Update on Chilean politics. March 14, 2001


Patricio Navia



The year 2001 might very well turn out to be a replay of 2000 for the Ricardo Lagos government. As the president celebrates his first year in office, national elections, unemployment, an anti fiscal evasion legislation and a new set of labor laws top the government's agenda. Human rights issues, including the fate of general Pinochet's lengthy court battle, will again take center stage in Chile's mainstream press. Voters will likely discard low inflation, a healthy 5.5% economic growth and fiscal discipline by the government in the parliamentary election. Instead, the unemployment level will likely remain as the leading consideration in voters' minds when they head to the polls in December.


If the year 2000 taught us anything about Lagos' leadership style, we should see plenty of policy announcements followed by lengthy, troublesome and often painful and fruitless negotiations in parliament, even within the Concertación's congressional delegation, to transform those initiatives into legislation. President Lagos' ambitious mass media public relations strategy that characterized his first year in office is wearing thin as public opinion regards the president's leadership style as a 'much a do about nothing' approach. The president badly needs to give the impression that he has a vision for the country and that his policies if implemented will transform that vision into a reality.


The long-awaited cabinet reshuffle did not take place at the start of the second year. Although some still expect the president to do it before his May 21 State of the Union address, the president has hinted at his unwillingness to get rid of his current ministers. For the past three months, rumors of a cabinet reshuffle have filled the press. Although they subsided in February (the preferred vacation month for most Chileans, including the president and his ministers), the rumors of cabinet changes reemerged with strength in March. If a reshuffle does take place, it will add might to the weakest cabinet since democratic restoration in 1990. Though it will also be seen as a defeat for president Lagos, in the end the new ministers might aid the president if they can expand and enrich the government's legislative initiatives. New blood in the cabinet will also give a much-needed boost of confidence to an otherwise depressed Concertación. 


With or without the cabinet reshuffle, Lagos needs swift congressional approval for his anti tax evasion and labor laws legislative initiatives. Even by accepting watered down versions of the original proposals, the president will score a major political victory if he can sign those initiatives into law. Legislative efforts aimed at further modernizing the public sector, expanding the public works and infrastructure programs, reforming the educational and health system and de-centralizing the government will also represent victories for the president if signed into law. Progress in the Senate over negotiations to eliminate some authoritarian features in the Constitution (non-elected senators, lack of civilian control over the armed forces and military influence over the National Security Council and Constitutional Tribunal) might finally lead to a constitutional reform approved by consensus in both chambers. Although president Lagos has called those reforms insufficient and has tried to tie them to a change in the binomial electoral system, it is unlikely that he will oppose them if approved by both chambers.


In 2000, president’s Lagos main concern was the October municipal election. Fearing that the Alianza (RN and UDI) would capitalize on Joaquín Lavín’s popularity, Lagos unsuccessfully sought to get his Concertación parties to reduce internal electoral competition and present a united front against the Alianza. Lavín withdrew from the mass media and conducted a door-to-door campaign in the municipality of Santiago. Although the former mayor of Las Condes was widely expected to win the Santiago mayoral race, his landslide victory with more than 60% of the vote confirmed his front running position as a presidential contender for 2005. Lagos’s worst fears were realized, Lavín was the mayor of the town where La Moneda and most government building are located and the Concertación coalition lost a number of key municipal mayoral races. The cities of Concepción, Arica and the metropolitan districts of La Florida, Santiago, Puente Alto, San Miguel and Estación Central—among others—were taken by the Alianza. Although the Alianza failed to win a majority of the votes in most districts, it did manage to concentrate its electoral support in one candidate in each municipality and, as a consequence, secure key mayoral races. The Concertación had to find relief in its 52% nationwide support.


As Lagos celebrates his first year in office, a key concern in the government’s agenda is the December 2001 parliamentary election. Although the binomial electoral system makes it virtually impossible for the government to transform an electoral majority into a commanding control of the Senate, it also makes it virtually impossible for the government not to retain at least half of seats in both chambers. In the Senate, the Concertación will likely retain its 9 seats out of the 18 up for re-election. The 10-appointed and lifetime senators (with a 6-4 majority favoring the opposition) will continue to prevent the Concertación from controlling the upper house. In the Chamber of Deputies, the Concertación is expected to retain a narrow majority of seats.


