Update on Chilean Politics (The Rebellion)

Patricio Navia

April 13, 2002


Never did a single letter written by a rather obscure Chamber of Deputies member caused so much controversy within the government coalition and provoked a disconcerted wave of responses from the government, opposition and public opinion. The "Between the Two Rights" letter, written by PS deputy Sergio Aguiló, accused the Lagos government, and the Concertación in general, of implementing a conservative, rightist platform. Drawing on a prediction made by 1999 Communist Party presidential candidate Gladys Marín, Aguiló suggested that a Lavín government would have been no different than what Lagos's term has been so far. Aguiló announced his intention to ignore party discipline and vote following his leftist stances every government legislative initiative. The 63-57-seat majority held by the Concertación in the Chamber of Deputies and the indications that other PS deputies supported Aguiló's position can effectively put at risk any presidential initiative. The most likely battlefield between the rebel deputies and the government will be the long-awaited Health Reform (a Lagos campaign promise and an initiative formally announced in the May 2001 annual presidential address). Incidentally, Aguiló was the PS spokesman on health issues and a strong advocate of a greater state role in securing health services for the poor and financing it with a tax increase (preferably on business or the wealthy). The PPD warnings against a limited and insufficient expansion of health services and the vocal conservative opposition, shared by many within the Concertación, to a health-financing tax increase and to a reduction in the private sector role in the health sector has put the government initiative--details yet to be announced--between a rock and a hard place.


Regardless of what eventually happens with the health reform in the legislature, the Aguiló rebellion points to a much deeper and potentially more damaging conflict within the government coalition. True, since the 1997 election the Concertación has experienced an ideological division between those self-inflicting (autoflagelantes) critics who denounce the persistent levels of inequality after a decade of Concertación governments and the self-congratulatory (autocomplacientes) advocates who point to the strong economic expansion, the striking reduction in poverty rates and the successful modernization and democratic consolidation efforts. The ideological dispute that flourished during the last two years of the Frei government and the 1999 presidential campaign, has re-emerged every single time a major legislative initiative leaves La Moneda for the Valparaíso legislature. For many, Aguiló's letter is simply a re-play of the same ideological divide existing within the Concertación.


However, there are some important particularities that make this event a potentially more damaging crisis. After pushing through, with much difficulties and negotiations, the labor laws and tax evasion reforms, the government spent much of 2001 fighting unemployment and trying to minimize the expected loss in the 2001 parliamentary election. Having succeeded in retaining control of the Chamber of Deputies and not losing any seats in the Senate, the Lagos government swiftly moved to make a cabinet adjustment, replace a number of regional Intendentes and provincial governors and send the message that the second half (2/3 of the 6-year period) would commence in March 2002, with the newly elected parliament.


Yet, a month after the parliament convened, the government has not yet fully defined its legislative agenda for the year. That slowness has given legislators an opportunity to attempt to influence the government's agenda. Although the president exerts control over the legislative agenda, if legislators exert enough pressure, the government might give priority to their preferred initiatives and, even more importantly, might shape them in a way consistent with the legislators' preferences. The 'rebellion' has been capturing so much media attention to a large extent precisely because the government has failed to seize the moment to shape the public policy agenda.


Although the 1998 autocomplaciente-autoflagelante threatened to taint the electoral platform of the 1999 Concertación candidate, Ricardo Lagos successfully avoided taking sides. Potential candidates for the 2005 Concertación presidential nomination will find it more difficult to avoid taking a stance on this ideological and often tactical dispute. As advocates of both groups know that they stand a good chance of positioning themselves as power brokers for the next presidential race, they are eagerly fighting over control of government posts and, more importantly, legislative initiatives.


Institutional incentives also play an important role. The 2004 Municipal elections will most likely become the 'mother of all battles' between the Concertación and the Alianza. Having passed legislation to separate the election of the mayor from that of council members in each of Chile's 341 municipalities, the parliament inadvertently facilitated the consolidation and strengthening of Chile' cuasi-defunct multi-party system. Because the system in place for legislative elections requires that coalition parties negotiate to determine 2 candidates for each district, the true electoral strength of each party cannot really be measured in an election. Within the Concertación, the PDC, PS, PPD and PRSD have negotiated a complicated system of omissions and privileged districts to reduce internal conflicts. That precludes the PPD, PRSD and PS from running in all of Chile's 60 Chamber of Deputies districts. Even the PDC, with candidates in most districts, carefully chooses which districts to concentrate on and which to abandon (even when running candidates) to maximize the number of seats nationwide. In 2004, although similar negotiations will need to take place to identify the Concertación's mayoral candidates, the council member election will not require such negotiations. Because each coalition will be allowed to have at least 6 candidates (8 or 10 in more populated municipalities) in each municipality, all coalition parties will be able to have candidates in each municipality. The true electoral strength of each party will thus be revealed. The council member electoral results, more than the tallies of the mayoral races, will weight significantly in the negotiations over the selection of the Concertación presidential candidate a year later. Not surprisingly, the 4 Concertación parties are actively seeking to differentiate from each other, and from the government, to build wider and stronger electoral niches for 2004.


That differentiation process has also led some parties to align along the autocomplaciente-autoflagelante divide. The PS has clearly taken an autoflagelante flavor while the PDC is divided among autocomplacientes and those nostalgic of the 1964 Patria Joven (Youth Nation) platform of late former president Eduardo Frei Montalva. The PPD, often described by many as a non-ideological catch-all centrist party is undergoing a crisis of its own making. The sometimes-populist approach to politics championed by its current president Deputy Guido Girardi has encouraged many within the party to follow his footsteps. In recent years, Girardi has formed a strong and qualified group of supporters and has sought to convert the PPD more into a party and less into a club of independent populists. But the upcoming PPD internal presidential race has shown that sometimes you get what you have called for. Populist PPD senator Nelson Ávila is challenging Girardi for the PPD presidency and showing the fragility of the PPD party structure. 


