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From issue: Trafficking and Transnational Crime (Spring 2010)

AQ Feature

Did Success Spoil the Concertación?

The challenges ahead for Chile's two dominant political coalitions.

Latin America’s political pendulum has shifted markedly to the Left in the last decade, with presidents of populist or social democratic bents sweeping into power across the region. But some analysts have pointed to the election of Chilean President Sebastián Piñera as the beginning of what could be a swing back to the Right.

They’re wrong. A more accurate reading of Chile’s January election is that the center-left Concertación coalition lost—not that the center-right Coalición por el Cambio won. It is now clear, in the wake of the calamitous February 27 earthquake and tsunami, that both of the country’s political coalitions have an uphill struggle to win public support and trust. The Piñera government must capitalize on its can-do image while demonstrating that it is concerned about the poor. The Concertación must demonstrate that it can effectively respond to the demands of the population, including opening up its closed political clique.

The heaviest burden may be on the Concertación, one of the longest-lasting and most successful coalitions in Latin American history. The success of the Concertación, which governed Chile since its return to democracy in 1990, was due to its ability to devise a formula for governing based on consensus among the disparate collection of center-left political parties that opposed the military government of Augusto Pinochet. The strategy also involved negotiation with powerful players such as the military. This formula ushered in high levels of economic growth, impressive strides in eliminating poverty and remarkable political stability—a model example for democratic transition around the hemisphere.

The alliance’s fourth president, Michelle Bachelet, who turned power over to Piñera on March 11, left office with an approval rating approaching 80 percent. With such a notable record of governing and high levels of public support, how is it possible that the Concertación lost?

In many ways the coalition was a victim of its own success. The political model it created for governing Chile worked well during a period of democratic transition, but the model was seriously deficient in terms of representation, citizen participation and accountability. These “enclaves of the transition” became deeply entrenched in the Concertación’s style of government. Ultimately, this, rather than more compelling arguments presented by opponents, was what led to its defeat.

Elitist Exhaustion

The Concertación’s formula of power helped build consensus, but the arrangements that allowed it contributed to an image of elitism, arrogance and excessive party dominance that led to its defeat. One example is the agreement that various parties of the Concertación would share presidential cabinet portfolios based on their relative strength and a general rule that ministers had to be of a different party than the sub-secretaries.

This ingenious arrangement was central to the success of the transition and provided widespread party input into government, underwriting the legislative success of presidents. But it also quickly came to reek of cronyism and elitism, with Chileans referring to it derisively as the “cuoteo,” amid accusations that political positions were distributed based on party connections rather than qualifications.

Like cabinet appointments, the distribution of legislative candidacies was also decided at the elite level, bypassing the concept of an open primary with citizen input. Presidential candidacies were similar deals, struck behind closed doors with a faint notion of openness. Over time, Chileans gradually came to perceive that back-room deals rather than democratic processes determined who ruled.

Chile’s then President-elect Sebastian Piñera, left, designates Jaime Ravinet as his defense minister. Photograph by Jorge Sanchez/AP.
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The social pacts at the center of the transition were also devised by elite negotiations between a select few Concertación leaders and powerful actors like unions and professional and business associations. Concertación governments operated under an arrangement that became known as democracia de los acuerdos by which presidents negotiated and sought agreements from powerful social actors before proposing legislation.

This pattern of policymaking, though laudable for dampening conflict in the context of the democratic transition, also led to accusations of party-dominated politics or what Chileans called partidocracia.

A final component of the Concertación model was to keep potential right-wing opposition at bay by not touching the fundamental outlines of Pinochet’s economic model. While this policy avoided destabilizing change, it left many social sectors dissatisfied, as seen by the massive student protests that greeted Bachelet almost immediately following her inauguration. By providing a framework for negotiating policy consensus among the parties of the Concertación and between the Concertación and opposition, each of these enclaves eventually detracted from the coalition’s image and capacity.

