Update on Chilean Politics

Patricio Navia

August 9, 2003


President Lagos is enjoying his best time in terms of popular support in more than 2 years. Lagos must quickly and effectively take advantage of the positive situation to advance his legislative agenda. Pretty soon, the country will fall back into an electoral campaign mood and Lagos will have run out of time in his six year period at the presidential palace. The challenge to work together with the Concertación parties and to find common ground with the opposition are the key to Lagos’s success in transforming his popular support into legislation and initiatives that he wants passed before the end of his term. The president will also need to adequately balance the benefits of keeping the opposition leader in the hot spot and the costs of letting the presidential election gain momentum two years before the campaign officially starts.



Popular President

The well-respected Centro de Estudios Públicos (CEP) Poll released in late July confirmed what other less-reputed polls have reported in recent weeks, the approval ratings of president Ricardo Lagos continue to show formidable strength. While most Latin American leaders are struggling with low popular support, the Chilean president showed a solid 52% approval rating in the last CEP poll, the highest level since December 2000. Despite the corruption scandals that have tainted his government in recent months and despite the slow recovery that Chile has experienced after the 1999 economic recession, Lagos’s strong approval ratings have silenced his opponents and encouraged his supporters. Lagos himself seems to be enjoying the presidency for the first time in months. Although the legislative agenda is moving much more slowly than promised by the government, with the health reform stalled in the Senate, the Constitutional reform moving at a snails’ pace and even the much awaited Divorce Law finding more hurdles than initially predicted, the government is in an upbeat mood.


Yet, optimism is always short-lived in politics, especially when the government in power has shown again and again its ability and predilection for self-inflicted injuries and unforced errors. Lagos’s formidable strength also represents his potentially greatest liability. His ability to communicate with the public directly through television and public appearances has gained him the support he unquestionable enjoys. Yet, his media overexposure has also gotten him into trouble and it has occasionally hindered the progress of his legislative initiatives. When the president has picked up fights with opposition legislators and even publicly reprimanded members of his own Concertación coalition, the president’s popularity has not suffered, but his legislative initiatives have found stronger opposition in Congress.


After the passing of the value added tax (VAT) increase in July, the president’s legislative agenda will be much more difficult to get through Congress. The Constitutional reforms require such a supermajority that Lagos will be force to generously negotiate with the conservative coalition. The Health Reform requires a simple majority, but reluctance against some of its provisions among Concertación legislators has also forced the government into the bargaining table. Lagos’s popularity will help little when it comes to negotiating with Congress. Patience, negotiating skills and ability to compromise will be of more help in the weeks ahead.


Elections getting closer

The 2005 presidential election might have gotten off to an early start when likely conservative presidential contender Joaquín Lavín announced that he would like to seek re-election as mayor of Santiago to show his opponents how much support he still enjoys among his constituents. After his strong showing in the 1999 presidential election, Joaquín Lavín has been the shoe-in for the presidential nomination of the right-wing Alianza coalition. His impressive electoral victory in the 2000 Municipal elections as mayor of Santiago confirmed his leadership role within the conservative ranks. But his performance as mayor has been far from perfect. He has been strongly criticized for focusing too much on getting media exposure and for doing little to solve the deep structural education, health, security and housing problems faced by the most important municipality in the country.


His unexpected comments generated immediate reaction from several Concertación leaders who sought to seize the opportunity to force Lavin into a lose-lose situation. If Lavín were to run in the 2004 election and win, he would be forced to resign shortly after to run for the 2005 presidential election. Running for an office one has no intention to occupy for more than a few months has never been a good electoral strategy. Challengers have a powerful weapon on their hands when they can claim that they will serve the entire period. In addition, Lavín’s 61% vote in 2000 will likely go down if the Concertación presents any of the several candidates that have expressed interest. Former Santiago mayor and current Housing Minister Jaime Ravinet is a prime candidate. Santiago Metropolitan Region and media-savvy Marcelo Trivelli is often described as the Concertación version of a Lavín-style, light, easygoing, television-friendly politician. Former Chamber of Deputies member Jorge Schaulhson has also expressed his desire to run. Any of those would make it almost impossible for Lavín to win more than 60% of the vote.


