was at work here – MEO’s candidate, former deputy Jaime Mulet (ex-PDC, ex-PRI) actually won 19.34%, more than Robles but the Nueva Mayoría coalition obtained more than twice the votes cast for him and his list colleague. The Nueva Mayoría also easily ‘doubled’ in the other district of Atacama region (district 5).

In district 8 (Coquimbo), the Nueva Mayoría ‘doubled’ – with 38.51% for incumbent PDC deputy Matías Walker, the brother of two PDC senators (one of whom is the president of the party) and 13.36% for Daniel Núñez (PCCh). Núñez actually placed fourth of all candidates, being outpolled by the UDI candidate (19.1%) and incumbent PRI deputy Pedro Velásquez (16.3%). Velásquez, the former second vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies, had attracted media interest when he was elected to that office in April 2013 with the right’s support, despite the fact that he owed over 200 million pesos to the municipality of Coquimbo, which he governed before being suspended in 2006 and later sentenced for tax fraud.

Dynastic politics and sons-of are important in Chilean politics, as you might have noticed by now. In district 20 (Maipú), Joaquín Lavín León (UDI), the son of Joaquín Lavín was elected, placing second with 23.6%. Ignacia Golborne, the daughter of Laurence Golborne, was defeated in district 28 (San Miguel), winning only 13.7%. The seats went to the RN incumbent and Guillermo Teillier, the leader of the Communist Party.

We got another example of the horrors of the binominal system this year in district 30 (San Bernardo). Marisela Santibáñez (PRO), a former actress and TV host, won the most votes of all candidates – 26.75% – but failed to get elected because the total votes for the PRO (29%) were smaller than that of the Nueva Mayoría (34.5%) and the right (30.5%).

Alejandra Sepúlveda, a three-term incumbent (ex-PDC, ex-PRI) was reelected as an independent in district 34 (San Fernando), winning 41.9% against 26.5% for the UDI incumbent.

In district 59 (Aysén), Iván Fuentes (ind. PDC), a fisherman and leader of the 2012 protests in the region was elected with 25.4% of the votes on his name. René Alinco (PRI), a two-term incumbent, lost, placing fifth with 8%.

The senatorial contests in metro Santiago’s two constituencies were both closely contested with big name candidates on both sides; and their outcomes fairly significant. In constituency 7 (Santiago West), incumbent PPD senator Guido Girardi was reelected easily with 30.3% of the vote. Girardi, who has been in Congress since 1990 and in the Senate since 2006, is a leading figure of the ‘progressive bloc’ within the old Concertación (for example, he is a supporter of the Marca Tu Voto campaign, alongside the likes of Camila Vallejo), but he’s also a bit of a tainted figure because of his involvement in a number of corruption scandals (fake bills, using congressional funds for his electoral campaign, pushing and bribing a minor to offer false testimony in a pedophilia case involving UDI congressmen etc…). On the right, Andrés Allamand (RN), unsuccessful presidential contender and former Minister of Defense, won the second seat with 20.2% against 17.9% for Pablo Zalaquett (UDI), the former mayor of La Florida (2000-2008) and Santiago (2008-2012, defeated in 2012). Alberto Undurraga, the former PDC mayor of Maipú, placed third with 18.7%.

Even more interesting was constituency 8 (Santiago East). On the right, former cabinet minister and disgraced presidential candidate Laurence Golborne, once the rising star of the right, was defeated, winning 22.7% against 24.4% for Manuel José Ossandón (RN), the former mayor Puente Alto and a prominent leader of the RN’s liberal (and anti-UDI) wing. Within the Nueva Mayoría, the most painful result for the PDC on election night was certainly the shocking loss of Soledad Alvear, an incumbent senator and former justice and foreign minister. Alvear, one of the PDC’s leading figures – her husband is a former congressman and a member of the PDC’s national council, won 20.3%, narrowly losing to Carlos Montes (PS), a six-term deputy. The defeat is made all the more painful because Carlos Montes is a leading figure of the PS’ progressive wing and an opponent of the PDC-PS ‘axis’ which has historically carried the day in the Concertación. For example, Vallejo welcomed Montes’ victory as a sign of the gains made by leftists within the coalition at the expense of the more conservative sectors. Alvear’s husband came out saying that there had been ‘favoritism’ by Bachelet for Montes, which prompted an unceremonious rebuke from Montes himself and further aggravated tensions within the PDC and with the PDC’s more leftist coalition partners. The Bachelet campaign and the PS leadership (PS leader Osvaldo Andrade is a supporter of the axis) quickly intervened to temper some of the PDC-critical comments made by some on the left.

