Update on Chilean Politics

Patricio Navia

June 13, 2004



As the next electoral cycle approaches, the political environment has moved further away from cooperation on legislative initiatives between the government and the opposition to an increasingly aggressive confrontational mood aimed at obtaining an edge on a fierce electoral competition expected for the municipal election on October 31st and the presidential elections scheduled for December 2005.


After delivering his 5th State of the Nation address to congress on May 21st, President Lagos has continued a campaign to reposition some of his legislative initiatives, but his numerous trips abroad and diplomatic tensions with neighboring countries have limited his ability to exert decisive influence on domestic matters. His proposals of a constitutional change to eliminate mandatory voting and make electoral registration automatic for all voting age Chileans has been celebrated by most analysts, but have also highlighted the government’s difficulties to align Concertación legislators behind its legislative initiatives.


The ongoing bickering within the Concertación over the next presidential campaign continues, as parties and likely candidates actively position themselves and unofficially campaign despite the Concertación’s failure to agree on a process for the selection of the government’s coalition presidential candidate. Meanwhile, Alianza presidential candidate, Joaquín Lavín, continues to struggle to reposition himself and to prevent the latent conflict between RN and UDI from reemerging and further damaging his already weakened chances to achieve an easy victory in the next presidential election.


The MOP-GATE and Pedophile Affairs

The latest developments in the two most damaging political scandals in recent years in Chile have continued to capture the attention of media outlets. The MOP-GATE affair, which involves the use of accounting tricks to divert funds from the Ministry of Public Works to pay salary supplements to political appointees, has dragged on for more than 18 months. Recent accusations of undue pressure exerted by interested parties against the judge in charge of the investigation have put the government on the defensive. The Supreme Court president is under fire for apparently intervening in favor of the government before the judge. The Minister of Justice is also under fire for seeking to undermine the judicial investigation. Because many believe that President Lagos’s campaign was partially funded by kickback from private concessionaries awarded contracts by the Ministry of Public Works, the investigation could eventually result in criminal convictions against some of Lagos’s close associates. Because political campaigns in Chile are all financed by private or public funds through the use of accounting tricks—which also allow for private contributions to be deducted from taxes—that make it impossible to verify funding sources, this investigation might eventually help bring more transparency and accountability to campaign financing in Chile.


Recent developments in the MOP-GATE case have also involved Ana Chevesich, the judge in charge of the investigation. Allegations against her entourage for leaking sensitive information to right-wing-owned newspapers have undermined her position. After she denounced that she was being pressured to avoid investigating people from President Lagos’ inner circle, the Supreme Court appointed a special judge to investigate her accusations. But the new judge has also actively sought to investigate the leaks from her secret investigation to the press. The appointment of this special judge will slow the original investigation and will further debilitate Judge Chevesich’s reputation of probity and integrity that helped her put the government on the defensive in the past few months. Yet, new developments will undoubtedly put the government on the defensive again in the next few months.


The Alianza continues to face its own judicial problems. The October 2003 accusations, by a RN deputy, against two right-wing senators (presumably from the UDI) for alleged involvement in a pedophile scandal have not gone away. But the attention has now moved the way in which political operatives from the UDI and other parties conducted parallel investigations aimed at damaging their political opponents. As the judges continue to investigate the pedophile scandals and the alleged crimes committed to cover up the participation of politicians (or to unjustly connect others to the pedophile ring), the leaders of the Alianza coalition continue to make efforts to distance themselves from the process. Yet, because the new UDI president, Senator Jovino Novoa, is one of the two rightwing senators accused of being a part of the pedophile ring, that case will continue to haunt the Alianza for the next few months.


Winding Things Up

In the mean time, President Lagos prepares for his last year in office. A number of his legislative initiatives are still making their way through the legislature and several stand little chances of becoming law before his term is over. In addition to his ambitious health reform overhaul (known as Plan AUGE), the large-scale constitutional reform package will need strong political pressure to clear congress before the end of the year.