Yet, if Lavín does not run, the Concertación will likely win Santiago in 2004 and use that victory to weaken Lavín’s presidential appeal in 2005. The conservative candidate will make every effort to find a viable conservative candidate for Santiago to avoid being forced into the race himself. Sebastián Piñera, the president of RN, UDI’s archrival party within the Alianza, might emerge as the best choice. In the end, Lavín will likely vow out of the race and the speculations about the 2004 municipal election will fade away. But the ordeal was an early sign that election time is getting nearer. When it arrives, sooner than later, it will put an end to any political compromise and dialogue that might develop between the Concertación coalition and the Alianza.


The Concertación needs a candidate

The 2005 election is 28 months away, but candidates will need to be officially announced in two years time. Because Lavín will likely be the Alianza candidate, the only interesting conjectures have to do with the Concertación nominee. The PDC has made it clear that they will have a candidate from its ranks, no matter what. Yet, the PDC also knows that given the president’s popularity and the public opinion dislike for parties that want to end the existing political coalitions, they must convince the other Concertación parties rather than seek to impose its PDC nominee. If done skillfully, the socialists and PPD will accept a PDC nominee as the Concertación candidate provided that a generous agreement is made on the Concertación electoral slate for the 2004 municipal and 2005 legislative elections. If no agreement is reached, the Concertación might end up breaking up and the left will use Lagos’s popularity to secure more than 33% of the vote in 2005 which, given Chile’s odd electoral system, is sufficient to secure about ½ of the legislature.


The leading names within the PDC are former president Eduardo Frei, Housing minister Jaime Ravinet and Foreign Affairs minister Soledad Alvear. The three have different strengths and weaknesses. Each one could mount an attractive campaign against Lavín, yet only Alvear seems to be picking up electoral support. Experts warn that Alvear has no experience running as candidate and caution that the media has helped built her popularity because she is a woman. Ravinet would be an excellent candidate for he served in the same position as Lavín, mayor of Santiago, and did an admittedly much better job. Yet, Ravinet seems to lack support from his own party and he historically failed to build support among socialists and other Concertación leftists. Former president Frei has experience on the job and, as time has passed, his tenure is remembered more fondly. Yet, his image might not help reduce the liability that 16 years in power will represent for the Concertación when the presidential campaign begins in 2005.


Defense minister Michelle Bachelet is running well in the polls, but because she is a socialist, it is unlikely that she would be the Concertación candidate. Yet, her popularity is a good reminder for the PDC about the need to work with socialists to find a single Concertación candidate. If the Concertación were to break up, Bachelet, with Lagos’s support, might become the only competitive candidate against Joaquín Lavín. Bachelet will likely serve as the best negotiating tool for the socialists to convince the PDC to find a compromise for a single Concertación candidate in 2005.


President Lagos is aware of the need to find a candidate. His worst exit scenario would include turning power over to Joaquín Lavín in March of 2006. Yet, president Lagos has made every effort to prevent the Concertación presidential hopefuls from launching an early presidential contest within the ruling coalition. Because three of the four names are currently sitting in Lagos’s cabinet, the president has so far succeeded. It is unlikely that any of the hopefuls will begin to actively campaign until after the October 2004 municipal election. Only then will the presidential hopefuls be allowed to campaign. Lagos will then face the challenge of having to stay out of the race until one gets the nomination and then he will need to work to convert his popular support into a intention to vote for the Concertación nominee. Naturally, if Lavín were to run in 2004, the presidential election will get off to an early start despite president Lagos’s apprehensions.


Human Rights again

September will mark the 30th anniversary of the 1970 military coup. In addition to memorials, events and services, many among the elite think the time is ripe for closure. Because many judicial investigations have lingered for years in courts and the initial investigations about the assassinations committed by the repressive agencies of the regime have evolved into investigations about the cover-ups of the crimes in the mid and late 80s, pressure is mounting to find a negotiated solution to the ongoing judicial investigations. The move by the conservative UDI to suggest new and additional economic and symbolic reparations to the families of the victims forced the government to promise to make a wide proposal to address the entire situation. Yet, because financial reparations for all victims (including those tortured, exiled or arbitrarily fired from their jobs for their political views) would be prohibitively expensive and any indication that the government is trying to influence the slow pace of the judicial power would be unacceptable to the victims’ families (and because there has been significant progress in judicial investigations in recent months), the Lagos government is finding it very difficult to come up with a sensible and comprehensive proposal. In the end, when the 30th anniversary of the coup passes, pressure against the government will also fade away and Chileans will begin to realize that although judicial processes will eventually be closed, the legacy of human rights violations cannot find closure after an agreement by the political elites.