Update on Chilean Politics

Patricio Navia

November 1st, 2004

The municipal election held on October 31st turned out to be a pleasant surprise for the government of Ricardo Lagos and his Concertación coalition. The government coalition won 44.7% of the vote in the mayoral races in the 345 municipalities and 47.9% in the races for municipal councilors. It was the 4th consecutive municipal election victory for the Concertación and the 11th consecutive national election victory for the government coalition since its formation in 1988 before the plebiscite that put an end to the Pinochet regime.  Although it would be far fetched to suggest that the Concertación is unbeatable, the electoral momentum is clearly on the Concertación side a year before the 2005 presidential and parliamentary elections.


Although the center-right Alianza opposition insisted before the contest in measuring only the mayoral races results—and disregard the races for municipal councilors—it turned out that under almost either criteria used, the Concertación emerged as a clear winner. Altogether, the Concertación won the mayoral races in 205 of the 345 municipalities in the country (up from 169 in 2000).  In addition, most of the 31 municipalities won by independents represented victories by former Concertación militants who resigned from their parties after intra-coalition negotiations determined that other Concertación parties would get to nominate the coalition candidates in those municipalities.  Concertación candidates won improbable races in the Santiago Metropolitan region, including the densely populated municipalities of Peñalolén, Maipú and San Miguel.  Amidst the joyous celebration, President Lagos enthusiastically declared that it would be best for the country to elect a Concertación president in December 2005.  Despite a decrease from the 52% vote observed in 2000, the 47.9% vote in the municipal councils election was more than 10% higher than what the Alianza obtained.  The increase in support for the Communist and Humanist parties coalition (9.1%)—mostly congregating voters who have favored the Concertación over the Alianza in the past—has helped consolidate the view that the center-left Concertación still has the upper hand with the Chilean electorate fifteen years after it first reached power in 1990. 


Although the Alianza expected to suffer a defeat, they hoped to improve their performance when compared to the 2000 municipal election when that coalition got 40.1% of the vote and won 165 mayoral races. In fact, the Alianza claimed that it would achieve a ‘technical tie’ with the Concertación on the mayoral races. The Alianza presidential hopeful Joaquín Lavín had promised the defeat the Concertación in the Metropolitan Region mayoral races. To everyone’s surprise, the Alianza got only 38.7% in the mayoral races and 37.7% in the councilors’ races. The opposition coalition lost more than 60 municipalities, falling from electing 165 mayors in 2000 to 103 in 2004. In addition to losing several populous municipalities in the Santiago Region—and getting fewer votes than the Concertación there—the Alianza lost dozens of municipalities across the country. Although the Alianza managed to pick up a few municipalities from the Concertación—including Viña del Mar—the best result for the conservative coalition was the Alianza victory in the municipality of Santiago. The outgoing mayor and Alianza presidential hopeful Joaquín Lavín called this the mother of all battles when he celebrated the narrow victory of his handpicked candidate. Had the Alianza also lost Santiago, the Concertación victory would have produced a political earthquake in the conservative coalition.


At the end of the day, both the Concertación and Alianza vote fell when compared to 2000, but the Concertación ended up winning more municipalities and was able to maintain a 10-digit advantage over the Alianza in the overall municipal vote.  Although the municipality of Santiago did represent the mother of all battles—in the sense that an Alianza defeat there would inflict severe damage on Joaquín Lavín’s presidential aspirations—the 2004 municipal war was clearly won by the Concertación, under the leadership of highly popular President Lagos.


When the votes were still being counted, political parties started to draw conclusions and transform their gains into increased electoral clout for the 2005 presidential and parliamentary election. Naturally, President Lagos benefits the most. The outgoing president can no longer be considered a lame-duck. He will likely be the most influential of all post-dictatorship presidents in his last year in office. Yet, he will also most likely also stay away from the temptation of influencing the Concertación presidential nomination process. Yet, if the Concertación parties fail to agree on a mechanism and a consensus nominee, President Lagos might choose to use his enormous political capital to bring his coalition to order before the 2005 contest.  Because Lagos’s high approval ratings help explain the 10-point Concertación electoral advantage, it is highly likely that whomever ends up as the Concertación candidate, Lagos will play a very active role in the 2005 presidential campaign.


A few weeks before the election, President Lagos decided to transform the contest into a referendum on the president’s performance. Lagos actively campaigned for the Concertación candidates and, taking a huge political risk, decided to reshuffle his cabinet and ask for the resignation of his two popular women ministers (Foreign Affairs’ Soledad Alvear and Defense’s Michelle Bachelet). Alvear and Bachelet actively campaigned during the month of October, contributing significantly to this unexpectedly strong Concertación victory.  Despite not being in any ballots, Lagos, Alvear and Bachelet were the clearest winners of the municipal contest.  Other Concertación presidential hopefuls witnessed how Alvear and Bachelet actively worked to rescue and consolidate ailing campaigns by Concertación municipal candidates. Many of them won surprising victories and many others who lost significantly increased their vote from that was predicted in polls taken before the two women joined the Concertación municipal races.


The Christian Democratic Party can also celebrate narrowly edging the conservative UDI as the political party with most votes, but the PDC president could not take the credit for himself, as Alvear was perceived as being partially responsible for the success. The expected announcement of a presidential run of his own by the PDC president has not yet happened and it is likely that Alvear might emerge as the PDC consensus presidential candidate to face the all-but-formally proclaimed Socialist presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet.


Yet, more than the name itself, it is the mechanism to be used to select the Concertación candidate what will capture people’s attention in the coming weeks. Although open primaries might seem inevitable if Bachelet—who is running ahead in the polls among all Concertación hopefuls—insists in declaring them as the only legitimate mechanism, Concertación party leaders will try to find a consensus name through behind-the-door negotiations that can also include the nominee slates for the 2005 Senate and Chamber of Deputies races.


Just as everyone expected, the negotiations to select the mechanism that will be used to select the Concertación candidate will start shortly after the election. Yet, because the Alianza is still shocked by its overwhelming defeat and the Concertación has been strengthened by its surprisingly strong victory, rather than getting right into the negotiations, the Concertación has chosen to get some additional political leverage from its recent electoral victory.  If the Concertación can successfully transform its victory into a call for unity and the parties agree on a mechanism that will facilitate the selection of a single presidential candidate—through primaries or consensus behind one of the two women candidates—then the 2004 municipal elections will have represented the best legacy president Lagos will have given to the political coalition that brought him to power in January of 2000.