In his recent State of the Nation address, President Lagos actively sought to put the constitutional reform back in the legislative agenda with a bold proposal to automatically register all voting age Chileans and to eliminate the constitutional provision that makes voting mandatory. This bold proposal would increase the number of registered voters from 8 million to almost 11 million, but given that voting would no longer be mandatory, turnout will no longer be easy to predict. Most likely, if the reform goes through, neither the Concertación nor the Alianza will directly benefit from an increase in the number of voters. While on the one hand young voters are more likely to embrace the values of tolerance, diversity and pluralism advocated by the Concertación, on the other hands they are also less inclined to oppose the Alianza solely on the grounds that the right supported the Pinochet dictatorship. If anything, this reform would bring additional uncertainty to the electoral process, as it will be more difficult to predict turnout and to identify voters with strong right or left-wing preferences.


In addition, President Lagos continued to demand a compromise from the Alianza to reform the electoral system. The so-called binomial system (2 seats per district, assigned by proportional representation) make it almost guaranteed that the Concertación and Alianza get one seat each in every district, regardless of voters’ preferences.  Although the Senate has already advanced a long way on the constitutional reform package, the uncompromising defense of the binomial system by the Alianza might derail the entire reform package. Despite the fact that most reforms find wide consensus, President Lagos has stubbornly argued that an electoral reform is essential to introduce elements of real competition in the electoral process. The entire constitutional reforms (which also includes a reduction in the presidential term to 4 years, to make all presidential and legislative elections concurrent and several provisions to strip remaining authoritarian enclaves from the Constitution) could go nowhere if the disagreement over the electoral system persists.


Presidential Election Politics

With four months to go before the Municipal Elections and a year before the presidential nominees need to officially register their candidacies for the December 2005 election, the economic recovery and the popularity of president Lagos have given renewed hopes to the Concertación. The government coalition stands a good chance of winning a fourth consecutive presidential election. However, Joaquín Lavín’s weakness should not be overestimated. The mayor of Santiago remains a popular figure (with much better numbers than the rightwing Alianza coalition) and given his formidable campaigning abilities, he will be a difficult man to beat in December 2005.


Yet, the Concertación can mount a successful presidential bid if the coalition can agree on a process to legitimately nominate a candidate from among those best equipped to win an election. Unlike 1999 or 1993, when a single Concertación figure quickly emerged as the favorite in pre-electoral polls, there is now no single candidate that can claim overwhelming popular support among Concertación likely voters. Moreover, there is no widespread agreement among Concertación parties to select the candidate through open and competitive presidential election primaries as in 1999. Unless they agree on a legitimate process to select a candidate and can successfully overcome the bickering normally associated with political disputes within a multi-party coalition, the chances of Lavín easily clinching a presidential victory in December of 2005 will increase.


Michelle Bachelet and Soledad Alvear remain as the frontrunners within the Concertación. One of them will likely win the Concertación nomination. Socialist Bachelet is the popular Defense Minister. Her strengths include her charm, consistently high approval ratings and ability to heal civil-military relations from the traumas of the Pinochet dictatorship. Yet, she has failed to actively put together a presidential campaign team. For that reason, rumors about the Socialist Party’s willingness to sacrifice her candidacy continue to undermine her credibility as a likely presidential candidate. On the other hand, Alvear, the PDC Minister of Foreign Affairs, has a well-organized campaign team. Though admittedly less popular than Bachelet and arguably also a weaker candidate, she might be the nominee because she has put together a sound plan to become the first woman president in Chile. Alvear’s biggest challenge comes from within her party. PDC president Adolfo Zaldívar has made it clear that he would prefer almost anybody else as candidate. If Alvear successfully overcomes Zaldívar’s opposition, she will need to convince likely Concertación primary voters (if primaries are indeed held in May of 2005) that she stands better chances than Bachelet of defeating Lavín.  Yet, the main challenge for the coalition remains agreeing on the nomination process. If there are no open primaries, the legitimacy of the process will undoubtedly hinder the Concertación. On the other hand, if the Concertación fails to agree on a single candidate, the claim that the center-left coalition can provide more governability and stability than the Alianza will be severely damaged.


In the mean time, Lavín anxiously awaits for an official Concertación candidate to campaign against. Because municipal election campaigns will swiftly begin after the July 2nd deadline for candidate nominations, the focus of attention will shift away from Lavín towards municipal election candidates. Lavín will actively campaign to help the Alianza improve its 40% vote share obtained in the 2000 election. If successful, he will consolidate his position of overwhelming favorite to win in 2005.