Discontent or Anxiety in Chile?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, June 18, 2013


As Chileans prepare to vote in the primaries where the two leading coalitions will pick their presidential nominees, candidates are struggling to figure out if recent social movements are indeed signs of discontent or simply reflect the anxiety of many Chileans who are losing patience as they wait for the benefits of economic development to trickle down.


For the first time, the two leading coalitions will select their presidential candidates in primaries. The center-left Concertación that ruled for 20 years and lost in 2009 used limited primaries in the past.  In 1993, it selected its presidential candidate—Eduardo Frei—in semi-open primaries, where more than 400 thousand previously registered militants and sympathizers participated.  In 1999, Ricardo Lagos won in a fully open presidential primary with more than 1.3 million people voting.  In 2005, the Concertación had scheduled primaries, but they were not held. Because of the overwhelming popularity of Michelle Bachelet, who became the first woman president later that year, other candidates dropped out of the race and Bachelet was left as the sole candidate.  In 2009, the Concertación primaries organized primaries in such a convoluted way as to guarantee the victory of former president Frei.  Discontent with the Concertación fed the presidential bid of Marco Enríquez-Ominami, a 35-year old Concertación legislator who ran as an independent and received 20% of the vote. The Concertación unwillingness to organize opened primaries helped weakened support for the Concertación and contributed to its first electoral defeat. 


The center-right Alianza coalition, in power since 2010, is holding presidential primaries for the first time.  In previous years, the two Alianza parties had negotiated the name of its candidate based on public opinion polls and political maneuvering. In 2005, the Alianza had two presidential candidates, one from each party that comprises the coalition. In 2009, the popularity of Sebastián Piñera, who lost the runoff election in 2005 to Michelle Bachelet, made him a shoe-in for the Alianza nomination. Piñera went on to defeat the Concertación as he became the first democratically elected rightwing president since 1990.


Under the Piñera administration, the Alianza and Concertación coalitions brokered an agreement to build primaries into the electoral institutions of the country.  Starting this year, primaries are organized by the national electoral service, to guarantee a free and fair process and make it easier for coalitions to hold them.  Though the legislation provides for primaries to be held for all elected positions, the Concertación chose to hold primaries only to select its presidential nominee.  The center-left coalition had initially announced that it would hold primaries for its legislative candidates, but in the end negotiations within the Concertación parties failed and only the presidential candidate will be chosen in a primary to be held on June 30. Former president Michelle Bachelet is the overwhelming favorite to win. Three other candidates are challenging Bachelet, but they ran far behind in the polls.  The Alianza will also hold presidential primaries.  Andrés Allamand, from the moderate Renovación Nacional and Pablo Longueira, from the conservative UDI, are running neck and neck ahead of the vote in two weeks. 


Because Bachelet is widely expected to win the Concertación nomination, expectations about turnout are low. As the Alianza normally mobilizes fewer voters than the Concertación, the contested Alianza primary will attract more voters, but few expect that turnout will top the record 1.4 million that voted in the 1999 Concertación primaries.


The limited interest in the Alianza and Concertación primaries contrasts with the huge crowds that have turned out to support student demands for free public university education.  More people seem interested in joining marches and demonstrations than in participating in primaries to choose the candidates of the two leading coalitions.  Though polls show growing support for several presidential candidates who are running against the Concertación and ALianza on left-of-center platforms, most expect either Bachelet or the winner of the Alianza primaries to be the next president.  Chileans might be showing signs of discontent and dissatisfaction, but they do not seem determined to throw the two leading coalitions out of power.


Although many observers are equated the street protests and manifestations with discontent against the market-friendly economic model in place since the Pinochet dictatorship, the evidence seems to point in favor of Chileans wanting reform rather than revolution.  Many of those marching are indeed asking for free education and demanding more robust regulatory frameworks, stronger rights as consumers and more participatory mechanisms.  To be sure, many protesters are openly against the market-friendly economic model. However, polls show that a majority of Chileans are more in favor of reforms that will deepen democracy, strengthen rights and foster more inclusion than in support of replacing the economic model that has made Chile a success story in Latin America.


The expected low turnout and the anticipated victory of former President Michelle Bachelet signal that Chileans are more anxious about receiving the benefits of economic growth than discontent with the economic model championed by the Concertación and Alianza governments alike over the past 24 years.