Some have pointed out that the distancing between the PDC and the PS observed in past months, but consolidated recently with the election of right-wing PDC Senator Adolfo Zaldívar as party president and the PS ideological move toward the left, together with the institutional incentives of the 2004 Municipal elections can resurrect the pre 1973 three-thirds division within the Chilean party system (with a strong right, an ideological center and a strong left). The demise of democracy of 1973 and the polarization of the political elite and society in general loom in the horizon as powerful warnings against the resurgence of the three-thirds, but the every day political discourse and the short-term strategies by the Alianza, the PDC and PS have so far ignored the warnings. True, Chile is nowhere near the level of polarization observed in the late 1960s, but the country is also far from experiencing the strong sense of Concertación unity observed in the early 1990s.


The PS rebellion will likely not go from writing documents and making accusations into actual resignations from the Concertación by party leaders, but it has already caused severe public image damage to the government coalition. A quarrel over public spending, with most PS members and a few noted PDC leaders (including former Finance Minister, Senator Alejandro Foxley) arguing for increased public spending and all government officials (and a few legislators) defending fiscal discipline, turned into a personal dispute over future control of the PS between left-wing Senator Carlos Ominami and Interior Minister José Miguel Insulza, with the former referring to the latter as a economic policy plumber. Copper giant CODELCO president, Juan Villarzú, also entered the dispute by taking on a conservative Alianza stand call to combat poverty and suggesting the need to revise the tax system to find new ways to alleviate poverty.  Most recently, in discussing the upcoming health reform, minister Osvaldo Artaza, a PDC militant, stepped into forbidden territory by suggesting that a tax increase would help finance the reform. Finance minister Nicolás Eyzaguirre quickly rebutted him by stating that the minister needs to indicate how much it will cost and the appropriate bodies (Eyzaguirre himself) would look into how to pay for it. In yet another signal of how the dispute and the rebellion are filtering to almost every government action, Foreign Minister Alvear suffered a political setback when the Constitutional Tribunal rejected the legislative approval of Chile's entry into the International Criminal Court on grounds that it violated the Constitution. If Chile wants in, a constitutional reform has first to be approved. Although Alvear initially attempted to expedite through a quick constitutional amendment, the government eventually accepted the defeat and gave up the effort to be among the first 60 founding members of the International Court. The left immediately accused Alvear of giving up to pressures from conservative senators who mistrust international law and who have strongly opposed the unrelated efforts by a Spanish judge to try Chilean human rights violators for crimes committed in Chile during the dictatorship. Former strongmen Augusto Pinochet's arrest in London in 1998 convinced many conservative senators to oppose anything closely linked to international jurisdiction for crimes against humanity while the same event has transformed Chile's entry into the International Court in a PS political demand.


The PDC started the year aiming to position itself as a credible government alternative in the center of the political spectrum, building on what brought them to power in 1964, 1989 and 1993. The good thing about being in the center is that 'center' is a proxy for 'governability'. Yet, the recent quarrels with the left of the Concertación and the PDC effort to recapture centrist voters who supported Lavín in 1999 by picking up fights with the UDI and RN have only called into question the PDC's ability to build support beyond its current 20% electoral support base. On the other side, by embracing a leftist discourse, the PS has fully abandoned any effort to dispute the support of moderate voters. The Concertación parties seem to be playing to facilitate the electoral victory of the right in 2005.


During his first two years in office, Lagos had to negotiate several legislative initiatives with individual senators from the Concertación who exerted pressure to influence the La Moneda-written legislative pieces. In that sense, having to face a prospect of negotiations for future initiatives seems to be nothing extraordinary. But the number of negotiators and the number of positions, often conflicting, has increased and the government's legislative majority, and maneuvering room, has shrunk. Moreover, the Lagos the Concertación's hope was that after the election, the government would focus on setting the foundations for the 2005 presidential election has vanished. Lavin's strong showing in the 1999 presidential election and his strong marks in recent polls makes him a prime candidate for the presidency in 2005. Only a successful Concertación government can prevent the conservative leader from reaching La Moneda. But discipline is a necessary condition for success, and the recent rebellion has shown the Concertación lacking discipline.


Lagos will be hard pressed to adapt legislative initiatives with wide political support within the Concertación. A focus on health and employment, making sure that all touchy and divisive issues are avoided or downplayed, seems as the logical route to follow. The goal of combating poverty without altering the distribution of wealth (no new taxes) might also be a safe way to go. But the success of those initiatives will be limited at best and quarrels over funding are almost guaranteed to emerge. President Lagos could also opt to push for initiatives that enjoy wide popular support--even if political support among the elites is less certain--such as divorce legislation and anti-crime measures. Even if many within his coalition and in the opposition (particularly on divorce) have vowed to fight those initiatives, Lagos's chances of succeeding are greater as elected officials will find it very unappealing to go against the will of an overwhelming majority of voters. In that sense, the recent rebellion should help the president realize that there are alternative ways to discipline his government coalition. Not fully abandoning the dialogue with party leaders, the president should focus on adopting strategies that find overwhelming support in public opinion. High levels of presidential popularity will do more to discipline the Concertación than any document, conclave or ideological retreat planned by the government coalition.