Update on Chilean Politics

Patricio Navia

July 12, 2004



Just as the tensions with the governments of neighboring Bolivia and Argentina began to subdue in recent weeks, concerns over the electoral prospects of the two leading political alliances in Chile have recaptured the attention of public opinion. Although the upcoming municipal elections will mostly reflect local concerns and will thus be determined by the popularity of local leaders more than party loyalty, all actors involved will draw conclusions about their electoral prospects in the 2005 presidential and legislative elections. All politics is local, but political analysis is always national.


Back to Domestic Concerns

After several weeks dealing with international crisis generated by the political turmoil in Bolivia and by the Argentine government’s decision to restrict the supply of natural gas to Chile (violating existing accords and contracts), President Lagos has seemingly put behind those tensions and has emerged victorious to the eyes of his domestic public opinion. Yet, he has had little time to enjoy his alleged foreign affairs victory.


The ongoing investigation on the illegal salary-subsidy scheme devised at the Ministry of Public Works continues to threaten some of Lago’s close advisors. The investigation has so far only shown enough evidence of wrongdoing aimed at supplementing salaries for qualified government advisors. Yet, the judge in charge of the investigation continues to cite new witnesses and seems committed to extending her investigation into the years when Lagos was minister of public works (1994-1998). Although the case will probably not directly involve Lagos, the fact that it remains open constitutes a potential threat to his popularity and a warning against a sense of overconfidence during his last year in office.


In addition, other corruption scandals—including the sentencing of those initially involved in the October 2002 bribery and traffic of influence scandal associated with the Undersecretary of Transportation—have forced the president to address concerns about the independence of the Chilean judiciary and the quality of Chilean politicians. Just when Lagos seems ready to raise above all other presidents in Latin America, political developments in Chile remind him that he is, after all, the leader of an admittedly succesful Latin American nation that is, nonetheless, far from being a transparent, consolidated and fully institutionalized democracy.


Legislative Gridlock

Although it is common that gridlock prevents the executive from moving his legislative initiatives forward during an election season, the situation in Chile today is particularly dramatic. First and foremost, the government fail to anticipate that the election season would begin, because of the 2004 October Municipal elections, more than a year before the next presidential election. In addition, the government also sent way too many initiatives through the pipeline during 2002 and 2003. Just the several remaining items in the so-called Pro-Growth Agenda, the State Modernization Agenda, the comprehensive Health Reform and the Constitutional Reform package would be enough the force the legislature to work extra hours to vote on all the initiatives before the Lagos term is over. 


However, given that the government needs to put items on the electoral agenda for the next municipal election, new announcements over policy initiatives have been made and will likely continued to be made as the election approaches. Those announcements will further clog the legislative process.


Some initiatives, however, do stand a good chance of passage. The health reform program will be partially passed before the end of the year. A combination of measures that introduce competition, allow for partial private-public partnership in the provision of health services and provide for some basic minimum guaranteed services for all users of the public health system has already been agreed upon and will likely pass both chambers before the end of the year. True, the ambitious original plan will not pass, but the government will still be able to claim that it delivered on one of its most important campaign promises.


The constitutional reform package stands slimmer chances of going through a growingly uneasy legislature. Although many constitutional reforms are agreed upon, the entire package hinges on three hotly debated issues: the electoral law, the survival of non-elected senators and the lenght of the presidential term. Concertación and conservative legislators are sharply divided over the electoral law. With their blocking power in the Senate, conservative legislators will successfully prevent the Concertación from reforming the so-called binomial system (2 seats per district chosen by proportional representation). If that is the case, the Concertación will also oppose the elimination of non-elected senators (whose majority loyalty the Concertación could finally turn in its favor when new appointments are made in late 2005). If no agreement is reached, the highly needed reduction in the lenght of the presidential term to four years (to make presidential and legislative elections concurrent) will not pass before 2005, making it impossible to produce concurrent elections again before 2017.


Lagos will be forced to reshuffle his cabinet shortly after the October 30 municipal elections. Some of his ministers will seek the Concertación’s presidential nomination while others will abandon the cabinet to run for the legislature in late 2005. Because the Constitution establishes that ministers who want to run must leave their posts at least one year before the election, Lagos knows that his productive legislative period will end shortly after the October 30 election. The fact that the campaign for the Municipal election is already underway means that the legislative clock is running out of time much earlier than Lagos would have liked.


Return of the Living Dead?

Although the two leading Concertación presidential hopefuls are women (foreign affairs minister Soledad Alvear and Defense Minister Michelle Bachelet), others have expressed their interest in seeking the government coalition’s nomination. Amongh those, the strongest and most likely challenger is former president Eduardo Frei. Although he never hid his intention to run, the fact that he has just returned from a unsually complicated prostate surgery has allowed him to formally launch his presidential campaign. Because of his past experience and formidable track record as president (1994-2000), Frei is considered a serious contender for the Concertación nomination. Yet, his poor showing in recent electoral polls has weakened his credibility as a potential candidate. If his poll numbers do not improve soon, it will be difficult for him to take the presidential nomination away from one of the two leading hopefuls, Alvear and Bachelet.


Ironically, Frei’s chances largely depend on the mechanism that the Concertación finally chooses as the way to select its presidential candidate. If free and open primaries are held, Frei’s poor poll numbers will likely prevent him from winning the nomination. On the other hand, if the choice is made by the leadership of the parties that comprise the government coalition, Frei’s chances might actually improve. This is so because Alvear and Bachelet are finding it particularly difficult to convince the Concertación parties’ elites of their chances despite their good results in recent polls.


If the Concertación obtains a solid victory in the October Municipal elections, its perceived electoral strenght might lead the Concertación leadership to overlook Frei’s apparent weak electoral prospects and to nominate him as the candidate without primaries. Yet, a potential poor showing by the opposition Alianza should not be automatically seen as evidence of weakeness of its presidential candidate Joaquín Lavín.


At the end of the day, if he fails to improve his standing in electoral polls, Frei’s only chances depend on his ability to capitalize on the generalized perception that it will be more difficult for a woman than for a man to win the Concertación nomination.


Wintery Expectations

As the dry winter causes additional pollution problems in Santiago and ocassional heavy rainy storms cause predictable damage in southern Chile, president Lagos realizes he is running out of time to fullfill his remaining campaign promises. Although the unexpected noise caused by recent tensions with the Bolivian and Argentine governments has receded, the government has not been able to enjoy a sufficiently





The government’s legislative agenda is moving at a snail’s pace.


tres paginitas para el lunes? tratemos de buscar algun tema novedoso en

politica, porque lo otro se mueve poco. quiza una pagina con el regreso de

frei, mas algun update legislativo (the more detail the merrier), mas una

paginita sobre lo que se te ocurra.