Update on Chilean Politics

Patricio Navia

November 8, 2002


October was a month president Lagos will find it difficult to forget. While everything seemed to be going well for the president during the first two weeks, his coalition ended the month at the verge of collapsing. By all means, the last two weeks have the worst in the 32-month old Lagos administration. Accusations of bribery have resulted in the arrest of a former undersecretary and the request by a judge to impeach 6 Concertación deputies. The scandal has threatened to derail the entire Lagos legislative agenda and might have dealt a deadly blow to the Concertación coalition.


October started out well for the government. Despite the poor economic performance of the Chilean economy, President Lagos had succeeded in keeping high approval ratings throughout much of 2002. His legislative initiatives, including health reform and constitutional reform were moving forward at a reasonable pace. His government even succeeded in passing a law to end censorship in film and media, a long delayed Concertación electoral promise. Even the much-awaited divorce law was moving forward in the Senate and had good hopes of becoming law before Lagos’s third anniversary in power. Despite the harsh international economic conditions, President Lagos seemed to be sailing fairly well in the troubled Latin American waters.


True, there were some worrying signals. A small dispute between the government and some Wall Street analysts about the official government’s external debt turned into a presidential gaffe when Lagos himself got involved to question one of the U.S. analyst’s credentials. Although the issue was soon put to rest, the reaction by the president was clearly inappropriate and evidenced Lagos’s excessive involvement in daily events. Yet, overall, the president’s entourage was pleased with the high approval ratings enjoyed by Lagos despite the economic difficulties and in light of the sense of discontent and concern that exists throughout much of Latin America.


Early in October, the government was drawn into a power struggle with the Air Force Commander, Patricio Ríos. A newspaper report had linked an Air Force general’s wife, to an active group of Air Force secret police operatives that was supposed to have disappeared after the dictatorship. General Patricio Campos, married to the former agent, was appointed by Ríos to collect information within the Air Force on the fate of those disappeared during the dictatorship. The information gathering effort was one of the recommendations made by a roundtable talk initiative set up by the Frei government in 1999, during Pinochet’s arrest in London. The information collected was then presented to the government. President Lagos made a televised speech in early 2001 indicating that the armed forces had admitted to dumping into the Pacific Ocean the remains of a number of political opponents. Although several judicial investigations were opened as a result of those revelations, the fact that the Air Force officer in charge of gathering information was so closely linked to those responsible for human rights violations questioned the legitimacy of the entire Mesa de Diálogo human rights roundtable.


Because the constitution does not allow the president to fire commanders in chief of the armed forces, Lagos skillfully played his hand and informally pressured General Ríos to resign. When General Campos’s resignation did not calm the political waters, Ríos agreed to resign and president Lagos appointed his successor. It was clear that Lagos was most comfortable dealing with human rights and military issues than trying to explain the reasons for the high unemployment figures and the meager growth rate of the Chilean economy.


Although it is expected that after good times, bad things follow, nobody was prepared for the political earthquake that a bribery scandal involving a former undersecretary and a deputy would end up causing. At first, the scandal implicated PPD deputy Victor Rebolledo and current Radical Party (PRSD) president Patricio Tombolini. An owner of vehicle emission gas test facilities in central Chile produced evidence of having bribed Rebolledo and Tombolini to get additional licenses to open new facilities.


Apparently, Rebolledo received payments, disguised as consulting fees, to help the entrepreneur secure additional site licenses from the government. After that, as it usually happens, the story gets murkier. Money orders were cashed, meetings were held and money changed hands. As soon as the story broke, a number of party operatives involved in cashing checks resigned their posts. Yet, they claimed the money was intended to finance electoral campaigns. Because there is no regulatory framework in Chile for electoral campaign spending, those claims cannot be either verified or proved false.


Tombolini, who left the Undersecretary of Transportation position to become PRSD president a couple of months ago, came back from an untimely vacation in the French Polynesia to defend himself and issued subtle threats against the former minister of Public Works, a close Lagos associate. The press had a field day. Lagos himself had served as Public Works minister under the Frei government and several of his close aides had worked in that ministry at different times.  Yet, the president reacted vehemently called for a thorough investigation and promised to combat corruption at any price. Days later, several high-ranking officials were sacked from government posts apparently because of their involvement in questionable management practices. 


At the same time, the investigation of the bribery scandal moved forward, with checks and money orders involving operatives and elected politicians pointing to a web of corruption that seemed to go well beyond mere electoral campaign financing.  Other entrepreneurs came forward and accused two PDC deputies of being involved. In fact, the two deputies that leaked the information to the press turned out to have held meetings where money changed hands and political favors were offered. The two PDC deputies, Jaime Jiménez and Cristian Pareto, claimed that they were trying to collect evidence of corruption, but the immediate and severe reaction by the PDC leadership isolated them. The accusers, as they were briefly known, turned into accused faster than anyone might have imagined. The PDC leadership reacted immediately by asking for their expulsion from the party.


At this time, the story is still unfolding, but on November 8, the judge in charge of the investigations ordered the arrest of Tombolini, the PRSD president, and asked the Court of Appeals to impeach six current deputies (2 PDC, 1 PS, 1 PPD and 1 PRSD) so that he can press charges against them. If they are impeached, the Concertación will temporarily lose its 3-seat majority in the Chamber of Deputies. Although if those deputies are found guilty and sentenced, other Concertación politicians will get their seats.


