Update on Chilean Politics. October 1999.

Patricio Navia

The race for the presidential elections in Chile has taken an unexpected turn in recent weeks. After socialist Ricardo Lagos secured the presidential nomination of the ruling Concertación alliance with an impressive victory over Christian Democratic opponent Andrés Zaldívar, many analysts rushed to call the December 12 elections a done deal. Concertación candidates won in 1989 and 1993, and although the 1999 presidential candidate of the conglomerate is a Socialist not a Christian Democrat, conventional wisdom indicated that the Concertación should handily clinch a third consecutive victory.

However, three unrelated events have made the outcome of the upcoming elections uncertain. The over-confidence on the part of Lagos' campaign after the primaries, the economic crisis that has lasted longer than initially forecast, and the well-organized and well-funded campaign by conservative candidate Joaquín Lavín have combined to make this the most contested electoral race in Chile since the 1988 plebiscite. Lagos is still favorite to be the man elected to succeed president Eduardo Frei, but he might need a run-off election and, even in case of a first round victory, his leverage will be significantly limited by the strong showing of the conservative candidate.

After the May 30 victory in the primaries, Lagos had to work hard to heel wounds between the parties that make up the Concertación. The campaign for the nomination distanced Christian Democrats and Socialists; the change in the party leadership of the Concertación, from the Christian Democrats to the Socialists, created additional tensions within the alliance. Putting together local and provincial campaign committees proved a difficult mission to accomplish. The Lagos camp spent valuable time focusing on strengthening the Concertación rather than on consolidating the momentum he gained in the polls after May 30. By late July, the Lagos campaign was still brokering agreements between Socialists and Christian Democrats. The Concertación's adoption of an inward unity-consolidating strategy after the primaries might have been necessary and might prove crucial as election-day approaches, but valuable time was wasted by not launching a national electoral campaign early in June. The high public profile received after the 78% primary vote was not properly capitalized by Lagos, who abandoned the campaign trail in June and July.

The economic crisis caused by the Asian Flu heavily hit Chile. The increase in interest rates adopted by the Central Bank to keep inflation under control, the slow and late reaction of the Frei government to reduce unemployment and the adoption questionable measures adopted to stimulate economic activity sent the country into a worse than expected crisis in 1999. Growth projections were repeatedly scaled back throughout the year, with negative numbers reported for the first and second semesters. In the absence of a last minute recovery, the country's economy could suffer its first annual recession since 1983.

Because Lagos is the official Concertación candidate, the blame usually placed on the incumbent government for the economic recession and rising unemployment has also spilled over his campaign. With a 11.5% unemployment rate in August '99 (the highest in 15 years), Lagos faced the almost inevitable temptation of breaking with the Frei government and denounce Frei's handling of the crisis. It is an almost inevitable move for official candidates to distance themselves from the incumbent government over economic policies in time of crisis. Yet in the case of Lagos, this might not have been a safe move. Because of the difficulties encountered to restore Socialist-Christian Democratic relations within the Concertación, Lagos had to be extremely careful not to alienate Christian Democratic and president Frei's support. He decided not to break with Frei and has refrained from criticizing the government's handling of the crisis. Yet, by staying loyal to the president, Lagos also assumed responsibility for the economic crisis. In fact, he has argued that Lavín's resurgence is simply the result of popular discontent with the crisis. His campaign stresses the claim that Lagos' main opponent is not Joaquín Lavín but unemployment. In the two months that remain before the election, Lagos will not show signs of distancing from president Frei. He believes that the cost of alienating the Christian Democratic vote would be more damaging to him than the cost of assuming responsibility for the general discontent with the government's handling of the economic crisis.

Lagos believes that when partial signs of economic recovery are announced in October, the electoral costs of his loyalty to president Frei will be reduced. Although there are some indications that the worst of the crisis is over, it is questionable whether improvements in unemployment figures will come before the December 12 elections. The government's decision not to increase public spending before the elections and wait-and-see approach taken by investors and the financial sector have slowed the process of economic recovery. That will undoubtedly affect Lagos negatively, but it is unlikely that it will cost him the presidency.

