Update on Chilean Politics

Patricio Navia

September, 2002


Responding to recent polls that show him with high approval ratings, some of his advisors have claimed that the Chilean president has the highest domestic approval among all current presidents worldwide. The claim is exaggerated, but the enthusiasm is not. President Lagos has clearly benefited from the combined effect of renewed strength of his leadership after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the social and economic upheaval experienced by Latin American countries in recent months that made presidential approval ratings plummet in those countries.  In the July 2002 Centro de Estudios Públicos poll (the most prestigious nationwide), Lagos had a 43% approval rating, slightly lower than the 49% high of December 2000, but still significantly higher than the average approval rating enjoyed by former president Eduardo Frei. Given the international financial hardships, the low price of copper and the lagging economic growth, Lagos was extremely satisfied with the results, corroborated by other less prestigious polls in the following weeks. With only 29% of respondents disapproving of his handling of the presidency, Lagos is turning out to be a more popular president in hardship than in good times (although his advisors will rush to remind us that he has never truly enjoyed good international times during his 30-month old presidency).  His decisive action during the June 2002 heavy rains that caused severe damage in the central region of the country helped improved his ratings. But his even firmer response in early August to a two-day strike organized by the private owners of Santiago's public transportation system will likely make his approval ratings go even higher in the next poll. As a response to the strike, president Lagos swiftly moved to condemn a blockade of Santiago's most important avenues and streets and to charge the movement's leaders with violations of the State Security Law. I will not let them take the city of Santiago hostage, the president warned, and then proceeded to order the "arrest" of the buses blocking the streets.


But just as Lagos seems to be strengthened by economic hardships, the Concertación coalition seems to fall deeper into the troubled waters of ideological and tactical disputes. The Christian Democratic Party, desperately seeking to carve an electoral niche, has sought to position itself as the defender of the middle class. The Socialist Party has emerged as the champion of labor unions and as the strongest opponent to privatization of any state-owned, or partially owned, enterprises. The PPD party has sought to build on its perceived role of consumer advocate and corruption whistle blower, but has sent confusing signals about its stances on how to get the economy moving again. For all practical matters, the Concertación is non-existent. The weekly Monday lunch of all Concertación party presidents, that used to symbolically show the unity of the coalition, have been cancelled altogether, and deputies and senators from the different parties spend more time attacking each other than working together.


Mutual accusations of political opportunism and cheap political blows between members of different Concertación parties, and increasingly within Christian Democrats and Socialists ranks, are now integral part of the political talk shows and fill newspapers. While everyone avoids directly criticizing the popular president, many politicians indirectly condemn his policies, or his unwillingness to embrace certain initiatives, either by claiming that the president is being held hostage by those who are nostalgic of the past where the state was heavily involved as an economic actor or by calling on the president not to be seduced by the sirens of neo-liberalism. The quarrels within the Concertación seem to have become more recurrent than in the past, although they are about less fundamental disputes. While president Frei experienced profound disagreements over human rights issues and because of his decision to actively seek the release of General Pinochet from his London house arrest, president Lagos has not needed to preside over a similarly thorny issue, but the animosities within the coalition have reached moments of considerable tension.


The disputes between the so-called self-flagellant and self-complacent factions of the Concertación that emerged after the 1997 parliamentary elections have resurfaced. Divided among those that underline the successes accomplished by the Concertación governments in fighting poverty and promoting growth and those who stress the Concertación's inability to reduce inequality and deepen democracy, the government coalition apparently moved beyond that debate when the Christian Democratic Party moved to resurrect the center-left distinctions that characterized the political and ideological debate in the early 1990s.  By seeking to position itself as different than the leftist PS and PPD parties, the PDC sought to replace self-flagellant and self-complacent factions with party-line divisions within the Concertación. But the recent debate over changes in the property taxes scheme (known as Rentas II), the debate over the health reform (Plan Auge) and most recently the arguments over the call for a new privatization drive have led most politicians to align along the complacent-flagellant continuum rather than along party lines within the Concertación.  The self-complacents, often called 'liberals' for their embracing of free market ideas, have insisted on the need to open the debate about privatizations. The self-flagellant wing, on the other hand, has rallied against even considering the option.


The privatization debate has made the differences between the Socialists and PPD more pronounced. While most socialists have vehemently opposed any new privatizations, the PPD leadership has insisted on opening the debate and discussing privatizations without ideological preconceptions. The PDC is also split on the issue. While a majority of the rank-and-file members oppose privatizations, some prominent party leaders have actually been in front of the debate advocating for new privatizations. With the exception of the Socialists, the other Concertación parties have either called for opening the privatization debate or have failed to adopt a party position on the issue.


If the Concertación survived tensions resulting from party-based differences in the early 90s, and frictions resulting from ideological differences in the late 90s, the government coalition now faces the challenge to concurrently overcome both party-based and ideological differences within its ranks to remain unified. The next big test for the Concertación's unity will be the 2004 municipal elections. Given the incentives of the electoral rules, the parties that make up the coalition will be better off if they can agree on a unified slate of mayoral candidates. With the 2005 presidential and parliamentary election looming closer in the horizon, the negotiations for a unified slate in 2004 will be inevitably tainted by the considerations over parliamentary and presidential candidates for 2005.