This political elitism and negotiated power sharing might have been more tolerable were it not for a series of other problems that began plaguing the Concertación and, to be fair, would likely plague any government with a long tenure in power. Though Chile is remarkably clean by region-wide standards and routinely ranks as the least corrupt country in Latin America in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, allegations of corruption plagued the alliance early and intensified with time, including scandals in the state development agency (CORFO), the Ministry of Public Works, the government’s sports organization (Chiledeportes), and multiple accusations of campaign finance fraud.

Though the Concertación built its reputation on a demonstrable record of good government and efficiency, spectacular policy failures also emerged to damage its image. On the tail of student protests, allegations of ineptitude and wrongdoing in the reorganization of Santiago’s transport system (known as the Plan Transantiago) emerged when the program launch proved a disaster, with stranded commuters, long lines and over-packed buses and metro cars.

A Loss Fortold

In more immediate political terms, the Concertación also lost because it did not choose the best presidential candidate. The alliance had experienced crisis before. It came very close to losing the two previous presidential elections, both of which were won by razor thin pluralities in the first round, forcing a second round.

The last time the Concertación faced the possibility of defeat was in 2005 when the coalition’s image had already begun to deteriorate amid growing signs of internal and external exhaustion. Then, the alliance ingeniously chose Michelle Bachelet as its candidate. She was perceived as coming from outside the Concertación’s entrenched political class and, as a female, was to make history by being the first popularly elected woman president in South America with no ties to a male politician.

In contrast, in 2009–2010 there was no fresh face.

After extended speculation and jousting between several candidates, the Concertación chose, once again in a less than inclusive process, former Christian Democratic President Eduardo Frei (1994–2000). Frei’s widely recognized lackluster political personality was a sharp contrast to the dynamic and telegenic Bachelet.

So rather than embracing the Right in 2010, Chileans rejected a coalition that, while initially successfully, was increasingly viewed as entrenched, elitist, out of touch with the people, and tainted by corruption. With a mediocre candidate as the standard bearer, it was difficult for the Concertación to translate the popularity of Bachelet into a victory for Frei. Rather than just rejecting an ideology, Chileans rejected a model of governance.

The strong electoral reaction against this model poses challenges both for Piñera and for the beleaguered Concertación. A consensus model of governing is necessary because no party has a majority and Piñera must govern toward the center to get anything done. Yet the tools of consensus employed until now have come to look increasingly suspect—if not corrupt—in the eyes of Chilean voters.

The outcome of the legislative elections has created a difficult political landscape for the new president. Both the Chamber and the Senate are almost equally divided between the Concertación and Piñera’s Coalición por el Cambio alliance. This simple correlation of forces will make it difficult for the president to legislate.

Governing will be further complicated because Piñera’s Renovación Nacional (RN) party is actually a minority party in the center-right coalition, with the (further right) Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI) holding 37 seats to RN’s 18 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Piñera won on a campaign of moderate policies that will do little to overturn the consensus and moderate social policies (including rights for same-sex couples) that have reigned in Chile during the last two decades. Given his moderation, it may be difficult to marshal support for his agenda among UDI legislators who, after years out of government, are impatient for deeper changes to the Concertación’s legacy and a sharper shift to the Right, even as the most pressing item on the national agenda is reconstruction.

Piñera must also devise a new model for governing even though the challenges he faces are similar to those previously faced by the Concertación. With his party not in the majority, Piñera will have to devise the same sort of power-sharing arrangements that characterized Concertación governments. But he must find a way to avoid the charges of elitism and cronyism that surround the politics of the old cuoteo (or quota) and the perception that he is divvying up positions and handing out political spoils.

“Our intention is to design a broad and diverse government that looks for the best people without a cuoteo or political wheeling and dealing,” Piñera has said. And he has lived up to his word. The new president’s appointees hail from both the UDI and RN with no discernible numerical pattern. He even appointed Concertación stalwart Jaime Ravinet (former Christian Democratic mayor of Santiago) to head the Ministry of Defense.