Although no major inter-coalition change in the seat distribution is expected, there will be some intra-coalition seat changes. The two largest parties of each coalition, the PDC and RN, are expected to lose seats, while the PS, PPD and UDI are expected to gain seats, particularly in the Chamber of Deputies.


Those concerns about intra-coalition seat distribution have made the negotiations over Concertación and Alianza candidates a central political concern for all parties. Although president Lagos has stated that he will not interfere in the Concertación's negotiations between Socialists, PPD, Radicals and Christian Democrats, it is widely believed that Lagos has lobbied to make sure that some of his socialist allies can be given safe districts.


The president is also concern about the Christian Democrats' widely expected loss of electoral support and seats. Yet, one of Lagos' greatest headaches during his first year in power has been his interaction with the political parties of the Concertación. Apparently, Lagos has been more careful than his two predecessors in trying to keep the balance between the Concertación's parties in cabinet and other official appointments. Although it is unlikely that Concertación parties can react negatively if the president exerts more independence in his appointments, Lagos seems unwilling to exasperate party elites.


With presidential unwillingness to intervene and mediate between the parties' internal disputes, it is unlikely that the Concertación can put together a strong enough slate of candidates to give the government a resounding victory in December. Moreover, as election date approaches, PS-PPDs and Christian Democrats will see each other as embarked in a zero-zum game rather than as partners in a coalition whose growth can result in mutual benefits.  Intra-coalition discipline is likely to break down as election-day approaches. And if the president's popularity continues to fall, most Concertación candidates will have some incentives to run against the president.


On the Alianza side, the struggle over leadership between RN and UDI will reemerge. After being forced to side behind Lavín in the presidential election, the liberal wing of RN has seen the 2001 parliamentary election as an opportunity to reassert itself after their electoral defeat in the 1997 parliamentary election. Lavín is expected to campaign heavily for UDI candidates, especially for the Chamber of Deputies. RN will concentrate its efforts on the senatorial campaigns of Sebastián Piñera in the Valparaiso-Viña del Mar district and Alberto Espina in the indigenous-uprising IX Region North district (both seats are now held by UDI senators). A victory for Piñera and Espina would represent a limited, but real challenge to Lavín's hegemonic presidential aspirations within the Alianza. Another race that will capture the Alianza's attention is that between RN's hard-liner Alberto Cardemil and UDI's Juan Coloma in VII Region North (Talca). The race is to fill the seat vacated by impeached senator Francisco Javier Errazuriz. A victory by Coloma will further reduce the influence of the hard-liners, led by Cardemil, in RN.


The UDI has focused on increasing its congressional representation in the Chamber of Deputies. By drawing on its successful municipal election strategy, UDI has filled a slate of young, Lavín-like candidates. Aware that it is unlikely that the Alianza will actually secure a majority of votes, The UDI's objective is to defeat RN candidates and win a majority of the Alianza seats. Provided a drop in the number of Christian Democratic deputies, UDI stands a good chance of winning a plurality of seats in the Chamber of Deputies.


The parliamentary election will have an additional effect on Chile in 2001. The government will find it more difficult to get legislation approved, as most incumbents seeking re-election will be more concerned with campaigning than with sitting in committee meetings. The president and his ministers will need to lobby much harder to rally support for their legislative initiatives.


The government has repeatedly stated that human rights cases are within the judicial realm and the executive will not interfere or seek a 'political solution' to the growing number of lawsuits filled against human rights violators. Yet, the upcoming elections will create incentives for parliamentary candidates to campaign for and against investigations of human rights violations during the dictatorship. Unlike presidential elections, congressional elections require candidates to secure about a third of the vote to gain a seat. By catering to the polarized electorate, right and left wing candidates stand a good chance of defeating centrist candidates in December. Thus, despite the government's effort to draw the issue away from the political arena, we should see plenty of electoral use of the past human rights violations in the months leading to the election. Finally, to complicate matters further, "moral-value" issues will also be used for electoral purposes. The frozen divorce law and a newly adopted regulation to allow the 'day-after' birth control pill has already led many candidates to take positions and define their electoral campaigns on those issues.


Lagos was the first Concertación candidate to need a run-off election to become president.  His first year in office was marked by the municipal election campaign and its aftermath. Although he might be mistaken in thinking so, Lagos seems to perceive that his second year in office will again be held hostage, this time by the looming parliamentary election.