Crisis mode in the Chilean right

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, July 23, 2013


Though it was clear that the center-right Alianza coalition had an uphill battle for the presidential election in November, few expected the ruling coalition to be in such a weak position four months before the election. Former president Michelle Bachelet, the leader of the leftwing Concertación coalition, was the frontrunner from the start, but last week’s withdrawal of Pablo Longueira, the Alianza presidential candidate, has made it even more difficult for the Alianza to retain power after March 2014.


Early in 2013, putting aside their past differences, the two Alianza parties—the moderate RN and the more conservative UDI—agreed to hold open primaries on June 30th to choose a presidential candidate. Two months before the primaries, the Supreme Court issued a ruling against Cencosud, a supermarket chain, for excessive maintenance charges against cardholders. UDI presidential candidate Laurence Golborne was the company CEO when the charges were made. Revelations about an undisclosed personal bank account had in the Caribbean added to the outrage and forced Golborne to withdraw from the race.


After Golborne’s resignation, UDI named Pablo Longueira, a historic UDI leader, as its candidate for the primaries.  Having previously served for 16 years in the Chamber of Deputies, 6 years in the Senate and 2 years as Minister of Economics under President Piñera, Longueira is one of the best known UDI figures.  He has high negatives in the general population, but is very popular within the conservative right.  In less than 2 months, Longueira mounted an impressive campaign.  Though the polls showed RN candidate Andrés Allamand ahead, Longueira won the June 30th primaries and clinched the Alianza nomination.  Strong support among upper income areas and the UDI well-run turnout-the-vote machine helped Longueira carried the day. 


Longueira’s victory was overshadowed by Bachelet’s impressive vote.  The former President won twice as many votes as the combined sum of votes received by Longueira and Allamand.  Three out of four voter in the primaries cast ballots for Concertación candidates.  Thus, even if Longueira clinched the Alianza nomination, the primaries confirmed that defeating the Concertación in November would be all but impossible for the Alianza.


After June 30th, Longueira sought to heal wounds within the Alianza.  After a not so magnanimous concession speech, Allamand took time off and allowed for RN to begin working with UDI to prepare for the presidential race.  Unity was a necessary condition for the Alianza to run against Bachelet’s overwhelming popularity.  Many in the Alianza believe that that it would be best to concede the presidential election and focus on securing a strong showing in the legislative election.  After his victory, Longueira had to work hard to convince his support-base that the race was winnable.  


When Longueira’s children announced last Wednesday (July 24th) that his father suffering from chronic depression and was withdrawing from the presidential race, the Alianza was thrown into turmoil.  For the second time in 10 weeks, an UDI presidential candidate was withdrawing from the race.   With Longueira out, RN argued that the primary rules allow coalition parties to name their own candidates if the primary winner withdraws.  RN pressured UDI to negotiate to find a consensus candidate to run against Bachelet. In response, UDI swiftly moved to name a new candidate.  Last Saturday, UDI appointed Evelyn Matthei as its presidential candidate. 


Matthei entered politics in the late 1980s in the liberal wing of RN as an ally of now president Sebastian Piñera and Andrés Allamand. A phone hacking scandal in 1992 led to the expulsion of Matthei from RN and to a bitter fight that also delayed Piñera’s presidential ambitions for a decade. Since then, Matthei has been an UDI legislator and has earned a reputation of a tough, intelligent, open-minded, impulsive and controversial politician.  Her foul language also has often gotten her in trouble.  Like Bachelet, Matthei is the daughter of an Air Force General, but unlike Bachelet—whose left-wing father died under detention after the military coup—Matthei’s father supported the coup and eventually became a member of the military junta.  In nominating Matthei, UDI has openly defied RN.  But because it moved first—and because she is more popular than Allamand, the obvious RN presidential choice—she will probably end up getting the Alianza nomination.  RN and UDI have rushed to organize a convention that will name a unity Alianza candidate in two weeks, before the August 17th deadline to register candidates for the November election. 


After the shocking news of Longueira’s withdrawal, Matthei’s nomination is a breath of fresh air for UDI, but the road ahead for the Alianza remains an uphill battle.  Bachelet is extremely popular.  There are many wounds to heal in the Alianza. Building cooperation among the two Alianza parties will not be easy.  Many in UDI and RN remain more concerned with securing a legislative contingent rather than putting up a fight in the presidential election.  The recent political events in the Alianza in Chile have made it more likely that Bachelet will return to power when President Piñera’s term ends in March of 2014.