Chile Immediately After the May 30, 1999 Primaries

As expected, socialist Ricardo Lagos won the Concertación presidential primaries and became the Concertación presidential candidate for the December 1999 elections. Lagos hopes to become the third consecutive Concertación candidate to win a presidential election.

In many regards, the upcoming election will be different than the 1989 election when Patricio Aylwin became president or the 1993 when Eduardo Frei obtained the highest vote of any presidential candidate in the second half of the century in Chile.

For one, contrary to Aylwin and Frei, Lagos is not a member of the Christian Democratic Party. He belongs to the Socialist-PPD parties. The last socialist president in Chile was Salvador Allende (1970-73), and Lagos will need to work hard to present himself as the third consecutive Concertación president rather than the second socialist president.

The campaign leading up to the May 30 Concertación primaries brought renewed tension between Socialists and Christian Democrats. Opposing views on how to deal with the human right violations of the dictatorship and more recent disagreements caused by the arrest of General Pinochet in London resurfaced during the campaign for the Concertación presidential nomination. Mutual accusations were made in the days leading up to May 30 and were reflected in the last televised debate where Christian Democratic Senator Andrés Zaldívar hinted that Lagos could lead to political polarization in the country.

The May 30 primaries were the first open primaries held in Chile ever by any political coalition to select a candidate for national office. All registered voters were allowed to participate in the primaries except those officially registered as militants of the non-Concertación political parties.

Out of a total of more than 7.8 million eligible voters, 1.5 million voters turned out to vote in the non-binding, non-mandatory election organized and financed by the Concertación parties. Prior estimations indicated that between 800,000 and 2 million voters would participate in the primaries. A low turnout was expected to favor Zaldívar while a higher turnout was widely seen as increasing Lagos's chances of winning.

In the end, poll predictions were accurate. Lagos obtained more than 71% of the votersí preferences to Zaldívarís 28.8%. The larger-than-expected victory prompted Senator Zaldívar to immediately concede victory and join Ricardo Lagos in the Concertación headquarters as Lagos was unofficially proclaimed the Concertación candidate.

About 19% of eligible voters turned out to vote in the voluntary election. Concertación leaders were pleased with the turnout. Conservative leaders noted that less than 1/3 of those that voted for Frei in 1993 turned out to vote, but the non-compulsory nature of the primaries makes it difficult to compare the two elections. At any rate, conservative parties were interested in offsetting the popular perception that the Concertación is a more democratic coalition than the RN-UDI Alliance for Chile, that nominated its presidential candidate behind closed doors.

President Frei, former president Aylwin and other leading Christian Democratic figures also made public their support for Lagos and the upbeat feeling among Socialist and PPD leaders was reflected in Lagosís speech as he promised to strengthen the Concertación. Immediately after the final vote count was announced, Lagos made an acceptance speech and committed himself to seek out the active support of Christian Democratic Party militants in order to consolidate his lead in electoral polls.

The Christian Democratic Party suffered its most traumatic electoral loss since coming to power in 1989. The expected after-shock of the Lagos victory should lead to a renewal within the Christian Democratic Party leadership. The CDP president and his close associates, widely perceived as unfriendly to Lagos and not deeply committed to Concertación unity, were immediately singled out as responsible for the electoral loss.

Within the next weeks, the CDP will choose a new president and will initiate a process of ideological and generational renewal in preparation for the year 2000 municipal elections, the 2001 parliamentary elections and, most importantly, the 2005 presidential elections. Political analysts expected that the more progressive CDP wing is going to take control of the party leadership and will lead the transition from being the leading party of the coalition to taking a backseat role in the Concertación while reorganizing the party for the future.

Joaquín Lavín, the presidential candidate of the conservative RN and UDI parties has continued campaigning and his efforts have shown in recent polls, where he is ranked ahead of Lagos as a trustworthy politician. However, he continues to lag behind Lagos in the polls in intention of vote. He congratulated Lagos on his victory but noted that less than 2 million people participated in the primaries, suggesting that a vast majority of Chileans have not made up their minds towards the December presidential elections.

Arturo Frei, a former CDP senator and a newly convert to the Pinochet camp, has continued his solitaire presidential campaign and after the results were announced made a call to rank-and-file Christian Democrats to defect the Concertación camp and support him for the December elections. Although Arturo Frei is perceived as Pinochet's personal favorite, he is unlikely to pose a serious threat the Lavín on the conservative camp. A sufficiently strong marginal showing by Arturo Frei, however, could take away enough Christian Democratic voters from the Concertación camp and force a run-off election.

Although Lagos is expected to become Chile's next president, by forcing him a run-off election, Lavín will have scored an important electoral victory for the conservative parties. The alternative presidential campaigns of Frei Bolívar on the conservative side and the three leftist presidential candidates (Communist Gladys Marín, Humanist Tomas Hirsch and Ecologist Sara Larraín) could in fact force a run-off election between the two expected top vote-getters, Lagos and Lavín.

President Frei, on his part, is struggling with his approval ratings. The most recent polls place his government at the worst levels since he took office with extraordinarily high levels of support in March of 1994. The electricity crisis caused by the drought, the electrical supply companies' unwillingness to acquire additional energy from non-hydroelectric sources and the limited existing regulatory framework severely hurt President's Frei standing in the polls. Although a new electricity regulatory framework was adopted by Congress in May and heavy recent rainfalls have alleviated the electrical power shortages, President Frei's ratings will likely continue to be below 50% until the end of his term in March 2000.

President Frei gave his annual state of the country address to Congress on May 21. Most Senators and Deputies from conservative political parties abandoned the room in protest for the presence of the Spanish and British ambassadors and for their perceived government's lack of interest in bringing about the return of General Pinochet to Chile. General Pinochet has been under arrest since October 16, 1998 in London and has continuously lost legal appeals to prevent an extradition to Spain trial from taking place. The most recent setback for Pinochet's legal team came on May 27, 1999, when a British Judge ruled out an appeal against Home Secretary Jack Straw's decision to let the extradition trial begin. The trial is scheduled to begin over the summer and conservative political parties are pressuring the Frei administration to find a negotiated political situation that can allow the senator to return to Chile.

President Frei stated in his state of the country address that he wanted General Pinochet to return to Chile to face trial in Chile. He has imposed it as a condition that Pinochet faces some type of trial and he also indicated his decision to send legislation to congress to allow for constitutional plebiscites on matters where the president and the conservative-controlled congress disagree. Conservative parties are unlikely to agree to constitutional plebiscites or to accept that Pinochet faces trial in Chile. They will continue to rely on the military appointees to the senate and use their congressional majority to block major constitutional changes.

Unable to deliver on his commitment to bring Pinochet back and have him stand trial and with his constitutional reforms initiative being regarded as a mere political gesture, President Frei will need to turn to his social agenda during the last months of his presidency. He will continue to push for the justice system reform and will lead the appointment of the first National Prosecutor before the end of his term. His educational reform program has stalemated as the teachers' labor union and most university student federations have rejected it. Recent university student demonstrations and strikes have turned ugly and negotiations between the government and the student federations have not made progress. A university student was killed by police officers during in a student riot in the northern town of Arica on May 19. The government immediately promised to launch an investigation.

The Mapuche land conflict in the South continues to worsen as more illegal seizures of land and intentional forest fires have occurred. The government appointed a cabinet member to lead the negotiation with the Mapuche leaders, but little progress has occurred and the Mapuches continue to attract growing international attention and support.

Frei's ratings in the polls, the student protest, the Mapuche land conflict and increasing levels of unemployment should dominate the political agenda for the following weeks. Active presidential campaign activity should begin some time in August.