Update on Chilean Politics

Patricio Navia

March 9, 2004


Although Chilean politicians usually take the month of February off, political activities in 2004 started earlier than usual, as late February and early March were full of maneuvering and positioning ahead of a 2-year electoral cycle that starts with municipal elections in October of 2004 and end with the presidential and legislative elections of December 2005. As expected, the Lagos government is moving aggressively to consolidate its high popularity while the conservative opposition struggles to leave behind the internal crisis caused by pedophile accusations made by a RN deputy against UDI legislators in October 2003.


The Costs and Benefits of Sending Chilean Troops to Haiti

The reluctant resignation of Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide has been followed more closely in Chile than in most countries around the world. Although it underlined the weakness of many Latin American democracies, the present Haitian crisis has also provided an opportunity for the Lagos government to take a regional leadership role and improve relations with Washington. Following up on a request by the United Nations Security Council—where Chile serves a two-year term—the Lagos government sent some 300 troops to join French and U.S. military personnel dispatched to that impoverished country to support the new government. Ever since the Lagos government opted in early 2003 to oppose the U.S. war effort in Iraq and publicly expressed its preference in the U.N. Security Council for a negotiated solution, relations between Santiago and Washington were kept at a polite but distant level. Although Chile and the U.S. signed a free trade agreement later that year, President Bush did not personally attend the ceremony, preventing Lagos from getting a historic photo opportunity. By quickly moving on to support the U.S. intervention in Haiti, President Lagos was primarily seeking to improve relations with Washington. And he succeeded in doing so.


The decision to send Chilean troops to Haiti also sent a strong signal to neighboring Peru and Bolivia. Chilean troops were ready to go in less than 48 hours. Despite a smaller budget and difficulties in its modernization efforts, the Chilean Armed Forces demonstrated its readiness to respond to the call of duty. But the most important effect was on sending a strong signal to Washington. President Lagos wanted to underline his willingness to work with President Bush’s initiatives that promote stability and democracy in the region. As usual, Lagos’s decision was not free of political costs. Criticisms for supporting the forceful removal of Aristide came from the left and right. The Senate reluctantly approved the so called peace mission but the Senate President expressed his disappointment with Lagos’s unilateral decision without previous consultation with the legislative. Others highlighted the risks involved in sending troops to a country in the verge of a civil war and without a legitimate civilian government. A few expressed disappointment by the government’s silence on denouncing the armed rebellion against a corrupt, but democratically elected president. Yet, unless future developments in Haiti go terribly wrong, the benefits for the Lagos administration will outweight the costs for the country and for Lagos himself. In addition to restoring good relations with Washington, Lagos might have earned himself the support of any future U.S. administration for an international post after his term is over in March 2006.


In the Mean Time, RN and UDI Continue Their Civil War

The investigation of the pedophile ring led by a competent Santiago Appeals Court Judge has been all but forgotten. The main press concern these past few weeks has been on the investigations by a lesser known judge on the civil law suit presented by the UDI against an alleged conspiracy behind the accusations made by an RN deputy against two UDI Senators. Deputy Pía Guzmán’s assertion that two conservative and one Concertación legislators—to be sure, she did not publicly mention names or party affiliation—were part of a pedophile ring resulted in a civil law suit brought by the UDI against Guzmán. RN has stood by Guzmán and UDI has accused RN president of knowing and, apparently, plotting with Guzmán to damage the reputation of the two UDI Senators. A series of accusations and counter accusations, lies, secret witnesses, hearsay and rumor has most people who have closely followed the process even more confused than those who have stopped paying attention to the political infighting.


