Update on Chilean Politics

Patricio Navia

October 8, 2004

After the Cabinet reshuffle of September 29, President Lagos has successfully regained control of the political agenda. By having replaced his two popular ministers (and presidential hopefuls),
Lagos has also raised the stakes for the upcoming municipal election. Former ministers Alvear and Bachelet will now lead the Concertación electoral effort. If the Concertación wins an outright majority, Lagos will credibly claim to possess a strong mandate for his last year. If the Concertación fails to win, Bachelet and Alvear will be the biggest losers. Lagos will still emerge strong and will remain an active player during his last year. Because of his recent moves, rather than a lame duck president, Lagos will be, as one commentator recently put it, a flying duck until the very end of his six-year term.



Cabinet Reshuffle

Because most people expected Lagos to make his last major cabinet change after the October 31st municipal election, the sudden announcement on September 29th, made by Lagos himself, that all cabinet members had been asked to resign for a cabinet reshuffle surprised friends and foes alike. Three ministers were replaced. Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear was replaced by former Deputy Ignacio Walker, a member of Alvear’s PDC. Defense Minister Michelle Bachelet was replaced by Housing Minister Jaime Ravinet, also a PDC. Sonia Tschorne, a socialist (like Bachelet) was appointed in Housing. Yasna Provoste replaced her fellow PDC militant Andrés Palma as Minister of Planning, in a move widely understood as an effort to keep a sufficiently large number of women in the cabinet.


The departure of the two most popular ministers was correctly interpreted partially as a response to criticisms made by the opposition against Bachelet and Alvear for their active role in the municipal campaign. Because of their popularity, the two former ministers were being constantly asked to appear at campaign rallies, where enthusiastic supporters wasted no time in proclaiming them as presidential candidates. Because the conservative opposition complained against that ‘electoral intervention’ by the government and also because  Lagos understandably wanted to avoid becoming an early lame duck president—overshadowed by his popular ministers—the cabinet change was done more than a month earlier than what most expected.


In addition to putting an end to speculations about whom else might leave the cabinet—those who stay will do so until the end of Lagos’s term, according to the official announcement—the President prevented his Concertación parties from seeking to influence the appointments he would make. Because parties expected the cabinet reshuffle to occur after the election, they hoped to see their electoral performance reflected in the new make-up of the cabinet. Because Lagos conducted the cabinet change before the elections, the Concertación parties will not be able to pressure Lagos to their advantage take advantage in case of good electoral performance on October 31st.


The cabinet reform also caught the conservative opposition by surprise. After having spent weeks criticizing Alvear and Bachelet for campaigning on behalf of Concertación candidates, RN and UDI leaders rushed to criticize the government for the cabinet change. Even prudent Joaquín Lavín joined in the criticism against Lagos and the popular ministers, calling the change politically motivated and mostly aesthetic. The government responded by asking Lavín to be consistent and to resign from his post to campaign freely or to stop campaigning for Alianza candidates altogether. Although Lavín perceived the cabinet reshuffle as an electoral move to free the popular ministers to campaign on behalf of the Concertación, he decided to take the risk of losing ground and not follow suit. 


Alvear and Bachelet have entered the municipal campaign with full force. They have quickly overshadowed the presence of Eduardo Frei, the former president who is also seeking the Concertación presidential nomination for the 2005 election. Yet, they have put a good part of their own political capital at risk. If the Concertación fails to get more votes than what the polls are predicting it will get (around 47-49%), they will end up on the losing end. However, if the Concertación gets more than 50% of the vote, Alvear and Bachelet will be seen as the decisive winning factor in this hard fought electoral contest. Only at that point will the two women begin to abandon their mutual collaboration strategy that has proved to be very effective since they first rose in public opinion polls and will adopt a more confrontational approach against each other.


Thus, regardless of the results on October 29th, Lagos has skillfully minimized his risks and has maximized his potential benefits. If the Concertación wins, it will be because of Lagos’s popularity and because of his clever cabinet reshuffle. If the Concertación fails to win, the cabinet reshuffle will have served as a good opportunity to identify the weaknesses of both Alvear and Bachelet.  Because a good deal of the Concertación presidential nomination dilemma might be solved with the October 29th vote, the Lagos decision to adjust the cabinet might have allegedly ‘presidentialized and politicized’ the municipal vote. But as Lagos as repeatedly said on the campaign trail, a Concertación defeat would have been inevitably associated with a Lagos defeat.


Because a Concertación victory will both weaken the right and strengthen Alvear and Bachelet, Lavín knows that much of his own chances of winning the 2005 presidential election depend on a good showing by the Alianza.  For that reason, in the remaining weeks, the already heated campaign should get even hotter and even nasty by traditional Chilean rather civil standards. Yet, women’s electoral strength will depend on their ability to avoid mud sliding and to convince Concertación adherents that their best chance for a 4th consecutive term is to have a woman candidate.



Constitutional Reforms, At Last!

Precisely because legislators are less effective when the country falls into campaign mood, the announcement that the government, the Concertación and the Alianza had reached a deal in the Senate on most pending issues of the debate over constitutional reforms came as a pleasant surprise. Alianza and Concertación senators agreed to eliminate designated and lifetime senators in March 2006 (when the current designated senators’ period expire), to give the president to remove the commanders in chief of the armed forces at his/her discretion, and to take out of the constitution all references to the electoral rules (those will be fully spelled out only in the appropriate electoral law). A number of other important, yet less controversial issues, will also be a part of the package. Among those, there is a very popular measure to eliminate a one-year residency requirement for children of Chileans living abroad before they can opt for Chilean nationality and a meaningful reform to the composition of the Constitutional Tribunal.


Two important items remain on the table and will be taken up in the coming days or weeks. First, the government will seek to reform the so-called binominal law and increase the number of elected senators from 38 to 50. Although the Alianza might agree to that increase, it will be highly unlikely that they will agree to change the binomial electoral system.  Secondly, and perhaps most important in the short term, there is not an agreement yet on the length of the presidential term. Although the Concertación wants to reduce it to 4 years (making legislative and presidential elections always concurrent), some within the Alianza want to keep the presidential term at six years, making both elections concurrent every 12 years (next time they would be concurrent will be 2017).  The Senate is expected to vote on that decision before the end of October (though it might be much sooner if an agreement is reached).


Although the Lagos administration had threatened with not moving forward with the reforms if conservative parties did not agree to change the electoral system, the opportunity to show the public that the government can still effectively carry out its legislative initiatives despite the electoral climate—together with the political costs that opposing the elimination of designated senators would imply—convinced Lagos to authorize his Interior Minister to close the deal and make the surprising announcement.




Together with the cabinet reshuffle and the agreement on constitutional reforms, President Lagos has confirmed that his last two years in office are likely to be his most effective ones. The improving economic situation—well reflected in high approval ratings for Lagos and his government—will also help the President position himself to be an active player in influencing the mechanism the Concertación will use to select its presidential nominee. Just as there is no better starting platform for a government candidate to run a presidential campaign than a good economy and a popular president, there is no sweeter way to leave office than by passing the presidential sash to a member of one’s own political coalition. After his brilliant moves of the last weeks, Lagos is in an excellent position to do just that. His chances are today much better than most of his supporters would have dreamed possible when Lagos became president after narrowly defeating Joaquín Lavín in January 2000.