In Chile, A Second Round

Chileans went to the polls to elect a new a Congress and a successor to Michelle Bachelet who is constitutionally barred from a second successive term. Despite a rocky start early in tenure, Dr. Bachelet finishes strong with an approval rating of over 80%. She is at this point Latin America's most popular leader.

Since emerging from the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990, Chile has been governed by a left-wing alliance of parties - a coalition of Socialists, Radicals and Christian Democrats - called La Concertación. But now after nearly two decades in power that alliance is frayed despite the wildly popular government of Dr. Bachelet. In nominating the 67 year old Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, a former President from 1994 to 2000 and son of a former President, La Concertación seemed to signal that it had run its course.

In stepped a brash young filmmaker with limited political experience, Marco Enríquez-Ominami, known simply by his initials MEO. His father, Miguel Enriquez was a well-known singer who died in 1974 killed in a shoot out with the Chilean military. MEO grew up in Paris and only returned to Chile as a teenage near the end of the Pinochet regime. His platform was rather progressive in what is still one of Latin America's most socially conservative countries. MEO challenged the established candidates on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, issues which are taboo in Chile. It should be noted that La Concertación did not hold a national primary this year to select its candidate, as it had done in the past. That led MEO to resign from the Socialist Party to mount an independent bid, billing himself as a modern alternative to politics as usual in Chile.

The right-wing party Renovación Nacional (RN) nominated Sebastián Piñera Echenique, the loser in 2005 and a billionaire. Piñera, 60 and with a PhD from Harvard in economics, is the face of neo-liberalism a man who made his fortune the old-fashioned way - by buying state assets for pennies on the dollar. In 1970s, he bought a bank which he parlayed into a credit card firm. He now owns one of Chile's largest television networks, a quarter of the airline LAN-Chile and an interest in Colo-Colo, a football club. He campaigned on a law and order platform, promised to grow the economy by 6 percent, create a million new jobs and do to more for the middle classes accusing the Bachelet government of ignoring it.

With 98 percent of the vote counted, Piñera finished with 44 percent of the vote. Denied a first round win outright, he will now face Eduardo Frei who finished second with 30 percent. Enríquez-Ominami finished third with 20 percent, ahead of expectations. A Communist party candidate finished a distant fourth with 5 percent of the vote. The second round will be held January 17th for a five year term that starts in March 2010.

A few other observations. Only 9.2 percent of Chileans aged 18 to 30 registered to vote (voting in Chile is obligatory but only if you register with registration being for life). That number is lowest ever suggesting a deep apathy for a regime where poverty remains endemic. A huge wealth gap between rich and poor remains. Chile has a Gini coefficient of .549 only marginally improved from .571 in 2000. The country also suffers from a chronically underfunded education system which has many voters feeling more must be done to redistribute Chile's copper wealth. And this is despite Dr. Bachelet's immense efforts on behalf of the poor. Her legacy, however, is a remarkable expansion of free government-sponsored child day and early education centers across the country.

Still a World Bank study several years ago showed that the poorest 10 per cent of Chileans benefit from only 1.3 percent of government revenues, while the richest 10 per cent benefit from 40 percent.

On Sunday night, Mr. Enríquez-Ominami told his supporters that he was "just a messenger and spokesman" and that it "would be impossible to endorse your votes." For the Chilean left, the choice is stark:

"One is that it's better to let things get worse before they get better, and clean the house within the coalition parties - even if that means having to live with a conservative government for one or two political terms.

"The other is that it is a very dangerous proposition. Once you let the right-wing in, it's very hard to get them out again, and that its better to transform the coalition from within - something that hasn't really happened over the last 20 years."

Should Sebastián Piñera prevail, it will mark the first time that Chilaan right has prevailed in an election since 1958 when Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez was elected.

Tags: Chile, Eduardo Frei, Latin America, Marco Enríquez Ominami, Sebastián Piñera (all tags)

Comments

7 Comments

Re: In Chile, A Second Round

Good stuff.