Yet, before the actual bargaining over candidate selection for the 2004 municipal election begins, there will be ample opportunity for the Concertación to test its ability to stay unified. The president is widely expected to make some minor cabinet adjustments and to replace some of the Regional Governors (Intendentes) after September 11. The legal ban to occupy office for December 2001 parliamentary candidates who did not get elected and for legislators whose terms expired in March 2001 expires that date. The president is expected to appoint several new Intendentes and to replace 2-3 of his cabinet undersecretaries. If he successfully distributes appointments in such a way as to satisfy the political aspirations of different factions within parties and different ideological factions within the Concertación, he should have a smoother ride in securing Concertación unity for his legislative initiative in the coming months. But under no circumstance should the president expect swift legislative approval for any initiative in the evenly split Senate and the 3-seat Concertación majority in the Chamber of Deputies. Getting legislative initiatives through Congress will be a difficult task anyhow, although the president can make it less difficult if he gives in to some PDC demands without hurting dramatically the aspirations of the PS and PPD in the upcoming new appointments.


The 2005 presidential election and the overt PDC demand that the Concertación candidate be a member of that party will also fuel tensions within the government coalition. The PDC has repeated hinted that Interior Minister José Miguel Insulza is conspiring with the conservative UDI to suffocate the PDC in the middle and squeeze out of that party the shrinking, but still at 19% in the last election, centrist electorate out of that party. By demanding that the Concertación candidate be a PDC member, that party has already infuriated the PPD and PS that combined for 24% of the vote in the most recent election. Although most leading Concertación presidential contenders are PDC militants (former president Eduardo Frei, Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear and Housing Minister Jaime Ravinet), the PS has two very powerful contenders, Health Minister Michelle Bachelet and Interior Minister José Miguel Insulza. Most observers would agree in that it is too early to seriously discuss the name of the 2005 presidential candidate, but that consideration seems to carry little weight for Concertación insiders who regularly assess the presidential chances of the leading contenders as if the election were only months away. As time progresses and as the possibility that a single candidate can distance himself (or herself) from the pack of Concertación contenders diminishes, the tensions between the PDC, PS and PPD will inevitably increase. The main victim of those tensions will be president Lagos's legislative agenda that will end up hostage of tactical moves by party leaders and presidential contenders interested in making gains for 2005.


Internal quarrels have not prevented the Concertación from continuously attacking the Alianza presidential candidate Joaquín Lavín. After Lavín moved forward with a highly debated and widely unpopular sale of the Municipality of Santiago rights to drinking water to a private water company (Aguas Andinas), the Concertación deputies led an effort to set up a congressional committee to investigate the sale. The work of the committee might not have helped reduced Lavín popularity (nor did it help to reverse the water rights sale), but most polls have shown that the 1999 presidential runner-up did not come out unhurt after the ordeal. Lavin has not been aided by the disputes within his Alianza coalition. The animosities between the UDI and RN make the disputes within the Concertación look like a G-rated movie. Yet, because Lavín popularity makes him the uncontested presidential contender of the conservative camp, RN quarrels are correctly perceived as effort to improve that party's bargaining position for the 2004 municipal and 2005 presidential/parliamentary election. The rumor that a centrist, liberal faction of RN will leave the party and reach an agreement with either the PDC or PPD has resurfaced in recent weeks. Some RN members have been special guests at PPD gatherings and the PDC leadership has made an effort to form strategic alliances with RN on some legislative votes. But when weighting the prospects of an electoral victory with Lavín in 2005 against the scenario of a risky alliance with one of the Concertación parties, RN will decide to keep its cool, swallow its pride and stay in the Alianza. 


What is the president to do

President Lagos' high approval ratings today might not help him much with the two things most precious to him right now. His ability to hold the Concertación coalition together, especially when it comes to legislative votes, has not improved after he was crown as the popular-in-crisis president by most recent polls. And presidents are ultimately judged for the laws they get passed, not for the legislative initiatives they send to Congress. President Lagos needs to devise strategies that will help him get his legislative initiatives through Congress more quickly and less costly. He also needs to prevent the Concertación parties from struggling to alter his own legislative agenda. President Lagos must impose his legislative agenda over the often disorganized and ill-planned legislative initiatives of the Concertación parliamentary delegation.


The second thing the president needs is a good Concertación presidential candidate for the 2005 election. Lagos's popularity has not trickled down to any of the Concertación likely presidential contenders. Lavín remains far ahead in most presidential polls and he would certainly be the winner if the elections were held today. But, the next presidential elections are 3 years away and the Concertación does not yet have a candidate. True, there is fear that the Concertación will not last until 2005, but regardless of the future of the center-left coalition, there will be a credible centrist candidate in 2005 to compete against Lavín. President Lagos's popularity will certainly not hurt Lagos' presidential candidate, but drawing on the little trickle-down effect observed today it might not help much either. At one point, in the next two years, the president will need to make up his mind as to what process to select the Concertación candidate he will support and, eventually, which of the several presidential contenders he will throw his support behind.


When he first came into office, president Lagos had a grand vision for his legacy. He wanted to be the president that transformed the country and set in motion a process that would make Chile an industrialized nation by its second centennial in 2010. Given the international economic conditions and the lagging growth, that goal will not be achieved. The president has just begun to fully accept that constraint. He will not be the president who transformed Chile into an industrialized nation, but he might well be the leader who saved Chile from a dismal economic crisis. Just as the captain of a ship going through a hurricane is a hero if she can bring the ship to port after the storm, president Lagos's legacy might be that he averted contagion and put Chile on solid footing for the recovery that will surely come after the current hardship. If Lagos embraces that legacy, he will begin working to provide the correct incentives to the Concertación parties to strengthen the coalition's unity and will lead the way into identifying an acceptable and efficient mechanism that allows the government coalition to overcome the 2004 and 2005 electoral challenge successfully, with a single presidential candidate and reasonably good chances of defeating Joaquín Lavín in the presidential election. True, such a legacy might be less attractive for Lagos than being the man who transformed the nation entirely, but given the present conditions it might well make him the most successful president in the entire Latin American region.