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Chile's Presidential Elections: A Report from the Field

At a Latin American Program seminar, Chilean scholar Patricio Navia of New York University discussed the decline of the Concertación coalition, Piñera's and the Alianza's success, and the future political outlook for Chile.

Date & Time

Jan. 21, 2010
8:00am – 9:30am ET


In the fifth presidential election since Chile's 1990 democratic transition, former businessman and leader of the moderate right, Sebastián Piñera of the Alianza por Chile (Alliance for Chile), defeated the center-left Concertación in the second round of presidential elections held on January 17, 2010. At a Latin American Program seminar held four days later, Chilean scholar Patricio Navia of New York University discussed the decline of the Concertación coalition, Piñera's and the Alianza's success, and the future political outlook for Chile.

The Electoral Decline of the Concertación Coalition
Navia explained that while the Concertación, a coalition of Christian Democrats and Socialists, has experienced a decline in electoral support, he noted that both the Concertación and the Alianza were losing voters and that political apathy in Chile has grown. Although the voting-age population increased by almost 4 million voters between the 1988 plebescite and 2009, the percentage of valid votes decreased 30 percent, and only 57 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the recent election. Navia emphasized that optional voter registration in Chile and the failure to enforce compulsory voting has had negative effects on levels of participation overall. The majority of those who turn 18 do not register (except the well-to-do), the electorate is aging, and the poor tend not to vote.

The Concertación's Coup de Grâce
Although average rates of growth have declined in Chile, the Concertación has been successful in reducing poverty and curtailing inflation and unemployment over the past 18 years. Historically, the Concertación has been associated with expanding and deepening democracy because the party slowly replaced top-down mechanisms associated with the transition to democracy with more transparent, participatory, bottom-up methods. Considering these successes and President Michelle Bachelet's higher-than-ever approval ratings, "the Concertación blew it," according to Navia. Confusion arose in the absence of a formal mechanism to nominate a presidential candidate. Former President Ricardo Lagos was ambiguous about whether he would run in the election, not dropping out until November 2008. Also withdrawing were OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza and Christian Democrat Soledad Alvear. The Concertación changed its for the primary, allowing each party within the coalition to nominate its own candidate. But primaries were held in only 2 of the country's 15 regions. These developments triggered an independent run by Socialist Marco Enríquez-Ominami, as a protest against the Concertación's nominating procedures. Enríquez-Ominami stole the concept of change from the Concertación, coming in third in a closely-watched first round of balloting.

Change, Continuity, and Political Identity
The transition from a dictatorship to democracy meant a transition to bottom-up change, transparency, and participation. President Bachelet's election symbolized this more bottom-up process; and because she could not serve two consecutive terms, she represented the idea of "change without continuity." Conversely, the candidacy of former President Frei in 2009 symbolized "continuity without change" and was seen a step back into the past.

Meanwhile, in Navia's view, Enríquez-Ominami offered too much change. Navia explained that Chile is mostly a country of moderates. Thirty-eight percent of Chileans say they do not have a political leaning, rather than identifying with the left, center, or right. Moderate, he said, is not synonymous with centrist, as the latter is associated with the Christian Democrats.

In sum, Navia described the Chilean electorate as both moderate and increasingly dissatisfied with political parties and the party system. "Political parties are hydroponic," he said, very strong on the surface but without strong roots in society.

The Alianza's Success
Navia noted that the Alianza has moved from the Pinochet right to the political center. A businessman who opposed Pinochet in 1980 and 1988, Sebastián Piñera represents a new right. "In 2009, Alianza finally got it right…. Piñera offered the right combination of change, new faces, and continuity." He distanced himself from Pinochet's legacy and celebrated the Concertación's successes while claiming that they did not have the answers for Chile's future. In the second round, Piñera took over Enríquez-Ominami's theme of change, defeating Frei among the middle class and in urban areas.

Chile's Future: Change, Challenges, and Opportunities
Looking ahead, Navia argued, "Piñera needs to reassure people that change will neither be drastic nor traumatic," and that it will occur in the context of continuity. He suggested that Piñera can follow the Concertación's policies of 1990, and embrace a market-friendly and socially-conscious platform.

Challenges for the Piñera government include Pinochet's shadow, elitism and lack of diversity within the Alianza, conflicts of interest between private business dealings and the state, and the championing of conservative moral values at a time that the Chilean public is far more tolerant and liberal than the far-right would allow.

Navia believed that Piñera has the unique opportunity to deal with contentious issues such as state modernization (especially in relation to the copper company CODELCO) and improving public education. In focus groups, he said, "people…liked the idea that Piñera is promising to do things that the Concertación claims [are impossible]." Navia predicted that if Piñera is successful in governing as a moderate, the Concertación will move to the left. Meanwhile, Chile's institutionalized system fosters moderation and negotiations between stable coalitions.


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Latin America Program

The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin America Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action.  Read more

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