Chile after the 2001 parliamentary elections

Patricio Navia

December 18, 2001


In the 2001 parliamentary elections in Chile two distinct events occurred. The ruling Concertación won overwhelmingly in the Senate races with over 52% of the votes but because of the effects of the unusual electoral law, the 18 seats were equally split between the Concertación and the Alianza por Chile (43% of the votes). Those 18 senators elected on Sunday will join 20 elected in 1997 and 10 non-elected senators. The new Senate will be equally split between the Concertación and Alianza 24 seats apiece.  In the Chamber, however, the Concertación barely clinched 48% while the Alianza obtained 45%. The new Chamber will again be controlled by the Concertación, but with a much slimmer 63-57 seat-margin. The Concertación lost 6 seats from what it had obtained in 1997. The slimmer majority will not hurt the Concertación significantly, as the Senate will remain the place where bargaining over legislation takes place.


In the larger picture, little will change. The Concertación will have to negotiate with the Alianza the appointments of the Senate president and committee chairmanships. As in 1993, it is likely that the 4-year Senate president-term will be equally split between a Christian Democrat and a member of the Alianza. In the Chamber, the Concertación will still appoint all committee chairs and the president, as it has done after every election since 1989.


The entire parliamentary campaign revolved around two concerns. First, whether the Concertación would manage to stay above the 50% threshold obtained in every election—expect the 1999 presidential contest—since 1989. Because the Alianza had focused on securing the 33.4% threshold that would give it one of the two seats in every district, there was little doubt that the Concertación would get a total vote higher than that of the Alianza. The question was centered on how many seats would the Concertación lose as a product of the Alianza’s electoral strategy in the 10 districts where the Concertación had secured the two seats in the 1997 election. The 70-50 seat Concertación majority was expected to shrink to a 65-55 majority. The second concern focused on the intra-coalition shifts in the balance of power that would result from the expected increase in the UDI vote and the expected fall in the PDC support.


The new 63-57 split in the Chamber lies exactly midway between what government and opposition internal polls were telling them days before the election. While the Concertación expected to retain a 65-55 majority, the opposition hoped for a 61-59 split in the Chamber. Higher than expected but lower than 1999 turnout seemed to have had no major effect. More than 6 million voters cast valid votes, almost 1 million spoiled their ballots, another million abstained (despite mandatory voting) and more than 2.5 million eligible Chileans have not bothered to register to vote. Turnout fell when compared to the 1999 presidential election, but slightly increased when compared to the 1997 parliamentary election.


Yet, the 2001 were drastically different from the 1997 contest. Intra-coalition balance of power has shifted dramatically after Sunday’s vote. The Christian Democratic Party lost 15 seats in the Chamber as that party only obtained 23 seats. With 19% of the vote, the PDC remains as the largest party within the Concertación, but lost its first place as largest national party. The PDC also fell as compared to 1997 and 1993 when PDC Chamber of Deputies candidates obtained 23 and 27% respectively. The PPD, president Lagos’ party, barely improved its overall vote, but picked 6 additional seats in the Chamber to reach an all-time-high of 22 seats. The Socialist Party managed to gain 2 seats (from 11 to 13) despite falling by a 1% margin as compared to 1997. The previously almost defunct Radical Party picked 1 seat (from 4 to 5) and managed to stay above the 5% threshold to retain its legal status. Altogether, the leftwing (PS-PPD-PRSD) of the Concertación increased its seat share in the Chamber from 30 to 40 seats, while the PDC fell from 39 to 23. So, despite the Concertación only lost 6 seats in the Chamber, the make up of the Concertación delegation significantly changed.  Although most analysts expected a seat and vote loss for the PDC, the losses were substantially larger than expected.


In the conservative coalition, a similar trend can be observed. RN, the largest conservative party up to 1997, lost 3 seats as it fell from 25 to 22. The UDI picked 14 seats (from 21 to 35) and, more importantly, increased its overall vote two-fold from 1997. With more than 1.5 million votes (26%), the UDI has taken the title of largest political party away from the PDC. Joaquín Lavín’s impressive 1999 electoral performance, a disciplined and well-financed political party and an organized and talented party leadership has helped UDI position itself as a credible alternative to the Concertación as a governing block. The rise of the UDI so far has had to do as much with the demise of RN as with a net gain of voters. RN continues to lose appeal and the party seems to find no way out of the internal split between those that seek to merge it with the UDI and those that seek to transform it into the ‘real’ centrist party. In Sunday’s vote, those RN candidates that most closely associated with the popular image of Joaquín Lavín performed generally better than those who kept more distance from the past and likely future conservative Alianza presidential candidate.


Although Sunday’s 44% for the conservative parties looks awfully similar to Pinochet’s historic 44% in the 1988 plebiscite, several differences make the Alianza´s performance noteworthy. First, there is no Pinochet. The aging general stayed at home and excused himself from voting due to his poor health. Pinochet has been pretty much absent from the news in the past months as the Alianza consolidates its new post-Pinochet centrist, efficient and modern image. Second, the Alianza vote was strongest in areas of the country where support for Pinochet had been weakest. The Alianza performed relatively well in many urban districts, consolidating gains made in the 1999 presidential and 2000 municipal election. Third, the 1988 Pinochet vote was mostly motivated by the fear of change campaign promoted by the dictatorship. The 2001 Alianza vote was built upon a promise of change.


