This was originally posted on NationofChange.
By Santiago del Campo Edwards
As former President Ricardo Lagos used to say, Chile is a “serious country.” That might be true in certain ways, but its “seriousness” is based to a great extent on a political system that lacks full representativeness and a wildly deregulated free market economy that makes of Chile one of the most unequal countries in the world. New and emerging progressive forces are now challenging the “model.”
On December 2005 Chileans went to polls to elect a new President, 120 Representatives (Diputados) and the half of the Senate. As a result, in a second ballotage in January 2006, Chile elected the Socialist Michelle Bachelet as the first female President in the country’s history, and the fourth consecutive one from the Concertación –the coalition formed by the centrist Christian Democrats, the Socialists and other minor Social-Democrat parties that ruled the country since the bloody dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet came to an end in 1989. And among the newly elected Socialist congressmen figured Marco Enríquez-Ominami, 32 years old at that time, a filmmaker and graduate in Philosophy. Although he came from a very distinguished family line of politicians, Marco, as the people called him, had no personal credentials as a leader. In fact, he was elected following a campaign that stressed his outsider condition and his character. His slogan was “Loco por Tí” (“Crazy about You”).
Four years later, he broke with the Socialist Party and the governing coalition, challenging the political establishment with his own presidential bid. He was not the first challenger in Concertación’s history. Other political figures had in the past unsuccessfully competed for the leadership of the coalition or of its parties. Some of them had partially achieved their partisan goals and some had indulged in perches. But no one had brought such a threatening Progressive challenge from within the governing coalition.
Marco Enríquez-Ominami advocated a new Constitution to replace the current one, which basically was (and still is) the same Constitution enforced by Pinochet in 1980, with significant changes (and omissions) passed by Congress and signed by President Lagos in 2005. He also posted a direct challenge against the entrenched partisan bureaucracies of the Concertación, and their way of choosing Presidents: he demanded the right to compete in open primaries for the presidential nomination within the Concertación.
He was rebuffed and swiftly dismissed by the Socialist Party: the Concertación would only hold Presidential primaries with candidates that officially represented each Party.
“More a nuisance than a threat”
Truth was that, after two consecutive Socialist presidents, Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) and Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010), the Socialist barons of the coalition were already committed to nominate behind close doors a Christian Democrat as its presidential candidate, and that nominee had to be former President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle (1994-2000).
It was the price for keeping together and alive a coalition of great historic importance, firmly anchored in the 20 years-old pacts for governance and democracy between two ancient political foes, the Socialist Party (Social-Democrat) and the Christian Democrat Party (Social-Christian). In a country riding a wild, deregulated free market economy, the Social-Christians had started to get nervous about the steady electoral advances of their Coalition partners the Social Democrats. Besides, Marco Enríquez-Ominami was “an outsider, a lonely ranger with no gravitas.” No Primaries.
At first glance, the Chilean political and social landscape seemed at that time firmly frozen in the authoritarian enclave left by the Pinochet dictatorship, maybe somewhat more loose by now, but still a feature of the world’s most radical application of the Hayek, Friedman et al prescriptions. In fact, thanks to the electoral system inherited from Pinochet, the so called “Sistema Binominal,” the center-left and center-right coalitions shared almost evenly the control of a surprise-free Congress with little or no legislative initiative, where a 63 percent or a 37 percent of the votes have the same value for electing a congressman (two by each electoral district), all this under an extremely centralized presidential Monarchy. (The “Duopoly”, as Marco Enríquez-Ominami has called it). It was the ideal for political stability, but at the same time it created a deceptive image. Under the surface, loomed a deep and massive social and cultural malaise. A new generation was questioning the prevailing system as a whole and, specifically, the greed of the public funded private operators of the educational system, and the political establishment’s behavior. Against that background, and based on his Progressive program, Mr. Enríquez-Ominami launched his candidacy, under the banner of “Change”. The establishment considered him more a nuisance than a threat.
Many things had to change.
In December 2009 came the shock. Twenty percent of the Chilean electorate voted for the young Progressive candidate in the first round of the presidential election. Concertación’s Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle only got 29 percent and Communist-backed Jorge Arrate 6 percent. The successful businessman Sebastián Piñera, the right wing candidate, took 44 percent of the votes. But the worst of all had yet to come: in the second presidential round between the two first majorities performed in January 2010, Piñera defeated Frei Ruiz-Tagle by a margin of 240 thousand votes. For the first time since 1958, a right wing candidate had won the Chilean Presidency through a free voting process. It was not so much that the rightist candidate had won –it was rather the center-left coalition that lost. And 20 years of Concertación rule had come to an end, not with a whimper but with a bang. Many things had to change.