In the press, Piñera was lauded for appointing a cabinet that privileged the technical over the political. But he also faced criticism from his own party and the UDI that his ministers lack any real political experience. Piñera’s central dilemma was that if he appointed a series of well-known political faces he would be criticized for a business-as-usual cabinet, and if he did not, he would face criticisms for appointing political neophytes. The latter is what happened, and in response, Piñera appointed a series of undersecretaries from the political world as a counterbalance.

Impact of the Quake

Even if Piñera had a single-party government and a majority in congress, he would find it hard to fulfill his campaign promises to create 1 million jobs, double Chile’s per-capita annual income and expand growth to 6 percent a year. These fantastic possibilities harken back to the halcyon days of Chile’s fast-paced growth during the 1990s. The February earthquake and tsunami now make those promises sound like wishful thinking.

Piñera’s success will be measured by how well he succeeds in rebuilding Chile’s housing pool and infrastructure more than economic expansion. Piñera has pledged to transcend partisan and ideological divisions in the reconstruction effort, but the temptation to rely on the types of market-based reconstruction initiatives that many on the Right are likely to espouse presents a potential pitfall.

Despite the Pinochet experiment in neo-liberalism, Chileans are accustomed to an activist state. If the pressing needs that this disaster created are left unsatisfied, and Chileans perceive that ideology has trumped human welfare in the government’s response, the electoral consequences for Piñera and the Right will be disastrous.

The earthquake has also widened Chile’s long-standing equality gap, while rekindling public debate about its persistence even during the high levels of growth in recent years. Despite impressive strides in the elimination of poverty, Chile remains one of the most unequal countries in the world. The earthquake thrust this inequality back into national psyche with graphic images of the poor and ill-housed. Piñera’s wealth—he is one of Chile’s richest men—already makes him vulnerable to charges of insensitivity to Chile’s poor. And if his administration steers the country abruptly back toward neoliberal policies, he will be open to even harsher criticism from those who charge such policies created the nation’s high levels of inequality in the first place.

Now in the opposition, the Concertación also faces challenges if it is to rebuild itself in exile. Fundamentally, the Concertación must devise campaign tactics and a model for party-power sharing that moves beyond the politics of the democratic transition and that focus more on a social agenda. The Concertación consistently won elections by exploiting the deep cleavage in the Chilean electorate among those who identified positively with the authoritarian regime and those who opposed it.

In the most recent presidential campaign, the Concertación tried to do the same by tying a return to the Right to a potential erosion of human rights. This time it fell on deaf ears. Appeals that evoke the emotion of the democratic transition no longer resonate, especially among the greater number of younger voters who are not children of the dictatorship.

That means the various parties of the Concertación must develop a political program for unity that goes beyond their historical opposition to Pinochet.  A good place to start would be to propose real and workable solutions to the high levels of inequality, something that macroeconomic policymaking under Piñera is unlikely to do given his pro-business orientation. The Concertación would also benefit from more aggressively proposing changes to the problematic legacies of the Pinochet government in the areas of health, education and social welfare.

Another question is whether the Concertación coalition, which is still made up of numerous parties, will remain together when out of government without the strong coalitional glue that came with the politics of power sharing. As the intellectual authors of Chile’s consensual model of transition, the coalition must devise a new formula to share power not solely based on the outcomes of negotiations between party elites if it is to stay together and govern again. It must eliminate the “enclaves of the transition” by shedding elite-dominated politics and instituting more avenues for citizen participation. The Concertación could transform its image by instituting real and open primaries, rather than relying on the elite designation of presidential and congressional candidates. The coalition’s hopes of regaining power will only be fulfilled if it becomes more transparent, responsive and inclusive.

Ultimately, a turnover of government is a healthy and positive next step in Chile’s democratic life. But in an ironic convergence, the next step for both alliances is the same if they want to succeed. They must construct a model of governing that reconciles the individual interests of their component parties with providing better avenues of representation and accountability for Chilean citizens. This is especially pressing in light of the long road of national reconstruction that lies ahead.

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