Update on Chilean Politics. February 1999.

Patricio Navia

         Presidential election poll results have not changed over the last year. Socialist presidential hopeful Ricardo Lagos leads all polls with 37%. He is expected to win the Concertación primaries on May 30 and, after securing the Concertación nomination, he is expected to place first in the presidential elections of December 11, 1999. Yet, it is not clear whether he will secure a majority of the vote in the first round or be forced to a run-off election.

         One year ago, the Christian Democratic Party nominated senator Andrés Zaldívar as its presidential candidate for the Concertación primaries. Zaldívar's poor early showing in polls marginally improved after he secured his party nomination. However, he has not been able to go over 12% in any of the polls conducted since his nomination in April of 1998.

         Zaldívar and Lagos are competing for the presidential nomination of the ruling Concertación coalition. Primaries will be held on May 30. Some rumors have circulated that recently that the primaries would be cancelled and that Lagos and Zaldívar would face each other in the December elections. President Frei and leaders from the Socialist, PPD and Christian Democratic parties have all denounced the rumors as false.

         All registered voters will be allowed to participate in the Concertación primaries. However, registered militants of the conservative opposition parties and the left-of Concertación parties will be barred from the primaries. Primary participants will be required to sign a declaration indicating their compromise to support whomever is elected as the Concertación candidate in the December elections. Some concern exists about conservative voters turning out to vote for Zaldívar in the Concertación primaries to prevent Lagos from being the Concertación nominee. However, most experts predict there will be little strategic voting going on in May.

         Although Lagos is running ahead of Zaldívar by a margin of 3 to 1, there is some concern that Lagos might lose the Concertación primaries. The Chirstian Democratic Party has a well-established presence in the entire country and has a recognized ability to mobilize voters on election day. The Socialist and PPD parties, Lagos's support base, have much weaker and ineffective political party apparatus. The Christian Democratic Party advantage in organizational structure provides a level of uncertainty to the primaries unwarranted by presidential poll results.

         Experts estimate that Zaldívar might win the primaries if turnout is very low. Expected bad winter weather, over-confidence of the part of Lagos supporters and the inability of the PPD and PS to match the organizational structure of the Christian Democrats will all work in favor of Zaldívar on May 30. With turnout lower than 1 million voters, Zaldívar is seen as having a chance to defeat Lagos. Out of an electoral population of 8 million, the Concertación usually obtains some 5 million votes. For Zaldívar to win, turnout among regular Concertación voters should be less than 25%.

         If turnout is large, Lagos is expected to win by a landslide. Moderate turnout should also lead to a Lagos victory, but a narrow defeat would bring additional tensions to the ruling Concertación coalition. A narrow loss by Zaldívar would resurface rumors within the Christian Democratic Party of an internal split between Concertación supporters and anti-Lagos Christian Democrats.

         A landslide victory resulting from large turnout will help Lagos secure support of all Concertación parties. In addition, he would obtain an important boost in presidential polls and would further strengthen the already prevalent belief that he will be the next president of Chile. With a landslide victory, Lagos would also help bring about a change in guard in the Christian Democratic Party leadership. Christian Democratic leaders who presently controls the party apparatus would likely be replaced by a more Lagos-friendly leadership in the party elections scheduled for after the primaries.

         In any event, a Lagos victory would also bring about a change in attitude on the part of Lagos towards his Christian Democratic coalition allies. He is expected to being catering towards Andrés Zaldívar and the CDP in order to secure their electoral support in the December elections. Official support from Christian Democrats will not be sufficient, Lagos will need Christian Democratic leaders to campaign for him and convince less enthusiastic CDP militants and supporters that a vote for Lagos in December is good for the Christian Democrats, for the Concertación and for the country.

         If turnout for the Concertación primaries on May 30 is sufficiently large, Lagos wins the nomination by a sufficiently large margin and the Christian Democratic Party survived unharmed the defeat, the political climate in Chile is expected to change somewhat.

         Although Lagos would be the Concertación official candidate, he is not expected to have a saying on the two most important concerns of the Frei government in 1999: the economic crisis and General Pinochet's situation in London. The government has already announced sound fiscal policies and strict spending discipline to face the difficult year ahead for the country's economy. No election year-typical increase in spending is expected regardless of Lagos' stand in presidential polls after May 30.

         On the Pinochet affair, both the government and Lagos have expressed their intention of having the aging general avoid extradition to Spain and return from London. The Frei government and Lagos have expressed their intention to see general Pinochet face some type of trial in Chile. Yet, because most analysts predict that it is highly unlikely that General Pinochet will face trial if he returns to Chile, the government best scenario is to make progress on Pinochet's returns but not to the point that Pinochet actually returns to the country.

         For Lagos, the best scenario is to push the Pinochet situation to a stand still. Lagos will benefit from reproducing the Yes to Pinochet-No to Pinochet divisions that handed the Concertación its first and most impressive electoral victory in 1988. At the same time, he must avoid open confrontations with the two strongest supporters of General Pinochet, the military and the business elite.

         With a rapid extradition to Spain or a speedy return to Chile equally unlikely, Lagos and the government's best scenario is to have the general remain in London. If Pinochet were to be extradited, nationalist concerns and sovereignty issues would hurt the Frei government and damage Lagos' stand in polls. If Pinochet were to return to Chile, the government and Lagos would face criticism for being unable bring about a trial to General Pinochet in Chile. With Pinochet in Chile, with or without trial, the government is expected to face additional tensions between the military, the business elites and his own Christian Democratic and Socialist base.

         After his expected victory in May, Lagos will face two key electoral challenges as he prepares for the December election. First, a terror campaign will be launched to associate Lagos with the memories of the Allende socialist government (1970-73). Joaquín Lavín, the presidential candidate of the conservative parties and the runner-up in all presidential polls will outspend Lagos and will most likely lead a negative campaign against the socialist leader. Memories of nasty negative campaigns, or terror campaigns as they are called in Chile, will resurface. The conservative-controlled media, properly perceived as Lagos foes, will concentrate on reminding voters of the economic crisis, high inflation, violence, confrontation and chaos that characterized the last socialist government between 1970 and 1973.

         Second, Lagos will need to prevent Concertación supporters from defecting to conservative or leftist presidential candidates. Arturo Frei and Joaquín Lavín on the right and Galdys Marín, Tomas Hirsch and a likely ecologist candidate might steal enough votes away from Lagos to force a run-off election. That would be the first time that a Concertación presidential candidate fails to clinch the presidency with a clean majority in the first round.

         Although Lagos would be expected to win in a run-off election, his victory would be significantly diminished if he is forced into a second round. Although Lagos cannot aspire to match Frei's 58% in 1993, Aylwin's 55% in 1989 or the No to Pinochet 55% vote in 1988, he will attempt to secure more than 50% of the vote in the December elections.

         A Lagos victory would be significant because it would represent the third consecutive presidential victory of the Concertación coalition. It would be the first time a socialist returns to the presidency since Salvador Allende was ousted in a military coup in 1973. The conservative political parties will concentrate on reminding voters precisely that fact. Lagos will need to strive to keep the Christian Democratic Party rank-and-file members from defecting from the Concertación camp and without wide access to the mass media, he will also need to prepare and respond to a likely extremely negative campaign to discredit him.