Update on Chilean politics
For the record, President Lagos is about to complete his
1000th day in office. Although he has fared much better than his
socialist predecessor Salvador Allende (1970-73),
overthrown in a military coup days before completing his 1000th day,
The scandals that have continued to tarnish the Concertación coalition have made it all but impossible for
the government to focus on its legislative agenda. Although the president
continues to enjoy high approval ratings, he needs to score some important
victories to avoid becoming a lame duck president before the third anniversary
of his 6-year term. Because free trade negotiations with the
Never ending scandals
After the vehicle emission test facilities scandal led to the jailing of prominent Concertación operatives (including a former under secretary of transportation) and to the impeachment of 5 of the 6 Concertación deputies accused, there were new embarrassing revelations. When seeking to clear his name against accusations of knowing about a public work contracts illegal scheme, a former Minister of Public Works acknowledged getting monthly cash bonuses for US$2,500 on top of his low official salary of US$1,800. The funds apparently came from the president’s reserved secret budget. Although subsidizing ministers with funds from the reserved budget was a practice long known since the mid 1950s, the revelations caused a new political earthquake. To be sure, the bonuses were not illegal but the revelations about their existence generated public uproar. When the president of the Central Bank tried to justify them claiming that the official salaries for ministries were ‘miserable’, many reminded him that about 80% of all Chileans make less than the official ministers’ salaries. Although the embarrassment about the envelopes cash payments to ministers has subdued, its political costs remain to be seen.
The initial accusations of corruption in the Public Works
ministry, that generated the unwise remarks by the former minister of public works,
have not gone away. New revelations have implicated other high officials and
there seems to be evidence that some of those funds were re-directed to finance
electoral campaigns. The so-called GATE case involves contracts totaling
between 2 and 5 million dollars given by the Public Works ministry to the GATE
consulting company owned by a former public works undersecretary and
influential socialist militant. By focusing on irregularities at the Public
Works ministry, some newspapers are apparently interested in linking the
corruption scandals to president
Corruption or Traffic of Influence?
The accusations of corruption were joined by allegations of
traffic of influence. A controversial Fishing Law was recently approved by the
legislature amid traffic of influence charged levied primarily against Senate
president Andrés Zaldívar.
The PDC Senator and several relatives had shares on a fishing company that will
benefit with the new legislation and the senator’s brother worked as a
high-ranking executive in the same company. Although Zaldívar
denied any wrongdoing, he sold his shares and abstained on the vote. The senator and his accusers exchanged angry
words in the press and the Senate floor, where the only senator who denounced Zaldívar took advantage of Zaldívar's
impolite response to declare that “when you can’t be accused of corruption,
they call you faggot’. Although the bill cleared the Senate, it highlighted two
concurrent processes. On the one hand, the Concertación
is not operating as an effective coalition (more on this below). On the other,
there is a more inquisitive and investigative press that dares to publish
allegations. To be sure, some of the scandals and outrage of the recent weeks
have more to do with the authorities’ inability to correctly deal with press
revelations. Rather than seeking to produce an effective damage control
strategy, the aggressive and sometimes inappropriate response by those
implicated in the accusations has only worsened the situation. The series of
scandals have led many to ask for a clear separation between business and
politics. Although it is far from clear whether any progress will be made (in
No More Concertación?
After the conflict of interest accusation against Zaldívar was made, PDC leaders rushed to imply that La Moneda was plotting against the Zaldívars
(younger brother Adolfo, also a Senator, is the PDC president). Though La Moneda was more interested in getting the fishing law
through parliament than in worsening relations with the PDC, the accusations
exemplified how little trust and willingness to work together exists within the
government coalition. The PPD has repeatedly accused the PDC of seeking to
destroy it. The PDC has argued that it is simply repositioning itself in its
niche and warned the PPD against any new efforts to become a centrist party.
