Commentary on Chilean democracy has evolved from praise to concern since conservative President Sebastián Piñera moved into La Moneda Palace in 2010, bringing the Right to power for the first time in over 50 years. The praise was well-earned. Piñera’s victory not only showed the Right’s vote-getting ability; the peaceful alternation of power in Chile offered conclusive demonstration of one of the continent’s most successful democratic transitions.
Nevertheless, the Right’s victory, which ended 20 years of government by the center-left Concertación, also coincided with a challenge to perceptions about Chile as a paragon of fiscal discipline and political stability. Contemporary Chile is convulsed by social mobilization, and by demands for redistribution and deep reforms to the economic and social model that was once heralded across the region.
In the period leading up to the election, groups across society challenged a market model that privileged growth over equity, as well as a political system that was perceived as unrepresentative and lacking in competition. Increasingly, in the eyes of the public, academics and the press, Chile is no longer a political “model” to boast about; rather, it is seen as a democracy weakened by the rotation of elites who are out of touch with the needs of ordinary Chileans.
In this context, Piñera’s 3 percent margin of victory represents more of a defeat for the Concertación than a definitive triumph of the Right. That, at least, is the conclusion drawn by Carlos Ominami in his analysis of Chile’s perplexing political trajectory in Secretos de la Concertación: Recuerdos para el futuro (Secrets of the Concertación: Memories for the Future).
Ominami, a former cabinet minister and longtime political insider associated with the Partido Socialista (Socialist Party—PS), contends that the Concertación was “a pact of elites formed towards the end of the 1980s that failed to consolidate democratic governability.” This runs counter to most descriptions. But Ominami proves his point with a trenchant analysis of the deep political and social transformations that Chile experienced during the democratic transition, as well as of the complex process whereby the Left regained its political credibility and constructed a new political majority. In an artful and enjoyable read, he shows how each of these processes fell short, and then looks forward to the challenges facing both the Concertación and the country.
Ominami is well positioned for such an analysis. He was both a witness and a protagonist in Chile’s democratic demise and rebirth, and remains an astute observer of its current growing pains. A veteran PS strategist, he was a front-line actor in the democratic transition, serving as minister of economy in the Patricio Aylwin government, as a close advisor to former President Ricardo Lagos, and as a senator for 14 years. His intensely personal account provides readers with an intimate take not only on crucial events in Chile’s political evolution, but also on the emotional significance and consequences of those events. Ominami seamlessly weaves into his account the hopes and fears—and the simmering guilt—of the generation that lived through the traumatic 1973 coup and those who were lucky enough to survive and witness the return to democracy.
His book fills an important gap. Until now, there have been no instructive accounts of the renovation and renewal of Chilean socialism over the political trajectory of four Concertación governments, and Ominami provides some illuminating insights. For example, he contends that while it was crucial for Socialists “to dramatically break with past notions of democracy as purely instrumental and formal,” they failed to “establish an adequate equilibrium between the State and the market and an organic set of political ideas that could lead to coherent and consistent policy.”
Ominami’s experience as a cabinet minister gives his analysis of the governments of Aylwin (1990–1994), Eduardo Frei (1994–2000), Lagos (2000–2006), and Michelle Bachelet (2006–2010) special weight. Noting the three central roles Chilean presidents have had to play—head of state, head of government and leader of the Concertación—Ominami argues that each brought a distinct style of leadership to La Moneda but none of the presidents was “capable of challenging the reigning accepted wisdom to open up innovative paths to national development.”
Conventional wisdom traces the Concertación’s success to the convergence of secular and Christian humanism that created a transformational, yet stabilizing, combination of continuity and change. Ominami disagrees, contending that the coalition, and not just its presidents, erred by focusing on administration instead of transformational change.
Ominami believes that evaluations of the Concertación’s legacy should not simply be framed by the defeat of Augusto Pinochet. He argues instead that the bar should be set much higher. The coalition represented an opportunity to defeat Pinochet and to transform the deep societal imprint that the military regime left. He contends that with the Concertación’s mandate and support it could have acted much more aggressively to reform Pinochet-era policies. However, he observes (in an argument that many in the Concertación will see as overly critical) that “this center-left coalition ended up consolidating the dearest and most fundamental values of the Right in Chilean society.” If the Concertación had confronted this reality head-on and made an effort to address the erosion of public confidence in political institutions, it could have avoided electoral defeat.
To demonstrate his point, Ominami explores the neoliberal and conservative elements of Chile’s political landscape that the Concertación lacked the will to reform. At the core, he contends that despite reform, the essential outlines of the Pinochet constitution remain in the form of the legislative electoral system, high quorums for reform and the series of difficult-to-reform organic laws. What is more, none of the reforms altered the constitution’s very traditional stress on political rights as opposed to economic rights that appear in many of the recently amended or more progressive constitutions in the region. By concentrating economic, social and media power within the small set of elites, the constitution acted as a barrier to significant reforms in social welfare, education and health. This is the source of the protests today.
This book will appeal to at least two sets of readers. For those who would like to know more about the realpolitik that undergirded the durability of a coalition, this book provides the answers. It is also a road map for those who seek to reconnect Latin American and European debates on the future of social democracy, some of which the victory of French President François Hollande may reignite.
In this vein, Ominami’s chapter on Chile’s declining economic dynamism and the challenges of diversification and social integration is particularly interesting. Ominami outlines his social democratic vision based on a rethinking of the European welfare state, and on the experiences and successes of progressive governments in Latin America.
Fundamentally, Ominami traces social democracy’s crisis not to deficiencies in its core principles or ideas—which he asserts are more relevant today. Rather, the problem is social democrats’ eroding credibility as a result of having lost touch with their fundamental values. He calls on social democrats to promote broadened democracy, new freedoms and access to state assistance, and to renew their commitment to equality and sustainable development. This book provides food for thought for anyone who wants to make that happen.