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Monday, 18 January 2010

The Chilean Right in power: Piñera's election victory and prospects

Sebastian Piñera has been elected as Chile’s next president. For the first time since democracy returned in 1989 the Right has finally managed to win a majority share in a vote for the executive. Alongside the expected internal criticism within the centre-left Concertación coalition and demands for the heads of the Christian Democrat and Socialist parties to resign, questions will be asked about the ability of the centre-right Alianza coalition parties to work together in Congress with an ideologically similar president.

Piñera and the Right have been getting closer to electoral victory has been some time coming. Following first round defeats in 1989 and 1993, the Right was able to compete in head-to-head elections with the Concertación in second round run-offs in 2000, 2006 and 2010 (although this was also due to the challenge mounted by the extra-parliamentary left that was able to take votes off the Concertación in the first round as well).

But what already seems to be overlooked in the Chilean media is the narrow nature of Piñera’s victory, with abstentions and electoral registration having possibly played a part. Since 1989 both figures have been in decline, with yesterday’s poll the lowest yet with around 87% of voters voting and 67.5% of the voting age population registered respectively. In 1989 the turnout was 94.5% and fell to 91.3% in 1993; 88.5% of the electorate was registered in that year as well.

The fall in voting turnout and registered voters reflects growing public disillusion with the Concertación-dominated government of the past two decades. The coalition will therefore no doubt spend the next few months reviewing why that is and how they might re-engage with the public.  The education and Transsantiago protests and demonstrations during the last presidency demonstrated the extent to which it was disconnected.

But while they do that they might also spare a thought for the last time that Chilean politics took such an electoral re-direction – then to the Left. Following the highly turbulent 1960s and deep antipathy between the Left, Centre and Right, Salvador Allende’s election as president in 1970 was achieved with a similarly low turnout of 83.7%. In the years that followed until the 1973 coup, opponents claimed that Allende did not have a sufficient mandate and failed to represent the population sufficiently.

One can only wonder whether Piñera will be given the same yardstick. On one hand, while he doesn’t have a majority in Congress, power is skewed towards the executive. On the other hand, Piñera’s public support is volatile; voters weren’t pro-Piñera but rather pro-change as the 20.1% share of the vote won by ex-Socialist deputy, Marco-Enríquez Ominami demonstrated in last month’s first round. Moreover there are a number of veto players who may play an obstructive role outside of the political system, including the trade unions.

(For more on Latin America, visit the Ideas Centre's website here)

1 comment:

nono said...

As you most know, this is the first time the right wing has been democratically elected in Chile since 1958.
In addition to the thought expressed above, I wanted to leave a few ideas in order to foster some debate:

1)In deed the Concertacion was pushed to second round ballots since 2000, however those who actually forced second round scenarios were actually the extra parliamentary left (now back in parliament after 36 years)and not the right-wing alliance.

2)I agree with you that Piñera might face some difficulties in Congress considering that he does not have control in either the Senate nor the Deputies chamber. However in comparative terms, the political-regulatory scenario from the Allende years is quite different from the ones we face today in terms of the distribution of powers between the executive and legislative. Though Chile has always been a "presidentialist regime", since the Constitution of 1980 the powers of the executive grew in terms of the exclusive ability to propose legislation of key issues. This unbalances political power among branches, providing the executive with a broad space for negotiation, in spite of his lacking parliamentary majority.

3)I think that the "uncertainties"of Piñera's government are based on (in addition to his lacking majority in congress), a quite volatile support (many pIÑERA voters are not "pro-right wing" but "pro-change"), the role that several veto players traditionally alligned with the Concertacion may play (mainly Unions), and the introduction of a WHOLE NEW SYSTEM OF ELECTORAL REGISTRATION (automatic registration) which might change electoral distribution. As you point out, Piñera got elected with the same voters registered in 1988, which in strict terms means that 150.000 voters crossed the river from left to right allowing Piñera to win.

It is yet to be seen what will happen with a new revitalized group of voters, considering that the "change option" will now be on the side of a re-organizing coalition of progressives.

Felipe I. Heusser
PhD Candidate
Government Department