Update on Chilean Politics

Patricio Navia

September 10, 2003


The other September 11


Twenty-eight years before the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, another violent incident made September 11 an infamous moment in Chilean history. The overthrow of socialist president Salvador Allende took place on 11th of September of 1973. The 30th anniversary of that tragic event literally stopped all social and political developments in Chile during the past month. But the ceremonies organized to commemorate the event by those who supported and those who supported the military dictatorship have also destabilized the political alliances that have existed since the return of democracy in 1990. Fortunately, Chileans celebrate their Independence on September 18th. The old animosities resurrected by the commemorations of the 1973 coup will be soon put behind by the by the talk of national reconciliation. But some wounds resulting from the different interpretations of Chile history might make it more difficult for president Lagos’s legislative initiatives to pass in the months ahead. Given that the upcoming 2004 municipal elections will further complicate the legislative agenda, the government’s decision to commemorate the September 11th coup might end up being very costly as valuable time was lost before the arrival of the next electoral cycle. 


During the 17 years of military dictatorship, September 11 was an official holiday. Because of a number of deadlock provisions in the 1980 Constitution, the Concertación government did not have enough votes to abolish the September 11th holiday when it took power in 1990. Only in 1998, when the former dictator assumed his lifetime Senate post, did that holiday come to an end, largely due to an initiative championed by Pinochet himself. Pinochet’s London arrest a few weeks later further precipitated a number of transformations that made Chile a more open and democratic nation. The election of socialist Ricardo Lagos as president in January of 2000 together with the disappearance of Pinochet as a political actor after his return from house arrest in London combined to make the 30th anniversary of the coup a moment for the restoration of Allende’s image.



Divisions from the past are revisited

A number of events commemorating Salvador Allende’s idealism where organized by leftwing parties, groups and non-government organizations. The Lagos government organized two events of its own. But the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) expressed its discontent with the effort to rescue Allende’s historical figure. As the largest Concertación party and the most likely to nominate the Concertacion presidential candidate for the 2005 presidential election, the PDC has had a rough time adapting to not occupying the La Moneda presidential palace. After the Aylwin and Frei presidencies, the PDC threw its support behind Lagos in 1999. In addition to normal tensions within any government coalition, the PDC’s electoral decline since 1997 has recently led its leadership to seek to distance the party from the Lagos government.


Because the PDC opposed the Allende government in 1973, the memorials organized by the government to honor Allende gave the PDC leadership an opportunity to further underline that party’s differences with the leftist parties of the Concertación. The tensions that emerged within the Concertación revived some of the confrontations that characterized center-left relations in the early 1970s. PDC leaders rushed to emphasize their historic differences with the parties of the left and their opposition to Allende. Blaming Allende and the socialist party for the democratic breakdown, the PDC has sought to recast itself as a centrist party. Although the socialists and president Lagos resented the strategy, it might turn out to pay good dividends to the PDC. With all the commemorations, the socialists have abandoned all efforts to become a more moderate party, thus weakening the electoral prospects of their presidential hopefuls for 2005. The PDC in turn have successfully drawn differences between their centrist views and the more leftist views of the Lagos government. Whether this will be enough to give their presidential hopefuls a better electoral chance reminds to be seen, but their intended objective of differentiating themselves from the Concertación left was successfully achieved.


The high moral ground

The memories of the Pinochet dictatorship are inevitably linked with human rights violations. Those that opposed the dictatorship claim to be in a higher moral ground than those who supported it. The largest and most important conservative party, the UDI, has apparently accepted that view and it has sought to distance himself from the dictatorship and its legacy of human rights violations. Highlighting its 1983 official creation, the UDI only accepts and defends the legacy of neo-liberal economic reforms implemented by Pinochet. By taking the initiative to propose new compensations for the families of the victims of human rights violations, the UDI has sought to cast itself as a conservative party unrelated to the horrors of the past. Yet, the Concertación parties continue to underline the active role that many UDI leaders had in the dictatorship.


