September 9, 2004

As it typically occurs in an election season, the government’s legislative agenda is slowed down by campaign-related activities and by legislative initiatives from all sectors designed primarily to obtain electoral benefits. Because the upcoming municipal elections will be mostly about local issues, president
Lagos’s high approval ratings will have a modest effect on the results. Yet, Lagos and all politicians will seek to influence the results of the October 31st contest, thus putting the legislative agenda—which includes much needed reforms—on hold until November.


President Lagos’s popularity

Recent polls have all hinted at the impressive approval ratings enjoyed by President Lagos. After 4 1/2 years in office, his approval stands at 57%, his highest since he took office and the highest by any president in 10 years (the results are from the Centro de Estudios Públicos bi-annual poll, the most reliable public poll in the country). Lagos’s leadership stands out more strongly when compared to the 29% approval ratings of the opposition. Whereas only 18% of people disapprove of the way president Lagos is doing, 38% disapprove of the way the opposition is doing.


Lagos’s high approval ratings partially respond to Chileans preference for the Concertación over the Alianza coalition. 36% of Chileans identify themselves as Concertación sympathizers, while only 21% identify with the Alianza. Those figures have not changed in the past two years.  Moreover, 23% define themselves as leftists and 12% as centrists (the two sectors most closely associated with the Concertación) while 22% define themselves as rightist. Those figures have also remained stable over the past two years.


Yet, 35% of all Chileans say they do not identify neither with the Concertación nor with the Alianza. Likewise, 35% say they do not see themselves as leftists, centrists or rightists.  Thus, while the Concertación remains the coalition of choice for a plurality of Chileans and the center-left crowd is larger than the rightist crowd, a large and stable number of Chileans do not identify with either coalition.   Those swing voters end up deciding the winners of the election.


President Lagos is very popular with swing voters.  However, that popularity does not trickle down to the rest of his Concertación coalition. When asked about their first choice for the 2005 presidential election, 31% mention Alianza leader Joaquín Lavín. Yet, the percentage of those who mentioned him as their first choice for the 2005 presidential election has fallen from 40% in late 2002 to 31% in July 2004.


On the other hand, the four runner ups are all Concertación candidates and they combine to obtain more than 43% of presidential first choice picks among those polled. The front running Concertación presidential hopeful is Defense Minister Michelle Bachelet. In addition to being the best ranked politician in the country, Bachelet has gone from 9% vote intention in a presidential election one year ago to 23% in July 2004. She has risen above Foreign Minister Alvear and former President Frei as the favorite Concertación candidate.


Thus, while recent polls have also shown that Lavín has lost some of its lead in the presidential race for 2005 and that Bachelet emerges as the most popular Concertación presidential hopeful, the most important conclusion of recent opinion polls is that President Lagos remains as Chile’s most favorite politician.  His ability to influence the 2005 presidential campaign will be tested in October, when Concertación candidates hope to get the co-tail effects of the president’s impressive approval ratings. If the Concertación wins an outright majority, Lagos will be able to significantly influence the presidential nomination process in the Concertación. If Lagos’s popularity does not trickle down to the rest of the Concertación, the tensions generated by the absence of a mechanism to select the candidate in the multi-party coalition and the presence of several willing individuals in the race might prove to be the life-saver Joaquín Lavín will need if his poll numbers continue to fall.



The Legislative Agenda

Although President Lagos has been trying hard to advance key items of his state modernization, pro-growth, educational reform and health-reform initiatives, the lack of discipline among Concertación legislators has severely hindered the government’s ability to use its narrow majority in the Chamber of Deputies.  Because legislators simply skip legislative sessions, some of Lagos’s emblematic projects have failed in the Chamber even after they have passed the Senate. Although the President can always force the Chamber to vote again using legislative tricks available to the executive, the time lost and the costs of using those tricks—in terms of concessions to key legislators in the Senate—causes unnecessary damage to the president’s agenda.


Although there will be some time to advance some of the pro-growth and modernization items during late 2004 and before the presidential and legislative electoral campaigns formally begin in mid 2005, the chances of a comprehensive constitutional reform package look much slimmer. President Lagos has insisted that he wants the Senate to vote on the reform package before the October election. Although there is agreement on most issues, two controversial items might derail the entire reform: the elimination of appointed senators (9 out of 47) and changes to the existing binominal electoral rules (2-seats per district, where it turns out that the Concertación and Alianza get one seat each regardless of who wins in each district).


The Concertación has always been in favor of eliminating appointed senators and changing the binominal electoral rules. The Alianza has opposed both measures. But as the Alianza has lost the monopoly control over the bodies that appoint senators every 8 years, the conservative coalition is now in favor of eliminating those non-elected seats from the Senate. Lagos now wants to bargain. He has offered to eliminate appointed Senators if the Alianza agrees to changes to the electoral rules. That has produced gridlock. Lagos recently forced the Concertación senators to agree to vote on the reforms before the October elections—despite the initial opposition by Christian Democratic leaders. Yet, there is no guarantee that an agreement will be reached. If the reform passes without changes to the electoral rules and the elimination of appointed senators, the debate over constitutional reform will not go away. 


Yet, it might be convenient for the president to accept a less than-ideal-deal if two of the initial consensus reforms are included: the reduction in the presidential mandate from 6 to 4 years and restrictions on the powers granted to the executive.  Because there is so much uncertainty as to who will win the next presidential elections and because there is many hopefuls among the Concertación’s ranks (including Lagos himself, who will be eligible to run again after sitting out for one term), mi might work in everyone’s advantage to reduce the powers vested in the executive and reducing the presidential term to make it concurrent with legislative elections.


If the Senate votes favorably for those reforms, Lagos will still be able to claim victory. Although there will still be questions about the legitimacy and usefulness of an electoral system that makes it very difficult to produce winners and losers in the seat distribution of both chambers, the fact that no other major piece of legislation is likely to pass before the elections at the end of October might make more attractive to get a constitutional reform through the Senate. 


To be sure, the president will continue to seize every opportunity to pressure Congress to move on several pieces of legislation. The recent decision by both Chambers to quickly pass an ad-hoc legislation making September 17th a holiday (to correct for the fact that the national holidays of September 18th and 19th fall on a Saturday and Sunday this year) has also given ammunition to President Lagos against Congress. Although the President agreed to sign the bill—despite his initial opposition—he has blasted Senators and Deputies for moving too slow on a number of important initiatives that have been waiting to clear legislative hurdles for years.


Amid accusations of populism against the legislators and charges of electoral intervention in favor of Concertación candidates against the Lagos government, the legislative agenda will continue to move slowly in the next few weeks, especially as recent polls show that the municipal elections will be a much closer race than President Lagos’s popularity would initially suggest.