Although details of the scandal have filled the press, it is not yet clear who did what and what crimes can be proven and will be prosecuted. Yet, there are already several political casualties. In addition to Tombolini, Rebolledo, Jiménez, Pareto and three other deputies, the future of the PRSD is in doubt and the reputation of the PPD has been badly hurt. Although the PRSD is the smallest Concertación party, it often served as a buffer to reduce tensions between the centrist PDC and the leftwing PS and PPD. The PRSD demise will further increase tensions between the PDC and the leftwing Concertación parties. The PPD has suffered a severe blow. Crafted as a party of citizens, free of the ills of the past, the PPD has turned to be very weak and vulnerable. Its president, deputy Guido Girardi, has not been directly involved in the scandal, but two of his operatives are directly involved and have been fired from high-ranking posts.


Despite the impeachment of two of its deputies, the PDC has been strengthened by the scandal. Senator Adolfo Zaldívar, PDC president has taken a leadership role seeking severe sanctions against those involved and has worked hard to distinguish his party from the ill-reputed PPD and the PS. Ironically, the PS’s obsessive involvement with human rights issues helped the party weather out the storm as that party is perceived as stuck on issues of the past, but not as a corrupt group. In fact, as the PPD further weakens and suffers from its lack of party cohesiveness and discipline, the PS emerges as the only leftwing alternative in Chilean politics.  Despite relative gains and losses for the PDC, the Concertación is the big loser. Trust within Concertación parties is non-existent. PPD leaders openly accuse the PDC of wanting to destroy them even at the expense of destroying the Concertación. If there were doubts about the Concertación health, this scandal has made evident that the coalition is on the verge of collapsing.


President Lagos has so far come up with mostly reactive strategy. He has announced steps to combat corruption, but the government is seen as incapable or unwilling to take stronger measures to throw the rascals out.  The already weak cabinet has shown its inability to cope with the scandal. The government is in disarray and it would not be surprising if Lagos reshuffled his entire cabinet. Because the president is desperate to regain control of the legislative and political agenda, President Lagos is expected to announce soon even harsher and stronger measures to combat corruption. But it will be hard for the president to put this scandal behind.


The opposition has for the most part remained on the sidelines. Even though some conservative legislators have rushed to get some valuable television time with new and often irrelevant accusations of corruption, the leadership of RN and UDI have let the Concertación parties destroy each other with mutual accusations. If the elections were held this December, Joaquín Lavín would easily sail to an overwhelming presidential victory. There is so much political gain to be had for conservative parties that UDI leaders cancelled a previously announced visit to Cuba before the end of the year. Why try to compete in the news with the government coalition digging its own grave?


The events are still unfolding, but the political cost of the scandal will only keep on getting higher. In addition to the reputation blow for the PPD and the kiss of death for the PRSD, the scandal may temporarily cost the government its legislative majority in the Chamber and might force Lagos to reshuffle his cabinet only 10 months after a major shake up. The president has lost the political and legislative agenda and his mulit-party government coalition might already be non-existent.  Even the PDC might end up losing more than it has won. Although its strategy is to differentiate itself from the PPD and PS, and to distance itself from Lagos himself, the accusations of bribery will cost the party two of deputies and will remain voters that most corruption scandals during the past decade have involved PDC operatives and legislators.


October will not easy to forget for President Lagos and it might be the month that marks the end of the Concertación, 14 years after it successfully formed to defeat Pinochet on the October 5, 1988 plebiscite. For conservative parties, the bad memories of the October 1988 defeat and the October 1998 Pinochet arrest in London might soon be replaced by the good memories of the October 2002 Concertación debacle.


For the rest of Chile, the scandal has come at the worst possible time. In addition to government corruption, there have been accusations of wrongdoing against Catholic priests and army officers. A priest has already been charged with sexual abuse of children and several army officers have been arrested on charges of providing drug traffickers with security services and perhaps even weapons. A recent revelation about the homosexual orientation and sexual improprieties of a well-known catholic bishop who was among those organizers of the Pope’s visit to Chile in 1987 also caused a scandal.  The bishop, currently in seclusion abroad, has not been charged but the church acknowledged the problem and swiftly moved to get him out of Chile.


If October was devastating for the Concertación, horrible for the Lagos government and welcomed news for the conservative opposition, for the rest of Chile the scandal has made it evident that country is not immune to corruption and other ills that affect its Latin American neighbors. Yet, there might be some good resulting from the series of scandals. The press has taken a leading role in exposing scandals and denouncing corruption, even when it has affected the Catholic Church or the government. Judges are taking a more active role in investigating accusations, even if when it involves high-ranking government officials. Although some Concertación leaders have remained the public that worst corruption scandals went unknown during the dictatorship, the fact that smaller corruption scandals have been unveiled this time might be in an of itself a signal that the values and virtues that we often associate with democracy are present in Chile and make a difference. Bad for the government, but good, in the long term, for Chile if these scandals lead to change if the regulatory framework for election financing and to a more active role for the press and civil watchdog groups in combating corruption and making governments more accountable.