A neoliberal country in Focus:

The Right after Pinochet

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, October 2, 2011


As the first rightwing president since Pinochet, and the first conservative to win a clear majority in a presidential election since universal suffrage was adopted in Chile, Sebastián Piñera already made history before being sworn in. A year and a half into his term, with his popularity fading, he risks being labeled the worst president since democracy was restored in 1990. Still, he has already redrawn the political map in Chile.


Under military rule (1973-1990), a new constitution and neoliberal reforms set the basis for the institutional and economic model Chile successfully implemented once democracy was restored. Even though the center right Concertación coalition won all elections between 1989 and 2008, authoritarian and deadlock provisions in the constitution gave rightwing parties—grouped in the Alianza coalition—veto power over constitutional and economic reforms.


In a surprisingly close election in 1999, an economic recession, an unpopular outgoing president and the fading memory of the Pinochet dictatorship combined to tilt the electoral battlefield against the Concertación candidate.  When the Alianza still failed to win, many thought the Concertación would never lose. Piñera proved them wrong in 2009. His message of moderation, change in the context of continuity, commitment to keep the Concertación’s social market economy and promise of more government efficiency and less party quotas in key government posts convinced a majority of Chileans that it was time to give the right a chance.


Sebastián Piñera (born in 1949) received a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard, where he studied educational reform.  Back in Chile in the late 1970s, as the military dictatorship introduced neoliberal economic reforms, Piñera seized the opportunity and became a real estate developer. By the mid-1980s, with the transition to democracy nearing, Piñera was already a successful businessman. After opposing Pinochet in the 1988 plebiscite, Piñera was elected Senator in 1989, representing Renovación Nacional, the more moderate rightwing party.


At the same time as he became a leading moderate Senator in the rightwing opposition, he made his fortune grow into a conglomerate that included an airline, a television network, the nation’s most popular soccer team and shares in dozens of other companies. In 2005, he ran for the presidency and lost in the runoff against Concertación’s Michelle Bachelet. In 2009, he defeated the Concertación candidate in a close runoff. As a candidate, Piñera cleverly offered a moderate message of continuity in the social market economic model. His past opposition to Pinochet helped him attract support from centrist voters. His message of meritocracy resonated well with the growing middle class.


Twenty days after his inauguration, Piñera bluntly encouraged higher expectations when he declared that “what others failed to do in 20 years, we already did in 20 days.” The spectacular rescue of 33 miners in October 2010 underlined the message of efficiency. If Piñera could successfully rescue the miners, he could also fix education, health and other pending—and admittedly difficult—challenges the Concertación could not fix.


Unforced errors, conflict of interest scandals and government inefficiencies in the post-earthquake reconstruction efforts brought presidential approval from a high of 60 after the miners’ rescue to a low of 26% in September 2011. The student protests that have recently shaken the country paralyzed the government and further contributed to Piñera’s low approval.  The government finds itself on the defensive, lacking a message and incapable of crafting a coherent legacy.


Piñera’s promise of government efficiency has not materialized. Concerns about conflict of interests in his cabinet have repeatedly surfaced. Piñera’s own clumsy handling of the government’s response to student protests have distracted attention from real government progress on other issues—including social programs and maternity leave reform. However, it does not follow that the first rightwing government in Chile is a failure or that Piñera is a lame duck. The economy is growing and some reforms are actually being adopted. Key legislation has passed as the streets and the political agenda is dominated by the student protests.


Moreover, Piñera successfully freed the right of the Pinochet authoritarian legacy and managed to steal the social market economic model away from the Concertación. He has also successfully promoted new leaders and convinced the more conservative right to acquiesce to moderate reforms on social and moral issues. Moderation, gradualism and pragmatism no longer belong only in the Concertación.  Since most Chileans are moderate and centrist, the Alianza will remain electorally competitive if it sticks to Piñera’s centrist policies (even if not to Piñera himself).


So far, Piñera’s delivery has not been stellar. It has not been a disaster either. With Piñera, the political right has found an identity devoid of the authoritarian legacy.  When in power, the Concertación never buried the Pinochet legacy (in fact, it normally successfully ran against it). Even if he achieves little else, Piñera has already transformed the Chilean political battlefield, by leading the Alianza into moderate and centrist positions and by taking the social market economic model away from the Concertación.