Chile’s Graceful Reset to the Left

The Chilean presidential election, bringing together two women candidates in a final runoff on Sunday, produced a predictable landslide victory for the leftist New Majority coalition that puts an end to a government that tried to run Chile like a business, with some good results, but that failed to build a broad political base. The outcome was that Michelle Bachelet, a popular former president, won 62 percent of the 5.6 million votes cast against 37 percent for Evelyn Matthei, the candidate backed by incumbent President Sebastián Piñera, a multi-millionaire corporate executive who was elected in 2010. With her ample margin of victory, Bachelet said it was the moment to begin “fundamental transformations” in Chile to spread the wealth accumulated during two decades of economic growth based on a free enterprise market economy. Chile’s current per capita income of close to $19,000 annually is the highest in South America, but there are strong inequalities in how this income is distributed between wealthy entrepreneurs and the working-class majority in this country of 17 million people.

This gap in income and opportunity is what needs to be addressed in Chile by any government that hopes to obtain majority support in Chile’s genuinely democratic political system. The Piñera government generated annual economic growth of over 5 percent and low unemployment, but the consumer boom that this produced generated social demands for more state intervention to improve access to public education, subsidize retirement pensions, regulate credit, and raise taxes on the wealthy.

There was a sharp drop in voters who cast ballots in the final round compared to the first round in November. This abstention reduced the total votes cast by 1 million, and only 5.6 million voters turned out from a total of 13 million eligible voters. Anyone who visited the polling places at schools and public office on Sunday saw a visible contrast between short lines of voters and street markets jammed by pre-Christmas shoppers whose main interest was consumption of toys, clothing, and electronic games. It seems that many voters took for granted that Bachelet would win and their abstention showed that Matthei—representing the continuity of Piñera’s administration—was not seen as the best option. Some critics saw this abstention by more than half of the eligible voters as a blow to democracy, but it was more a political failure by the Piñera government than a rejection by voters of the democratic process, which has strong roots in Chile.

There were no acts of violence by radicals; the results generated no acts of protest. Chile’s civility is very different from Venezuela or Honduras, where elections leave bitter enemies that are incapable of cooperation in the national interest. Within an hour of the close of the polls, Piñera telephoned Bachelet and, in a nationally televised exchange, pledged full support for an orderly transition. Matthei, the losing candidate, soon afterward visited Bachelet in her home and wished her all success “for the good of Chile.” In this exchange between two onetime childhood friends, there was an element of public reconciliation because both Bachelet and Matthei are daughters of Chilean air force generals who were on opposite sides when the military ousted President Salvador Allende 40 years ago. That political crisis interrupted Chile’s longstanding adherence to democratic stability, but democracy was restored in 1988 after a plebiscite voted to end the military regime headed by President Augusto Pinochet. Bachelets’s public embrace of Matthei as a loyal opponent is a hopeful sign that the new government will not take its promise of “transformational change” to divisive extremes.

Although there are great uncertainties over what president-elect Bachelet and her allies mean by “fundamental transformations,” the post-election mood was calm and orderly. But there are radical political forces in Chile that cleverly manipulate the animosities between the Chilean “left” and “right” that have been embedded in Chile politics since the military coup in 1973. Before this year’s presidential election, radical students led violent street protests demanding free university education, which weakened the Piñera government and yielded political returns for the “left.” In congressional elections in November, the Communist Party, a partner in Bachelet’s coalition, elected six deputies that include several of the most prominent student leaders. Bachelet promised during the campaign that she would make Chile’s university system, now providing higher education for 1.1 million students, more inclusive of low-income students, but has yet to announce a clear plan for financing this.

Bachelet’s coalition also includes moderates from the Socialist and Christian Democratic parties who worked well together during the government of President Ricardo Lagos, an independent socialist, who brought Bachelet into national politics, first as the minister of health and then as the minister of defense. Lagos said Bachelet’s role now is to “build bridges” toward political forces that include some sectors of the opposition. Without a broadened base of support, Bachelet lacks the necessary votes in Congress to make dramatic political and economic changes. This will be the true test of whether Chile can be a leader in Latin America, as well as the test of a progressive reform government that combines the need for social inclusion of rising low-income majorities with the economic rationality that produces private investment and growth that provides reduction of poverty and opportunities for the young. There are 5 million youths between the ages of 18 and 30 who ended their education at the high school level. This is the most important segment in Chile’s demographic makeup for the achievement of a modern social structure within an innovative free enterprise economy. To make this economy work, Chile has to overcome a very serious shortfall in energy production. Chile has not discovered oil or gas resources, but its mining sector, which produces more than 60 percent of its foreign exchange earnings, is running out of cheap energy sources because of an impasse produced by radical environmentalists who have blocked projects to develop hydroelectric dams. This is a problem Bachelet didn’t mention in her campaign but it requires urgent action by the new administration.

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