The presidential campaign of Joaquín Lavín had a slow and shaky start. The arrest of General Pinochet in London in October 16, 1999 led many prominent conservative leaders to question the presidential candidate of the Independent Democratic Union Joaquín Lavín. General Pinochet himself was said to have supported former Christian Democratic senator Arturo Frei Bolívar. In addition, Renovación Nacional's Sebastián Piñera launched his own presidential campaign to compete against Lavín for the nomination of the conservative coalition. By early 1999, Lavín had successfully managed to consolidate his position as the official candidate of RN and UDI and had all but eliminated the presidential hopes of Frei Bolívar.

After securing the nomination of the conservative alliance, Lavín developed an aggressive campaign strategy, distancing himself from the leadership of the two conservative political parties (RN and UDI), from the military and from traditional conservative strategies. He campaigned aggressively, visiting almost all municipalities in the country, spending nights in rural homes, meeting victims of human rights violations occurred during the dictatorship, asking for forgiveness for past abuses and verbally addressing specific concerns of the poor in education, health, housing and social services.

By positioning himself as a political outsider, Lavín successfully managed to channel discontent with the Concertación government into support for his candidacy. Backed by significant financial resources from the business sector, he launched a well-orchestrated publicity campaign that stressed his career as a hands-on municipal mayor. By promising to set up a 800 number in the presidential palace, to sell the presidential plane and drastically reduce trips abroad if elected president, Lavín has also played the populist card.

Lavín's strategy has worked. In the two most recent polls, Lavín and Lagos are running neck-and-neck in the Santiago Metropolitan area with 43% of the vote each. The two most recent polls, conducted by Feedback and Gemines, reported a virtual tie in a first round election in Santiago. Although both companies are owned by people close to the Lavín campaign and have a history of overestimating the support for conservative candidates, their results showed a significant improvement over previous polls conducted by the same companies.

However, the most reliable polling company, CEP, has not recently produced any public polls since June and their forthcoming poll is awaited with much expectation. Yet, sources from within the Lagos and Lavín camp have privately acknowledged that the race is much closer than previously expected. Off the record, the Lagos campaign acknowledges a 48-42% margin between Lagos and Lavín. The Lavín campaign report that Lagos's lead in the polls is only of 3-4 points (47-43%).

Together with poll results, conventional wisdom indicates that it is extremely unlikely that a conservative candidate will obtain more votes than Pinochet's "Yes" vote in the 1988 plebiscite: 44%. However, because the Concertación marginally passed the 50% mark in the most recent parliamentary elections of 1997, the possibility of a run-off election between the two top finishers should not be ruled out.

The remaining 4 presidential candidates, Communist Party Gladys Marín, Humanist Party Tomás Hirsch, ecologist Sara Larraín and Center-Center Union Arturo Frei are expected to get between 5-8%, with a majority of those votes going to Marín. A run-off election between Lagos and Lavín should provide Lagos with sufficient votes from the Marín, Hirsch and Larraín first-round support base to become the next president. But the political cost of being forced into a run-off election after enjoying a more than 20-point lead in the polls would represent a major set-back for Lagos.

The Lagos campaign has shown some signs of desperation in recent weeks. The seemingly unbeatable Concertación has acknowledged Lavín's strength and has adopted a more aggressive strategy to reposition Lagos as a winning candidate. They have centered on Lagos' experience as a national politician, his international recognition and his leadership skills. At the same time, they have denounced Lavín's inexperience in national politics, his little stature in the international political scene and the growing conflicts between Lavín's increasingly centrist platform and his UDI-RN far-right position in congress. In the Lagos camp they argue that Lavín will not be able to control the political parties that support his candidacy.

Conversely, the Lavín camp has focused on Lavín's proximity to the everyday needs of Chileans. The non-confrontational approach taken by Lavín has made Lagos look as a mean-spirited, rigid, unfriendly and even authoritarian candidate. In the Lavín camp they argue that while Lagos looks presidential, Lavín looks more compassionate. In the end, it seems ironic that Lagos receives far more support than Lavín in Wall Street (where he has been twice in 1999) and Lavín finds himself comfortable campaigning in Santiago's shanty town (Lavín cancelled a trip to New York in September).

In the end, Lagos is still favorite to win the presidential election, but Lavín has positioned himself as a formidable candidate and has transformed a formerly rubber stamping Concertación electoral victory into a real race with a significant level uncertainty. That is, in and of itself, a change in electoral politics in Concertación's Chile.