The PS has wavered between supporting the PDC or the PPD, while the PRSD is in
a total state of disarray. Most recently, PDC president Adolfo Zaldívar declared the Concertación
dead, but he concurrently began meeting with PS leaders to create a new
electoral and political coalition.
Although all parties vow loyalty to the president,
Given the constraints posed by the electoral rules, there will likely be a Concertación ticket in the 2005 legislative elections, even if there is more than one Concertación presidential candidate. But the first test of unity will come in the 2004 Municipal elections, where the parties will be hard-pressed to run together to prevent a sweeping victory by the conservative opposition.
The situation is far from being a too much about nothing affair. As of today, the Concertación does not exist and the president cannot count on a legislative majority. Concertación parties are more interested in destroying each other than on supporting the president or putting together a common platform for 2005. Although most people believe it will happen, very few people would now dare to explain how the relations between Concertación parties will be healed to bring them back to the negotiating table to put together a unified slate of candidates for the 2004 municipal elections and, more importantly, to select a mechanism to choose the 2005 presidential candidate.
When the corruption scandals first broke out, President Lagos sought to distance himself from those implicated. When the scandals led to the outbreak of war within the Concertación, the president insisted on stressing his responsibility to lead over the entire country and his independence over the internal affairs of political parties. But when many Concertación deputies broke ranks with the government and voted against the Fishing Law, there was a rude awakening in La Moneda. If the president only cares about his own popularity, many Concertación legislators will do the same and vote against a bill that is opposed by their constituencies.
For the Fishing Law, the president successfully lined up
most Concertación senators and also reached an
agreement with conservative legislators to secure safe passage. But
Will a cabinet reshuffle suffice?
The question is not if, but when. Many analysts believe that
a cabinet reshuffle should come as early as January. Most agree in that there
will be several new faces when president
The key to any cabinet reshuffle lies in what will happen with powerful Interior Minister
José Miguel Insulza. Many believe
that his disagreements with the president and the political costs he has had to
pay in the past will lead
In addition to settling scores within the Concertación, the president will need to use the cabinet
reshuffle to send a signal to the entire country that a new phase of his
presidency is about to begin. While some advisors have openly talked about
bringing in independents and conservative businessmen into the cabinet,
What is the opposition to do?
The only positive thing about the scandals is that the opposition has been left out of the political debate. And while the UDI-RN coalition, and its presidential candidate Joaquín Lavín, is certainly enjoying the demise of the Concertación, the challenge for the opposition is to play a constructive role and to avoid falling into the narrow role of political and judicial prosecutors.
Although it has escaped public scrutiny, the opposition is
also facing some problems. In addition to the existing conflicts between RN and
UDI, the recent Fishing Law highlighted the tensions between the two different
strategies advocated by UDI leaders.
While UDI president, Deputy Pablo Longueira,
initially lined all UDI deputies against the Fishing Law in the Chamber, UDI
senators were strongly in favor of the legislation. In the end, Longueira had to concede and UDI deputies voted in favor of
the revised law. The underlying conflict resulted from differences over the
true ideological position of the UDI. Longeuira
advocates transforming the UDI into a centrist party, taking over the position
traditionally occupied by the PDC. His opposition to the Fishing Law responded
to electoral promises made by him to poor fishing communities in
Although the conservative opposition is enjoying the corruption scandals, it also understands that the real reason behind the current Concertación internal disputes has to do with the 2005 elections and the need to take control of the political center and to cater to moderate voters. Many conservatives believe that because of the Concertación crisis, the 2005 elections will inevitably result in a conservative victory. They are tempted to adopt more rightist positions and to abandon some of the centrist views adopted by Lavín in the 1999 presidential election. Others argue that the Concertación will resurrect and make a powerful bid to recapture the center and if the Alianza moves to the right, the winner in 2005 will not be Joaquín Lavín.
What comes next?
When the cabinet
change is announced, the real question will be whether the new team conveys the
message of a change in attitude in the