Update on Chilean Politics

May 6, 2004

Patricio Navia


Election campaigns have replaced legislative work as the main political priority in Chile. Although the government has worked hard to slow down the electioneering and keep politicians focus on approving legislative initiatives, there will inevitably be a significant slowdown in the legislative process for the remaining of 2004. The mood is right for parties to adopt their electioneering strategies and to focus on short-term electoral gains rather than long-term policy concerns in the next few months.


It’s all about elections

Although it is certainly too early to label president Ricardo Lagos as a lame duck president, the proximity of the upcoming municipal elections in October and the uncertainty about the name of the next Concertación presidential candidate has drastically limited the government’s ability to effectively influence the public agenda. The government has been unable to discipline Concertación legislators and to successfully negotiate with Alianza legislators to advance its legislative agenda through Congress. Concertación legislators are more concerned with making the most convenient choices in what will likely be one of the biggest gambles in Chile’s contemporary politics: the selection of the Concertación presidential candidate.


Because everyone is more concerned with what comes after 2005, Lagos’s 5th state of the nation address to Congress on May 21st will most likely be an overall historical assessment mixed with a number of polarizing references to the passage of a divorce law and other moral issues that deeply divide the Concertación and the Alianza. Because a majority of the population has moral views closer to the Concertación’s, the Lagos administration will seek to play this card to get an electoral upper hand in the October municipal elections.


A recent controversy over the government decision to distribute day-after pills in public clinics to women who request saying that they have been raped (even if no police report is filled) exemplifies the government’s effort to bring moral issues to the campaign to highlight the Alianza’s rather conservative stances and to induce voters to support Concertación municipal candidates in the upcoming election. Although the Alianza displayed an initially militant opposition to the initiative, electoral considerations will, once again, make the conservative parties—especially the UDI—rethink its views and adopt more moderate positions favored by the electorate. In addition, because the somewhat expensive day-after pill is easily available for purchase elsewhere, the government successfully framed this issue as one of equal access for those with lower income.


Yet, despite the government’s effort to position themes on the public agenda, the nearing of the end of the Lagos’s six-year term is quickly eroding the government’s ability to set the legislative agenda. The evidence of Lagos’s weakening power is nowhere as clearly seen as in the controversy that surrounded the debate around a copper royalty tax. Despite the government’s initial refusal to address the issue, a revolt by Concertación legislators forced the Lagos administration to announce a legislative initiative to levy a royalty on mineral production. Regardless of the merits or shortcomings of the initiative, the fact of the matter is that the Concertación legislators successfully forced the president to adopt an initiative that was on the government’s agenda.


Even the Gas Crisis responds to electoral concerns

The so-called Gas Crisis has also demonstrated that all politics is local. Although the shortage of gas supply from Argentina responds to domestic problems that were difficult to predict—and even more difficult to prevent—for Chilean authorities, the fact that Soledad Alvear, the Minister of Foreign Relations is one of the leading Concertación presidential hopefuls has helped convert this into a huge domestic political issue. After several weeks of infighting and internal conflicts—which resulted in a significant popularity drop for its presidential candidate Joaquín Lavín—the Alianza has seized the opportunity to blame Alvear for the gas supply shortages. Accusing her of using the Foreign Affairs ministry to promote her own presidential campaign, several Alianza legislators have unsuccessfully called for her resignation.


To be sure, Alvear seems more concerned with scoring domestic points (visiting morning television shows and giving all kinds of non-foreign-affairs-related interviews) than with addressing the larger question of Chile’s alleged isolation from its neighboring countries. The tensions with Bolivia as a result of that country’s increasing demands for sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean and the recent tensions with Argentina resulting from that country’s failure to honor previous contracts that established a permanent gas supply to Chile have dramatically underscored Chile’s unique position as the most stable and successful democracy in the region. Mending relations with troubled neighbors will not be easy. Doing it under the leadership of a foreign minister more concerned with improving her presidential chances than with working with neighboring countries will make it even more difficult.  This affair might provide Lagos with an alternative government agenda. Because domestic politics are too contaminated with electioneering, Lagos might turn his priorities to addressing larger regional issues. Taking charge of the gas—and energy—crisis might become one of Lagos’ leading concerns in the coming weeks.


Because Lagos knows that the minute he reshuffles his cabinet—and allows for the departure of at least 3 presidential hopefuls—he will become a true lame duck, no cabinet reshuffle should occur until after the October 31st municipal elections. Although electioneering will certainly hinder the government’s ability to advance important items on its legislative agenda, there are no alternatives for Lagos but to struggle to prevent the brewing presidential campaign from acquiring full force before the end of the year.



The Concertación’s presidential selection mechanism

One of the underlying concerns within the Lagos administration and the Concertación is the absence of a clearly-established mechanism to select its presidential nominee. Although Lagos was nominated in an open primary with very high turnout, PDC leaders had expressed their intention to avoid primaries and unilaterally imposing a PDC militant as the coalition’s candidate. The spectacular popularity rise of Defense Minister Michelle Bachelet, a member of the socialist party, raises doubts about the chances of success of the PDC plan. The more popular Bachelet becomes, the more difficult it will be to sell the idea that the Concertación candidate should be a PDC. True, many believe Bachelet’s candidacy is just hot air, but the popular minister has consistently obtained better polling results than other Concertación candidates for over a year.


Thus, agreeing on the process by which the Concertación will select a candidate might cause more headaches than getting the parties to align behind the chosen candidate. Because Lagos wants to delay the start of the presidential campaign, he has sought to prevent debate over the selection mechanism. But as time progresses and people start placing their bets and choosing their political cards, the debate over the selection mechanism will intensify and tensions within the Concertación will increase. That will inevitably put additional hurdles on the government’s ability to carry forward its legislative agenda.


Santiago is Chile

The controversy that surrounded the nomination of the Concertación’s candidate for the Santiago mayoral race might be a good indicator of the problems ahead for the Concertación’s presidential candidate selection process. Despite the enormous popularity of Santiago Regional Intendente Marcelo Trivelli, a member of the PDC appointed by President Lagos, the Concertación parties agreed to nominate PPD’s Jorge Schaulsohn, a former deputy last elected in 1993. Although Trivelli fought until the end, his failure to win the support of the PDC leadership cost him dearly. Schaulsohn’s imposition as candidate highlights the difficult choice for the Concertación. One the one hand, by following pre-electoral polls the Concertación maximizes its chances of winning. On the other, political parties do not want to give up their control of the selection process.


If Schaulsohn wins the mayoral race against Lavín’s handpicked Alianza candidate, it will be a blessing and a curse for the Concertación. Taking Santiago away from the Alianza control and winning, as it is widely expected, a majority vote at the national will bring an invaluable momentum for the Concertación a year before the 2005 presidential elections. Yet, Concertación parties would find it easier to advocate for the nomination of that coalition’s presidential candidate without open primaries. If no primaries are held and parties fail to agree on a single candidate, the Concertación might indeed end up having two presidential nominees in December of 2005.


If what happened in Santiago helps predict what will happen in the presidential candidate selection process, we should expect that much Concertación energy is going to be consumed in trying to agree on a single name. More importantly, the influence of president Lagos in the process and his ability to discipline the Concertación parties will be at best very limited. Thus, rather than slowing down, we should expect to see electioneering and campaigning increase their dominant role in Chile in the weeks and months ahead.