At the end of the day, two indisputable conclusions stand out, regardless of whether there is any truth to the original assertion by Guzmán or to the counter conspiracy accusations made by the UDI.  The lack of unity within the conservative alliance might result in significant cost for the electoral prospects of UDI presidential candidate Joaquín Lavín. The Concertación has done a good job underlining its governability strength and comparing it to the unjustified and vicious attacks that have characterized the infighting within the Alianza coalition. However, the most damaging effect of the Guzmán accusation and its aftermath has been on the leadership image of Lavín himself. Having wavered between ignoring the conflicts and occasionally seeking to mediate between RN and UDI, Lavín has shown no decisive leadership or control over his own party elite. Everyone publicly agrees in that Lavín remains as the undisputed Alianza presidential candidate, but his calls to stop the infighting have been largely ignored. Even worse, recent revelations have pointed to the active participation of Lavín’s close advisor in the fight between UDI and RN. Patricio Cordero, Lavín’s right hand man in the Municipality of Santiago, apparently paid a witness to testify against Guzmán and RN president Sebastián Piñera in an effort to back up the claim that the initial accusation against UDI legislators was masterminded, or at least previously known, by Piñera himself. Although the particularly nasty exchange of words in recent days between UDI leaders and RN president will subdue as the heat of the summer is replaced by the cool autumn, the damage against Lavín electoral chances will not be negligible.   


Legislative Politics Are Back

The new parliamentary period begins on March 11th.  The new Senate president, UDI’s Hernán Larraín, and the Lagos government will find it more difficult to work together at the start of a particularly nasty election year. At least two battles will further separate Concertación and Alianza legislators. The appointment of new National Television Network Board of Directors members will be a hard fought battle. President Lagos might come out victorious if he plays his cards intelligently and makes it difficult for the Alianza to reject the names he proposes to the Senate. Although the legislation calls for the candidates to promote and defend pluralism, historically that provision has been interpreted as mandates to appoint representatives from different political parties. If president Lagos decides to appoint well-respected national figures to the Board, he might win popular approval in the same way he improved his ratings after appointing a conservative independent to head the Central Bank.


The most important upcoming fight, however, has to do with the constitutional reforms. The government will be pressured to negotiate with the Alianza before the May 21st state of the nation presidential address. The lack of comprise over the electoral system—with the government seeking a proportional representation system and the conservative Alianza defending the existing binominal system—might derail the entire process. The interest in reducing the presidential term from 6 to 4 years, however, might help facilitate an agreement between the Concertación and moderate RN senators.


In addition, the government will seek to advance several key reform packages, including the health, state modernization and pro-growth reforms. But the debate over the new divorce legislation and the much announced effort by Concertación legislators to bring to the floor the debate over a copper royalty tax will capture the attention of the public much more so than the rather obscure remaining items on the health, state modernization and pro-growth agendas.


Candidate Selection for Municipal Elections  

The late June deadline to register the candidacies for the Municipal elections in Chile’s 341 local governments will test the coalition’s ability to bargain and make compromises. Logically, the dispute between RN and UDI has made it difficult for those two parties to make real progress on negotiating a unified slate. Yet, the incentives of the electoral system are such that even if the legal dispute over Guzmán’s accusations lingers on, those two parties should eventually agree on a unified platform for the Municipal elections.


On the Concertación, the situation looks slightly better. Because the government coalition perceives that the internal Alianza disputes will make a Concertación victory more likely, the effort among the different parties to nominate the best candidates will replace the selfish party-based concerns. The only remaining problem is in the Municipality of Santiago, where two strong contenders continue in the unofficial race. At the end of the day, however, and despite the calls for open primaries made by one of the contenders, pre-electoral polls conducted by well-respected companies should help designate the candidate with better chances of winning that symbolic local government. A Concertación victory in 2004 in the municipality where Joaquín Lavín overwhelmingly won in 2000 might be the dream start for the Concertación for the 2005 presidential and legislative elections.  Yet, a sufficiently good showing for the Alianza at the national level, despite the vicious infighting that coalition has experienced these past five months, will send a strong signal that the Chilean electorate might be ready for a change in command at the national level despite the internal problems of the conservative opposition coalition.