Update on Chilean Politics

Patricio Navia

February 7, 2004


Four years down, two to go

President Lagos is set to celebrate his fourth anniversary in power on March 11. His approval ratings are at an all time high. Good economic prospects should only help his popularity improve in future months. The president must now decide on what to accomplish during his last two years. Because there will be municipal elections in October, the electoral clock is already ticking. Lagos understandable wants to prevent the electoral campaigning from overly influencing the legislative process. He will likely succeed in distancing himself from the municipal elections, but it will be more difficult to prevent the Concertación presidential race from tainting his legislative initiatives.


Electoral Politics Are Back

The municipal elections are having the predictable disciplining effect on all political parties. The corruption scandals that hurt the Concertación in late 2002 and early 2003 and the pedophilia accusations that sent the Alianza against the ropes in late 2003 have given way to intra-coalition bargaining to identify the most competitive candidates for municipal races. Because the Chilean party system is comprised of 6 different parties grouped in two large coalitions, the bargaining takes place at two different levels. First, different factions negotiate within parties and then parties negotiate with coalition partners to identify which municipalities will be assigned to each party.


With much unjustified fanfare, the Concertación announced in late January—before the political elites went on summer vacation in February—it had reached an agreement to nominate a single Concertación candidate in all but 30 of Chile’s 341 municipalities. The remaining 30 municipalities are among the most populous and contended ones. Santiago, where Joaquín Lavín, confirmed Alianza presidential candidate, will not seek re-election, is the most sought after prize by PDC and PS-PPDs. Current Intendente of the Metropolitan Region, PDC Marcelo Trivelli, and former Santiago Deputy, PPD Jorge Schauhlson, are formidable candidates with an excellent change at winning and handing a major symbolic blow to Lavín by defeating his handpicked candidate. Yet, the power struggle between PDC and PS-PPD has made the Concertación choice a thorny affair. The PPD proposal to hold open primaries in Santiago to select the Concertación candidate will probably not go very far, but it has put the PDC on the defensive. Yet, if primaries are held in Santiago, demands for primaries will soon emerge elsewhere. In addition to costs and organizational challenges, the power of the Concertación party elites will be greatly diminished.


2004 Results as Predictions for 2005 Presidential Election

Parties are particularly worried about the municipal election because of its implications for the December 2005 presidential elections. If the PDC continues to lose ground within the Concertación, its claim that a PDC candidate must be the Concertación nominee in 2005 will we severely weakened.  At the same time, if the Concertación vote is safely above the 50% threshold, the chances of winning a fourth consecutive presidential term in 2005 will increase substantially.


True, aggregating municipal election results at the national level is a risky exercise. Most races are about local issues. Most voters do not know or ignore the party militancy of their candidates. Yet, loyalty of municipal mayors is fundamental at grass root organizing for national elections. Besides, symbols do matter. An electoral victory in October 2004 can have an enormous effect in setting the stage for the 2005 presidential contest.


Lagos has stayed out of the Concertación negotiations, but he might be forced to intervene if the parties fail to reach an agreement on a single list of mayoral candidates before the June registration deadline. Although the Alianza is facing a similar challenge at the negotiating table, the UDI’s electoral strength, political predominance and more unified leadership will likely force RN to acquiesce to an agreement. Joaquín Lavín will not need to get involved in the bargaining, thus reducing the chances of losing support among dissatisfied conservative local leaders. Yet, because a Concertación victory in Santiago or an overwhelming Concertación national victory will hurt his presidential chances, Lavín will strongly campaign for conservative municipal candidates.



Chile and its Latin American Neighbors

An international public relations initiative by the Bolivian government demanding access to the Pacific Ocean took Chile by surprise in late 2003. After a series of controversial and confusing statements by world and regional leaders expressing support for Bolivia’s demand, Chile has successfully defended the legality of its position. No country will voluntarily cede sovereignty over territories conquered in wars and annexed 120 years earlier. Yet, Chile will need to work hard to counter the international sentiment that Bolivia’s underdevelopment is partially a product of being landlocked. Because of its weak political institutions, its fragile democracy and the populist use Bolivian leaders often make of Chile’s position, working with Bolivian leaders to find a satisfactory solution which does not compromise Chilean sovereignty will be notably difficult. At most Chile can optimistically aspire to convince international actors of its willingness to sit at a negotiating table and put the ball on Bolivia’s court.


