Chile after the Students’ Protests

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, October 16, 2011


Though the student protests and other recent social movements have led many to claim that the market-friendly model in Chile is crumbling, polls and political developments show that overwhelmingly moderate Chileans remain optimistic about their future and anxious to see their middle-class expectations materialize. A candidate committed to improving, not replacing, the market-friendly model is most likely to win the 2013 presidential elections. Support for anti-systemic candidates and nostalgia for protectionist economic policies is very limited. Chileans don’t want to make a left turn in the next election. They want to press forward ahead, faster and more securely.


The recent student protests and other social mobilizations in favor of the environment, gay rights, consumer rights and other post-materalist demands (those not directly related to reducing poverty and satisfying basic human needs), show a vibrant civil society firmly committed to democracy. After remaining steadily in the mid 50%, support for democracy reached more than 60%, according to the Latinobarómetro poll. In a recent Universidad Diego Portales poll, 78% of Chileans believe that future economic conditions will improve for their families. Education (32%) and crime (29%) are atop the main national problems for Chileans. Employment (8%) and inflation (2%) are at the bottom of the list of concerns.


The prevalent notion is that things are improving and development is a reality. There is growing anxiety about how fast the structure of opportunities is expanding and how leveled the playing field is for those now entering the middle class. Historically low levels of trust in political institutions (only 10% trust political parties and the legislature) are now affecting the government (from 33% in 2010 down to 21% in 2011) and other non-governmental social institutions. Trust in the Catholic Church declined from 43% to 24% from 2010 to 2011, as a result of several pedophilia scandals. Trust in private companies declined from 20% in 2010 to 16% in 2011.


Chileans believe their rights as consumers are not adequately protected. Moreover, they fear that political parties side with business interests and that political institutions do not sufficiently represent people’s interests. Still, Chileans do not want to throw the democracy and market-friendly baby with the bath water.  Altogether, 70% of Chileans place themselves on a 1-10, left-right scale, with the majority identifying themselves as moderates.  They value the stability and economic growth Chile has enjoyed since the restoration of democracy in 1990. They have witnessed poverty reduction and experienced growing rights and access as consumers.


They also want the model to be further refined to allow them to move up in the social and economic ladder. Government regulatory powers are weak and regulatory institutions are insufficiently funded. There is high concentration and insufficient competition in many sectors of the economy. Many private companies that provide formerly public services—utilities, health insurance, education and private roads—often abuse their positions and impose excessively high fees and penalties on consumers who miss payments and, in some cases, abuse even consumers who pay on time. Chileans want the government to step up its institutions and provide better and more adequate protection to consumers.


In 2010, Sebastián Piñera became the first rightwing Alianza coalition president since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Piñera campaigned on a promise of a leveled-playing field for the middle class. Piñera assured Chileans he would bring the efficiency of the private sector to the public sector and would complement the social safety net with an opportunity springboard for the middle class aided by strong regulatory institutions. Though his government has run into trouble lately and his approval has fallen dramatically, his initial message remains popular. In 2013, any rightwing moderate candidate that can credibly commit to the same message will be in a competitive position to keep the Alianza in power. 


The center-left Concertación is divided among those who defend their 20-year government legacy and those who seek to follow a populist trend typical of the left elsewhere in Latin America.  Given the low approval of the rightwing incumbent government, if the Concertación stays in the middle, with moderate positions that call for reform and strengthening of individual rights for citizens and consumers, it will likely retake power in 2013. Popular former president Michelle Bachelet is currently the frontrunner. She has been ambiguous about the direction she would take if she were to seek re-election. Though she governed as a moderate, she is closer to those further to the left. If Bachelet does not run, the Concertación might break up into a leftist faction, vociferous but electorally weak, and a more moderate faction that will be better positioned to attract Chilean moderate voters. 


Whatever happens with the coalitions, the most likely outcome is that a moderate candidate—from the left or the right—will win on a platform of leveling the playing field, broadening the middle class with social and economic inclusion policies and further refining the market-friendly economic model that has made Chile the most successful country in terms of democratic consolidation and development in Latin America since 1990.