The left always divides and shoots itself in the foot. At least here they'll get a second chance.

by vecky 2009-12-13 07:59PM | 0 recs
Re: In Chile, A Second Round

I remember being there during the second round of voting in early 2006. The amount of political paraphernalia around the country was pretty astounding, and I came away with the initial impression that Piñera had the strong support of the people -- until I realized that it was astroturf. It'll be interesting to see if Piñera can get over the hump this time. The 44 percent of the vote he got this year isn't all too different from the 46.5 percent he got in the second round in 2006.

Thanks for the update on the race.

by Jonathan Singer 2009-12-13 09:39PM | 0 recs
Interesting and Unique Country

I was recently in Chile, 30 years after previous visit. (I hardly recognized Santiago due to growth and building. You get the sense of a fundamentally middle class country, even compared with Argentina. )

Political posters were everywhere, which is typical in Latin America. There was a huge volume of high-production value Piñera signs in every part of the country, and the Piñera coattail candidates were inevitably youthful, handsome/gorgeous, and photoshopped with a sparkle in their eyes. This aligns with Jonathon's comment about lots of money for astroturf.

Several things were notable.

(1) The signs didn't emphasize political party initials or slogans, instead using logos, branding images, and generic slogans. Clearly, there was an intention to down-play traditional Conservative vs Socialist vs Christian Democrat labels. This crossed all parties. This isn't typical in LA.

(2) I didn't see anything in the signs to indicate the candidates were aligned with Bachelet or wanted to claim her legacy. It was kind of weird. I'm sure the Chileans knew who was who, but it wasn't part of the street campaign.

(3) Gen-X and post gen-x, i.e people who came of age after 1973, were apolitical, almost anti-political. This was in strong contrast to the political awareness of 30 years ago. Back then, even private, as it had to be, Chileans were extremely aware and very political.

by MetaData 2009-12-14 04:53AM | 0 recs
Re: Interesting and Unique Country

My comment about middle class may seem to contradict Carlos's comment about wealth disparity. The Gini coefficient measures income inequality, not average income. Two of the relatively poorer countries: Nicaragua ($2.7k per capita) has the best GINI coefficient at 43, while Bolivia ( $4.4k has the worst at 60.

See this wikipedia chart for comparisons. Chile, Mexico, Argentina are all above $14k in per capita income. Uruguay, Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica and Brazil are above $10k. These countries rank around middle of the pack compared with some Eastern European countries

To compare GINI coefficients for the three wealthiest countires by per capita: Mexico 46, Argentina 51, Chile 55. So my impressions comparing Chile to Argentina didn't correspond to the numbers. But, there is a "tidier feel" about Chile: the streets and sidewalks are better maintained, fewer empty storefronts.

This still doesn't really answer the question: What does "middle class" mean? But you can look through the chart for other indexes of development.

by MetaData 2009-12-14 05:56AM | 0 recs
Re: Interesting and Unique Country

Chile is wealthy by LATAM standards but it is plagued by an uneven  distribution of  wealth.

by Charles Lemos 2009-12-14 06:22AM | 0 recs
Re: Interesting and Unique Country

Now? Or a few weeks ago?

I mostly saw Frei alone, or Frei with the local senate candidate. I don't recall ever seeing Bachelet on a poster, but I was only in the South, Santiago and some central-coast areas.

by MetaData 2009-12-14 05:59AM | 0 recs
Re: Interesting and Unique Country

All indications are that this is going to be a very expensive race. The last two Presidents, Bachelet and Lagos, hailed from the Socialist Party but Frei is a classic Christian Democrat.

I haven't seen the legislative results as yet but Chile has an unusual electoral system with multi-member districts (two per district) following a D'Hondt open-list PR format.

Here's how D'Hondt electoral systems work:

In the d'Hondt method, the seats are awarded one at a time, using a revised set of figures each time. The following method is used:

Take the highest number of votes in the present table and award a seat to that party.

Calculate the new number of votes the party just awarded a seat has: (New number) = (Actual number of votes cast) / (Number of seats awarded to this party so far plus one).

Return to the start using the new number of votes for that party.

Repeat until all seats have been awarded.

by Charles Lemos 2009-12-14 06:44AM | 0 recs

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