Yet, the incident has highlighted Chile’s excessive reliance on free trade as its main, and perhaps only, tool for international diplomacy. After the successful completion of Free Trade Agreements with the U.S. and EU, that strategy has rendered itself irrelevant. The need to work with Latin American neighbors and earn their sympathy, in addition of a well-earned respect, remains a challenge. The recently aborted candidature of Interior Minister José M. Insulza to the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States (OAS) was partially motivated by the problems Chile has encountered taking on a regional leadership role. Though the country can do without it, Lagos’s intention for his last two years in power seem to include a more aggressive international role to promote democratic consolidation, reduce inequality and foster economic growth in the region.



The Concertación Presidential Race

Chile’s bid to lead the, admittedly weak, OAS also failed because of domestic concerns. The success of his candidacy depended on minister Insulza’s ability to campaign. But as Minister of Interior, he cannot travel much. Thus, formalizing the campaign required a cabinet reshuffle where the most powerful minister would need to be replaced. Because Lagos felt that a cabinet reshuffle would inevitably trigger the presidential race within the Concertación, he opted to officially withdraw the bid to the OAS and confirm Insulza in his post. Lagos will wait until after the Municipal elections for the cabinet reshuffle where presidential hopefuls and those seeking a legislature seat in the 2005 elections will be replaced. Although Lavín is still the man to beat, recent polls show that almost any Concertación candidate would obtain at least 40%. Yet, finding a candidate that can successfully build on such high level of support to come out as winner is not an easy task.


Former president Eduardo Frei has all but formally made his announcement to run. Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear and Defense Minister Michelle Bachelet have also signaled their intent to run. Yet, Lagos’s decision to delay a cabinet reshuffle has left Frei free to openly campaign alone. The former president, who marks in the single digits in most polls, will have the entire 2004 to grow. If he does show sufficient strength, he will easily cruise to win the nomination. If not, then the real race will start after the municipal elections, when the cabinet reshuffle allows Alvear and Bachelet to openly campaign.  


Although there is no certainty, the Concertación will likely hold presidential primaries as it did in 1999. Despite the PDC’s claim that it is its turn to select the nominee, only primaries will guarantee the survival of the Concertación. If the process remains the same as in 1999, Alvear and Frei will first face each other off within the PDC. The winner will take on Bachelet, or a different PS-PPD nominee, in the Concertación primaries held between March and May of 2005. The winner will face Lavín in the December election.


The above is easier said than done. The PDC will push to impose its candidate claiming that its nominee has better chances to defeat Lavín and threatening that the party would otherwise split bringing an end to the Concertación. In addition, the internal nominating process within the PDC will be full of foul play. The recent elections of regional PDC leaders was a showdown between different factions preparing for a party dispute not seen since Patricio Aylwin secured its party presidential nomination in 1989 in a dubious internal vote amid accusations of fraud and vote buying that came to be known as Carmengate. The 2005 dispute might get even nastier.


Of course, all the above will be made much simpler if a single Concertación presidential hopeful rises above everyone else in the electoral polls. But since that is not likely to happen, the Concertación leaders will need to act carefully to defend the interests of their own parties without threatening the life of the government coalition.


While president Lagos will seek to promote unity within the Concertación and discourage tensions between the PDC and PS-PPD, his decision to delay a cabinet reshuffle might not be enough to prevent the surging presidential race within the Concertación. Struggling to consolidate Concertación unity on the one hand and restraining the presidential race on the other will be atop his priorities. In order to do the first, he will need to get involved in the debate about the process to select the Concertación candidate. But if he does, he will inevitably lead his coalition full force into the presidential race for the 2005 elections.