Now, with presidential and congressional elections scheduled for November 17, 2013, indeed much has changed but much remains the same in Chile. The Progressive challenge is even stronger than four years ago, and is calling for “a complete change of rules.”
During the 2009-2013 period, social unrest turned massive, with huge demonstrations in most of the Chilean cities against private greed in education and the environmental abuses from big companies in favor of the original native peoples and the gay and lesbian rights. (For instance, under the current educational system, the State channels a great part of public funds to private basic and secondary schools enterprises, and has encouraged the creation of a big number of private universities that provide a very expensive and low-quality formation, undermining in the process the formerly strong, no-cost public universities. For Chileans, the educational system is a symbol of the inequality that characterizes the “Chilean Model”).
Congress passed a new law ending the compulsory nature of the vote and establishing it as a voluntary act. (All Chileans over 18 years old are eligible to vote). But the first test of this new approach came 4 months ago with the Municipal elections of October 2012: 60 percent of the potential electorate abstained. Most polls and analysts agree that this is a clear signal of disaffection towards politics-as- usual, namely towards the final ineffectiveness of the system.
Meanwhile, President Piñera’s Government approval rates have nose-dived in all the opinion polls, and its coalition seems deeply divided between the two would-be right wing Presidential candidates. Social demands are still unattended, and the public trust in institutions cannot fall lower. The good figures in growth, inflation, employment, have not translated into public trust. The Government and the political party system have a serious problem of credibility.
A beautiful Primary and a favorite no-candidate
On the other hand, the Concertación is championing presidential primaries, scheduled for July 30th. (The right-wing pre-candidates will also run into primaries in the same date, stated by law). For the moment, the Concertación has three official candidates running for the nomination. But its real candidate is a New York resident: the current UN Women Executive Director and former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. Among Chileans, she is a popular and very loved public figure. And she is performing what probably is the most intriguing feat in modern politics: she is a no-candidate, she remains silent about Chilean political affairs, and she tops all the opinion polls.
The same happened in 2005, when her impressive records in opinion polls brought the Christian Democrats to withdraw their own nominee, endorsing the Socialist Bachelet without a Primary, with the other minor parties following suit.
But now the Socialist Party as well as the Concertación itself, are bound to make a big, beautiful nationwide Presidential Primary in which opinion polls-champion Michelle Bachelet competes for votes against other leaderships, so the Concertación would recover legitimacy and popularity through her. This time, the call is for “Opposition”, not Concertación, primaries. So, are you participating, Mr. Enríquez-Ominami? Let us talk.
A stronger challenge
The challenger of 2009 is now being challenged also from the left. New leaderships have arisen following the progressive social movements of the last five/six years. Formations such as “Igualdad” (Equality) and “Revolución Democrática” (Democratic Revolution) claim their legacy in those progressive roots, and in the epic of “Marco 2009”. Some of their leaders are currently seeking congressional seats in the next elections, thanks to an agreed omission pact with the Concertación (4 or 7 seats). This challenge consists in the liquefaction of the Progressive ideas, because, among other reasons, other leaders and potential audiences have adopted them.
After the calls from the Concertación, Marco and his Progressive Party have accepted talks and announced they will only reach a political agreement if some main conditions are met: 1) Primaries for all positions (both Presidential and Congressional); 2) A new Constitution to abolish the authoritarian enclaves, and the introduction of a semi-presidential system; 3) The restriction of the wild exploitation of natural resources; 4) The decentralization of the Santiago centered decision-making process and the regional share in the national wealth; 5) The recognition of civil, ethnic and environmental rights; 6) A new tax system that would make the rich and corporations pay more in order to finance a new, fairer and better educational system.
Circles close to Marco Enríquez-Ominami think that, at least some of those requirements may be unacceptable to parts of the Concertación (greed-free and quality education, homosexual rights, abortion, Constitutional reform…) You simply don’t find in these circles the disposition to talk seriously about them –and much less to tackle them. After all, they say, this country has changed, society has changed, the challenge against the “Duopoly” has grown stronger, and the only thing that still resists change is the political ethics and practice represented by the old partisan leaders.