Update on Chilean Politics

Patricio Navia

February 9, 2005


As the Chilean political elites goes on vacation in February, the discussion over the mechanism to select the Concertación presidential candidate and the quarrels among conservative forces seem to indicate that the two main political coalitions are stubbornly making use of their strengths and incapable of overcoming their weaknesses.


The Concertación nominee

Although recent polls have shown a consolidation of Michelle Bachelet as the most popular Concertación hopeful, the recent nomination of Soledad Alvear as the PDC nominee has cast some doubt of Bachelet’s chances to clinch the nomination.


In the most recent CEP poll (the most widely respected in the country), 35% of respondents said Michelle Bachelet was their preferred candidate for the presidential elections. Although Alvear was the first choice of only 11% of respondents (altogether, Concertación hopefuls were named by 52% of those polled), the fact that she only secured the PDC nomination in mid January might have hurt her standings. Yet, electoral support for Bachelet and Alvear seem to be interchangeable. Whereas 35 and 17% respectively indicate that they would definitely vote for Bachelet and Alvear, an additional 36% and 47% responded that they could vote for Bachelet and Alvear respectively. Thus, while Bachelet could aspire to a maximum of 71% of favorable votes, Alvear can aspire to a maximum of 64%. The argument coming out of Alvear’s camp is that either woman can defeat Lavín. And thus, the Concertación should nominate the best-qualified one.


Although the negotiations to select the mechanism for the nomination are underway between the parties that comprise the Concertación, open primaries will likely be agreed upon. Although there is debate as to whether there should be national or regionally-held primaries, the nominee should be selected democratically sometime between May and June. Because Alvear is perceived as the weaker candidate, her camp seems to be inclined to holding regional primaries at different dates (which allegedly would have lower turnout). Yet, Alvear knows that if she is to stand a chance to defeat Bachelet in competitive primaries with relatively high turnout, she must improve her standing in polls.


Bachelet and Alvear agreed to take vacations in February. Yet, as soon as March starts and the mechanism for the nomination is agreed upon, we should see Alvear actively trying to improve her poll ratings and Bachelet working to keep her present lead in most polls. The perception (overly optimistic, to be sure) is that whoever wins the Concertación nomination will easily go on to win the presidential election in December.



The Right: authoritarian legacy and personality conflicts

Even though nobody questions Joaquín Lavín’s presidential aspirations, some conservative leaders have expressed their concern over Lavín’s apparent freefall in recent polls. Only 36% of those polled believe Lavín will be the next president (down from 48% a year and a half earlier). Moreover, 52% say they are definitely not voting for Lavín in December. Although a 2.7% margin of error still give him hope, Lavín does face a tough challenge: a very large percentage of the Chilean electorate is not yet ready to support a conservative presidential candidate. With only 18% self-identifying with the Alianza (and 36% self-identifying with the Concertación), Lavín will need to win decisively among the 35% that self-identify with neither political coalition to win the presidency in December.


He has two things going in his favor, but at least three things working against him. The Concertación’s 16-year tenure gives him plenty of ammunition to campaign on a change is good platform. If he can successfully combine praises for the way Lagos has handled the economy and criticism for all the shortcomings of Concertación rule, he might dissuade a large majority of those undecided. In addition, having won 3 of the 5 races he has participated (he lost a chamber of deputies election in 1989 and the presidential election in 1999), Lavín is a more experienced campaigner than either Bachelet or Alvear.


Unfortunately, there are a few things that work against him. The good economic performance and the Lagos government’s high approval ratings are bad news for Lavín. More importantly, the inability to put behind the painful legacies of the dictatorship (Lavín was a supporter of Pinochet) and the lack of discipline among conservative parties might doom his presidential bid even before he even gets a chance to actually campaign.


A series of judicial rulings against former high-ranking officers of Pinochet’s secret police apparatus has concerned many rightwing leaders. Although the vociferous declarations by former secret police chief Manuel Contreras as he was arrested to serve a new sentence for human rights violations were not surprising, the uneasiness among members of the military is widely-felt. Army Commander Emilio Cheyre has stuck to his guns and continued to defend the independence of the judiciary. The Lagos government has paid back Cheyre’s unequivocal loyalty with pressures over the judiciary to bring an end to long-standing judicial investigations on human rights violations. Asking judges to deliver sentences in a timely fashion (before mid 2005), the government and the Supreme Court seem to agree that whatever bitter pill needs to be swallowed by the military, it should happen soon. Surprisingly, the daily El Mercurio has joined those who criticize Cheyre for abandoning those actively involved in the military dictatorship. Yet, because Lavín and rightwing parties have stayed out of this dispute, Cheyre has come out of it strengthened.  Because Lavín needs all the votes he can get among moderate voters, he cannot make gestures toward his extreme rightwing constituency. If they were to present a presidential candidate of their own, Lavín would loose a small but extremely necessary block of votes. At this point, there is not much he can do other than hope that Pinochet supporters will swallow their pride and end up supporting him despite his evident effort to distance himself from the Pinochet legacy.


By the way, legal troubles for former strongman Augusto Pinochet continue to mount. In addition to being stripped off his immunity for human rights violations, the revelations about secret bank accounts in the U.S. earned him a law suit from Chile’s tax office. Although Pinochet has offered to pay with the money from his off-shore accounts, the tax office is not ready to dismiss its suit. More likely than a sentence for human rights violations, tax evasion might be the charge that will eventually make Pinochet a convicted felon in Chile.


Lavín’s greatest problem, however, has to do with the long-standing disputes between RN and UDI leaders. Although he has made gestures towards RN—by bringing in RN’s natural leader Andrés Allamand and deputy Lily Pérez to his electoral command—the mistrust between the two parties continues to undermine Lavín’s claim that the Alianza can provide governability. Because the perception in his camp is that Lavín looses support when he gets involved in political disputes within the Alianza, he has to be careful to balance the need to prevent that rightwing quarrels damage his chances with the urgent need to strengthen his image of tolerant, moderate and forward-looking leader.



The Lagos factor

With 59% of people believing the country is going in the right direction (the highest since the question was first asked in 1994), and with an approval rate of 61%, Ricardo Lagos can rest assured that his government will have a grand finale. Provided that no scandals hit the administration in its last year, Lagos also knows that his approval rating, the highest of any president since democracy was restored in 1990, is a valuable asset for the Concertación presidential candidate in the December elections.


With 50% of respondents arguing that promoting employment should be one of the government’s first three priorities and an additional 45% citing crime-prevention among the top priorities, the Lagos administration will heavily rely on recent good economic indicators—the economy grew at the fastest rate in 7 years in 2004—to ease worries about unemployment. Yet, as job creation concerns lessen, crime-prevention and crime-reduction initiatives will likely emerge as the most important public concerns. Thus, despite the fact that the Lagos government success will provide solid ground for the Concertación nominee to build a strong and appealing electoral platform, Lavín can still take advantage of people’s perception that rightwing governments can deal with crime prevention more effectively than left-leaning ones.


At the end of the day, if the Concertación can successfully overcome the challenges of selecting a presidential candidate without undermining the coalition unity, the Lagos factor might prove decisive in helping the ruling coalition achieve its fourth consecutive presidential election victory. That would be an unprecedented event in the history of Chile’s democracy. Despite all the troubles in his camp, Lavín still has a decent chance of making sure it does not happen.