Update on Chilean Politics
After the Cabinet reshuffle of September 29, President Lagos has successfully regained control of the political agenda. By having replaced his two popular ministers (and presidential hopefuls),
Because most people expected Lagos to make his last major cabinet change after the October 31st municipal election, the sudden announcement on September 29th, made by Lagos himself, that all cabinet members had been asked to resign for a cabinet reshuffle surprised friends and foes alike. Three ministers were replaced. Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear was replaced by former Deputy Ignacio Walker, a member of Alvear’s PDC. Defense Minister Michelle Bachelet was replaced by Housing Minister Jaime Ravinet, also a PDC. Sonia Tschorne, a socialist (like Bachelet) was appointed in Housing. Yasna Provoste replaced her fellow PDC militant Andrés Palma as Minister of Planning, in a move widely understood as an effort to keep a sufficiently large number of women in the cabinet.
The departure of the two most popular ministers was correctly interpreted partially as a response to criticisms made by the opposition against Bachelet and Alvear for their active role in the municipal campaign. Because of their popularity, the two former ministers were being constantly asked to appear at campaign rallies, where enthusiastic supporters wasted no time in proclaiming them as presidential candidates. Because the conservative opposition complained against that ‘electoral intervention’ by the government and also because Lagos understandably wanted to avoid becoming an early lame duck president—overshadowed by his popular ministers—the cabinet change was done more than a month earlier than what most expected.
In addition to putting an end to speculations about whom else might
leave the cabinet—those who stay will do so until the end of
The cabinet reform also caught the conservative opposition by surprise.
After having spent weeks criticizing Alvear and Bachelet for campaigning on
behalf of Concertación candidates, RN and UDI leaders rushed to criticize the
government for the cabinet change. Even prudent Joaquín Lavín joined in the
Alvear and Bachelet have entered the municipal campaign with full force. They have quickly overshadowed the presence of Eduardo Frei, the former president who is also seeking the Concertación presidential nomination for the 2005 election. Yet, they have put a good part of their own political capital at risk. If the Concertación fails to get more votes than what the polls are predicting it will get (around 47-49%), they will end up on the losing end. However, if the Concertación gets more than 50% of the vote, Alvear and Bachelet will be seen as the decisive winning factor in this hard fought electoral contest. Only at that point will the two women begin to abandon their mutual collaboration strategy that has proved to be very effective since they first rose in public opinion polls and will adopt a more confrontational approach against each other.
Thus, regardless of the results on October 29th,
Because a Concertación victory will both weaken the right and strengthen Alvear and Bachelet, Lavín knows that much of his own chances of winning the 2005 presidential election depend on a good showing by the Alianza. For that reason, in the remaining weeks, the already heated campaign should get even hotter and even nasty by traditional Chilean rather civil standards. Yet, women’s electoral strength will depend on their ability to avoid mud sliding and to convince Concertación adherents that their best chance for a 4th consecutive term is to have a woman candidate.
Precisely because legislators are less effective when the country falls into campaign mood, the announcement that the government, the Concertación and the Alianza had reached a deal in the Senate on most pending issues of the debate over constitutional reforms came as a pleasant surprise. Alianza and Concertación senators agreed to eliminate designated and lifetime senators in March 2006 (when the current designated senators’ period expire), to give the president to remove the commanders in chief of the armed forces at his/her discretion, and to take out of the constitution all references to the electoral rules (those will be fully spelled out only in the appropriate electoral law). A number of other important, yet less controversial issues, will also be a part of the package. Among those, there is a very popular measure to eliminate a one-year residency requirement for children of Chileans living abroad before they can opt for Chilean nationality and a meaningful reform to the composition of the Constitutional Tribunal.
Two important items remain on the table and will be taken up in the coming days or weeks. First, the government will seek to reform the so-called binominal law and increase the number of elected senators from 38 to 50. Although the Alianza might agree to that increase, it will be highly unlikely that they will agree to change the binomial electoral system. Secondly, and perhaps most important in the short term, there is not an agreement yet on the length of the presidential term. Although the Concertación wants to reduce it to 4 years (making legislative and presidential elections always concurrent), some within the Alianza want to keep the presidential term at six years, making both elections concurrent every 12 years (next time they would be concurrent will be 2017). The Senate is expected to vote on that decision before the end of October (though it might be much sooner if an agreement is reached).
Although the Lagos administration had threatened with not moving forward with the reforms if conservative parties did not agree to change the electoral system, the opportunity to show the public that the government can still effectively carry out its legislative initiatives despite the electoral climate—together with the political costs that opposing the elimination of designated senators would imply—convinced Lagos to authorize his Interior Minister to close the deal and make the surprising announcement.
Together with the cabinet reshuffle and the agreement on constitutional
reforms, President Lagos has confirmed that his last two years in office are
likely to be his most effective ones. The improving economic situation—well
reflected in high approval ratings for