This result especially has heightened the malaise within the PDC over its place in the Nueva Mayoría, which is fairly perceived to be as more left-leaning than the old Concertación was (some in the PDC are also angry at the Bachelet campaign for not helping them out more). The PDC fears that it has lost its predominance of the coalition, and the rise of the Communists as a strong congressional force and a potential cabinet partner hasn’t helped things out. It is no secret that relations between the PDC and PCCh aren’t rosy, although both parties try to downplay it. Communists such Vallejo publicly lament the open opposition of some PDC conservatives to platform promises such as abortion and gay marriage. The PDC is desperately figuring out what its voice should be in the future government. As Vallejo pointed out, there is also diversity (= divisions?) within the PDC, with some major leaders such as Jorge Pizarro, the president of the Senate, being far more pro-Bachelet/pro-Nueva Mayoría than Alvear and others.

The PDC isn’t close to shutting the door on its longtime allies, because there remains little chance and viable hopes for a viable centrist/Christian Democratic coalition equidistant between a progressive PS-PPD-PCCh-PRSD alliance and an RN-UDI alliance, and because the PDC is still probably unwilling to join forces with the RN if the RN was to abandon the UDI. However, if the binomial system is scrapped in favour of a real PR system which would allow for a multi-coalition party system, then there is a stronger chance that the PDC could go alone, perhaps alongside some of the more liberal and centrist RN members, perhaps with Piñera.

In constituency 12 (Biobío coastal), the defeat of incumbent senator (and former President of the Senate) Camilo Escalona (PS) came as more bad news for the PDC, which had had a good relation with him. Escalona, who had been elected senator in the region of Los Lagos in 2005, refused to run in the PS primaries in Los Lagos, leading the PDC to offer him a spot in Biobío’s coastal districts, which he had previously represented in the Chamber. However, he went up against incumbent senator Alejandro Navarro (MAS, ex-PS) and the former regional intendant and former UDI mayor of Concepción Jacqueline van Rysselberghe. Escalona won only 17.8%, against 33.9% for Navarro and 27.8% for van Rysselberghe (who expressed regret at Escalona’s defeat). Her brother, Enrique, was elected deputy in district 44. In constituency 13 (Biobío cordillera), another longtime politician, two-term senator Hosaín Sabag (PDC, also deputy in 1973 and 1990-1998) was defeated by PPD deputy Felipe Harboe, 16.5% to 37.8%. His son, however, was elected deputy in district 42.

In constituency 16 (Los Ríos), Alfonso de Urresti, an incumbent PS deputy and regionalist progressive, was handily elected with 46.9%. The former spokesperson of the government, Ena von Baer (UDI), placed second with 22.8%. In constituency 17 (Los Lagos), the former PS mayor of Puerto Montt, Rabindranath Quinteros, another regionalist progressive, was elected with a similar result -47.5%. On the right, incumbent UDI deputy Iván Moreira (who represented Greater Santiago) – a controversial pinochetista – was elected ahead of RN senator Carlos Kuschel, 19.1% to 14.9%.

In constituency 19 (Magallanes), independent senator Carlos Bianchi – a ‘true’ independent who has never been member of a political party – won reelection with 27.4%, placing ahead of the combined sum of the Alliance’s slate (23.7%), led by incumbent deputy Miodrag Marinovic (19.6%). However, it was two-term deputy Carolina Goic (PDC) who won the most votes, with 38.2% – defeating incumbent PS senator Pedro Muñoz, who won only 9%. Bianchi is seen as a decisive vote in the Senate on those matters where the Nueva Mayoría will need a four-sevenths majority (22 votes, they have 21), and he has a reputation as a swingy independent vote.

The second round of the presidential election, on December 15, holds no suspense: Bachelet will win easily and turnout will be low. The only thing which will be worth following in the election results is the size of Bachelet’s margin, and any indicators as to the behaviour of those who voted for neither her or Matthei in the first round.

Thank you for reading all or parts of this substantial and lengthy guide to Chilean politics.

Next (with much shorter posts!): Honduras, Nepal and Canadian federal by-elections. In whatever order.



Posted on November 30, 2013, in Chile. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I would just like to further endorse the 2012 Chilean film No. Easily one of my favourite films of all time.

  2. Pres. Alessandri “believed in free enterprise and markets and opposed the idea of a ‘paternalist state'” – and this was “a classical CONSERVATIVE solution”??? Was that written seriously or with silent irony?

  1. Pingback: Chile 2013 | World Elections

  2. Pingback: 2013′s Top 10 | World Elections

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