Although elections are also about votes and those who get more votes win, the 2001 parliamentary election in Chile had a somewhat mixed taste of victory and defeat for President Lagos and his Concertación government. Christian Democratic leaders were shocked by the strong loses experienced in the Senate (down from 4 to 2 seats among 9 Concertación seats up for reelection) and the Chamber. President Lagos went out of his way to reassure his strong support to PDC and to recognize the contributions made to his government and to the entire country by the former PDC presidents and the party. Speaking to a small crowd of mostly PPD and PS supporters inside the La Moneda palace, President Lagos insisted in claiming victory over the opposition and denounced the ‘prophets of pessimism’ among opposition leaders.  Yet, the mood in La Moneda and among government officials resembled more that of a surrounded castle than a victorious army. The image of the castle surrounded by enemy armies was strengthened when the president chose to make his speech from inside the palace to a small crowd of supporters gathered in one of the interior patios of the old house. Yes, the Concertación once again defeated the conservative alliance in the number of votes and seats obtained, but the strength of the Alianza has many Concertación leaders thinking about conceding ahead of time the 2005 presidential election.


President Lagos should come out of this election strengthened. His fellow PPD and PS candidates picked more seats and they should prove more loyal, or at least more accessible to the president than defeated PDC deputies. In addition, the president will finally get to govern without an election looming larger in the near future. Lagos has four years remaining in his term and the next municipal election will only take place at the end of 2004. Even if he could not improve over his 48% support obtained in the first round of the 1999 presidential campaign, Lagos must be happy that the entire election process is over with.


The president will have to face two problems he wished had not been the result of the parliamentary vote. The large of seats for the PDC will further stress that party’s relationship with the president. An expected cabinet reshuffle, which most analysts think will occur between late December and early March, should address that problem. Yet, many expect that the PDC will make some hard choices and replace its party leadership with younger and new faces before the president moves to reshuffle his cabinet. The second problem Lagos hoped he would not have had to confront is the UDI. Having barely defeated Joaquín Lavín in 1999, President Lagos strongly resented the leading role played by Lavín—elected mayor of Santiago in October 2000—in the Alianza’s parliamentary campaign. Lavín should now go back to being mayor and Lagos will have to negotiate and deal with other UDI leaders, but the image of Lavín as a successful presidential candidate for 2005 will bother president Lagos more and more as months pass by.


In the PDC everyone seemed to have lost. Former president Aylwin could not prevent the dramatic loss of seats for his party. Former president Frei strongly and actively campaigned for a number of PDC candidates, including two of his former cabinet ministers, but they all lost. Former party president and early favorite to join the Lagos cabinet as a Minister of the Interior, Gutenberg Martínez, will surely be blamed by the high number of political casualties in the election. Yet, the PDC still occupies a crucial position in the Chilean political spectrum. The 20% vote the party commands can tilt the balance of power in either direction in 2005. If the party decides to severe ties with the president and the Concertación coalition, the government will lose its majority control of the Chamber and the virtual tie in the Senate.  In trying to defend the political center from the UDI assault, the PDC will need to make some difficult choices. Throwing their support behind president Lagos or distancing from the president and seeking to avoid the costs of the economic slowdown and from the tear-and-wear of being in office entail many unknown costs.  The next few weeks will be crucial for the PDC as the party reorganizes and recoups after tragic December 16.


President Lagos might opt not to wait for the PDC regrouping to make his all-but-announced cabinet reshuffle. A number of cabinet members should go for poor performance or simply to reflect the new balance of power within the government coalition. Although the Finance and Economics ministers are expected to be confirmed, many have speculated with a profound change in the political and social ministries. Minister of Interior José Miguel Insulza is widely perceived as the strongman in the cabinet and a potential presidential contender in 2005. But the poor performance by the PS will hurt Insulza who has was previously president Frei’s Foreign Affairs Minister and then Minister of the Presidency during the final months of the Frei administration. The PPD will attempt to increase its presence in the cabinet, but the party will have little going for it. Although the PPD picked six new seats in the Chamber, it barely increased its electoral support. Still, former Senator and PPD president Sergio Bitar is expected to join the cabinet, preferably as a Public Works minister, although others name him as a favorite for a political post in La Moneda.


If Lagos chooses not to reshuffle his cabinet right away, speculations will mount throughout the summer and the Concertación will seem even more confused and hurt by the electoral results. If the president chooses to reorganize his cabinet right away, he might risk falling into the guessing game as to what direction the PDC will take and, even worse, his PDC appointments might be perceived as an effort to influence PDC strategic decisions. In any event, the president must begin introducing his own presidential agenda in the legislative and public debate. Unemployment is the primary concern among most Chileans. Job creation and economic development will likely be atop the president’s agenda. But distributive pressures from PPD and PS legislators might also be included in the agenda. The initial response from the UDI and Alianza leaders is that they will cooperate with all job-creation and economic development initiatives, but not with distributive policies.


For months, president Lagos has complained that electoral concerns have tainted the legislative agenda and behavior of government and opposition parties. Now elections are over, the president’s Concertación coalition barely won, but won, and public opinion eagerly waits to see the first steps the president will take as he begins to define his legacy for the next four years. The recent approval by the U.S. House of Representatives of Trade Promotion Authority for the U.S. president—for the first time since 1994—might hand president Lagos an excellent winning card. If Chile successfully concludes negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. and the U.S. Congress ratifies the agreement, Lagos approval ratings will go up and the sweet and bitter taste of the 2001 parliamentary elections will go away.