Seeking to retain the higher moral ground of having defended human rights and having fought for democratic restoration, the Concertación has sought to keep the memories of the dictatorship alive for two reasons. The first is because the legacy of the dictatorship implies high electoral costs for conservatives. Because the electorate overwhelmingly rejects the Pinochet dictatorship, being associated with it represents an insurmountable electoral hurdle. Yet, 13 years after the end of the dictatorship and because of the strategic decisions made by the UDI, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Concertación to successfully associate the conservative parties, much less the conservative presidential candidate Joaquín Lavín, with the Pinochet dictatorship.


The second reason has to do with the unity of the Concertación. Created to oppose the dictatorship, the Concertación has found it increasingly difficult to agree on matters of economic, social and tax policy. The ideological and tactical between the PDC and Socialists have widened over the years. In addition, a pro and anti neoliberal divide has emerged within socialists and Christian Democrats. Many critics highlight that the only two things that keep the Concertación together are the will to exercise power in the executive and legislative and the memories of their opposition to the dictatorship. The critics are only partially right. The electoral rules also force the Concertación to remain united to prevent losing seats in parliament.



Diverting attention from pressing issues

Regardless of the historical legacies of the Allende government and Pinochet dictatorship, the government’s decision to commemorate Allende complicated the legislative agenda. Congress spent its last days before the September 18th National Holiday 2-week recess almost exclusively discussing the efforts to pay tribute to those killed during the September 11th coup. True, September has historically been a slow month for legislative activities, but the Lagos government has more legislative initiatives on the pipeline than any previous government. Many of those are central components of the government’s plans for next three years. Because most analysts agree that it will be impossible to get all those initiatives passed before the end of the year, the wisdom of having given priority to the commemorations of the September 11th coup has been properly called into question.


When the legislature returns from its recess on September 22nd, the government will be forced to select a few among the many initiatives currently making slow progress in congressional committees. By using the executive power to put an urgency status on some legislation, forcing Congress to vote on them before a government chosen deadline, the Lagos government will make its priorities known. Initiatives linked to the state modernization and pro-growth packages will be prioritized. The comprehensive health reform (known as Plan Auge) and the constitutional reform package will advance more slowly as the chances of their successful implementation grow dimmer.


What comes after commemorations and National Holiday celebrations?

The Concertación government and the opposition will be hard-pressed to radically shift their backward-looking approach into a forward-looking strategy. The Lagos government has hinted at that shift by announcing the appointment of Interior Minister José Miguel Insulza as the Anti-Crime Czar. The crime rates have grown steadily in recent years, but the popular perception of crime rates has grown even more rapidly. Because the government anticipates that unemployment will continue to fall in the upcoming months, popular concern over crime will likely become the leading public opinion priority for the 2004 Municipal elections.


The president’s decision to accompany his wife to the United States where she will undergo surgery in October will likely help increase Lagos’s already strong popularity ratings. Because Mrs. Lagos will undergo a complicated surgical procedure, it is likely that president Lagos will be away for over a week. Although it is too early to begin treating Lagos as a lame-duck president (he still has 30 months left in his term), his celebrated decision to accompany his wife together with some clear indications that the presidential race within the Concertación is about to begin will undoubtedly hurt the president’s ability to press forward with his legislative initiatives. That makes it even more incomprehensible that Lagos chose to give the 30th year anniversary of the coup such a high priority on his government agenda.


The presidential race within the Concertación continues to capture the attention of pundits and strategists. In addition to the popular Foreign Affairs and Defense Ministers Soledad Alvear and Michelle Bachelet, former president Eduardo Frei has hinted at his intention to seek the Concertación nomination. Other hopefuls include Interior Minister José Miguel Insulza, Housing Minister Jaime Ravinet and Education Minister Sergio Bitar. As pundits often remind us, whenever there are more than 3 presidential candidates within a single government coalition, we know that the race is just beginning. Only when the short list includes no more than three names, the race is really heating on. The Concertación is far from that point yet. President Lagos is counting on having a long list of Concertación hopefuls until the October 2004 municipal elections.