The Chilean Presidential and Parliamentary elections of the first-round general election on November 17th and the second round run-off for the presidency between remaining candidates Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei on December 15th, 2013 were decided by problems, not by ideology, and by past rather than future issues. These issues, partly hidden from the international public, are likely to remain over the next years. Thus comprehending them is crucial to understand the transition of the country.
Problems not Ideology
First, in Chile, citizens’ fundamental needs are not understood as public tasks or individual rights, but as private services. Education, healthcare, and pensions are part of the business sphere. They are dominated by the “association of big economic groups” (“grupos econo?mi- cos”), a network of the seven richest Chilean families. Politics in the past 20 years have secured the profitability of basic needs in order to safeguard economic returns for the entrepreneurial families who are located in the highest stratum of society and pursue a neoliberal mindset.
A second issue is that natural resources compose the economic basis of Chile. Water, copper, forests, and agriculture are widely controlled by the same network of families that control basic human services.
The dominance of a few economic groups over the national economy is the outcome of decades of neoliberal economic policy. Since 2001, this policy has triggered mass demonstrations by both students and intellectuals. In 2011, they organized in an ostensibly non-partisan anti-governmental student movement, though they remained influenced by the Communist party.
This movement has since infected the collective mindset, particularly that of the educated middle class. Protests which have involved up to half of Chile’s citizens were first directed against the ever-rising fees of the widely privatized educational system, and later demanded a constitutional change to make education and other social services universal rights for citizens. Most students hold the association of big families accountable for their high levels of debt because of exaggerated student loans, since banks and universities are also widely controlled by the “big” Chilean families. Students generally mistrust tradi- tional politics, and in their view, most of the politicians in charge prior to the elections were still wedded to the structures of the former dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet who acted as dictator from 1973-1990. Ironically, most of the newly elected are too.
Pre-Election Impact of the Student Protests
As the student movement had a decisive impact on the outcome of the 2013 elections, its electoral strategy offers insights into the potential future connection between social movements (politics from the bottom) and the traditional political discourse (politics from above) in contemporary Latin America. Even though student demands have been described as “socialist”and have therefore partly been delegitimized by the mainstream Chilean media, they forced most presidential candidates to offer a new political discourse different from the one that dominated the past 20 years. Student protests fostered a critical tone to Chile’s public opinion, and created general political mobilization. More than that, they created new electoral patterns destined to impact the political system in a long-term trajectory.
The shift in general social awareness was mirrored by the selection of candidates and their electoral program. The number of candidates in 2013 was much higher than in previous presidential elections: nine candidates were fighting for the highest political office in the Andean State, and seven of them proposed a new constitution, or at least, a reform of the existing one to eliminate institutional mechanisms that in practice tend to generate an over-representation of the right. These mechanisms hinder the emergence of new political forces and allow dominant parties, especially conservatives, to prevent the approval of laws that could change the constitution towards greater participatory patterns.
The spectrum of candidates for the most recent elec- tions consisted of one from the moderate “right,” Evelyn Matthei, one from the moderate “left,” Michelle Bachelet, and seven “independent” candidates, one of whom was closer to the “right” and the other six with more affinity to “leftist” ideas. Some, such as Partido Progresista (PRO) leader Marco Enriquez-Ominami, prefer to call these ideas a “progressive ideology“. Enriquez-Ominami eventually finished the presidential race 3rd with 11% of the vote. The mapping of Michelle Bachelet’s party affiliation can be somewhat contentious in itself, given her support from the Communist party, but she remained a mostly moderate candidate.
As expected by poll estimates, the final decision to be made by voters was between Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei. The first was a member of the Socialist Party, a former Chilean president and the first woman to hold that office (March 2006 to March 2010), and the former executive director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. The second, Evelyn Matthei, was a member of the governing center-right party Unio?n Demo?crata Independiente (UDI), which until the end of 2013 governed in a coalition with the center-right party Renovacio?n Nacional (RN), the party of outgoing president Sebastia?n Pin?era (in charge since 2010). While Bachelet is a medic who beat Pin?era in the 2006 presidential election, Matthei is an economist by training, and served as Labor and Social Provision Minister under Pin?era. Bachelet was expected to stand for change — a somewhat insecure iconography, for she was to regain an office that, during her first term, did not cause significant change — Matthei represented the continuity of neoliberal ideas and the policies that went along with them.
Social Psychology and the "Binomial" Voting System
Although the battle for the presidency eventually appeared once again as a “classical” bilateral fight between the left and the right, many Chileans also believed that the visions of independent candidates could have had valid ideas to contribute to the debate. Even so, most voted for the two main candidates in order to play it safe or because they thought they should vote for the “lesser evil” in this battle in the name of political realism. A prevailing option among voters, according to polls carried out shortly before the elections, was nullity or an unmarked ballot because of accentuated mistrust about the ability of the candidates to fulfill their electoral promises.
This mistrust in politics — a general feature of Chilean democracy — is another issue that will continue to shape the future of Chile’s political system. This deep-rooted mistrust is linked to the problems of the “Binomial” Electoral System implemented during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet from 1974-1990. This is a voting system pres- ently applied only in Chile and, as such, is unique in the democratic world.
Political analyst Joaqui?n Vasquez Amarales comments on the legal framework of election mechanisms in present-day Chile: “There are two different sets of mechanisms that structure the way democracy is enacted through elections, and how the will of the people is translated into concrete decisions. There are institutional mechanisms, relating to the laws governing the process of election; and there are extra-institutional mechanisms, relating to the unwritten laws, the socio-economic structure, and the correlation of powers in a given society.
In Chile, we could see how both of these sets tended to cooperate against a truly representative democracy. In the institutional framework, we have the ‘Binomial electoral system’, which was included in the constitution of 1980 by Augusto Pinochet. It was intended as a preventive measure against the establishment of a too liberal democracy. In this system, there are two parliamentary seats in every electoral district, one for the House of Representatives and one for the Senate. The candidates must be organized in coalitions, which in turn can present two candidates per seat. The competition is between coalitions, not between individual candidates; a coalition can win both seats only if its total amount of votes doubles the second-ranked competing coalition. If it doesn’t grow up to this amount, the second seat goes to the second ranked coalition (even if its vote total is inferior). For an independent candidate to win a seat, she or he must compete against the coalitions: thus, she or he must defeat the sum of both of a coalition’s candidates, as Article 109 (bis) of Law 18.700 prescribes.”
Even though the objective for introducing this electoral mode, often called a “multiple-winner” method of proportional representation, was to promote stability of the political system in the transition period from dictatorship to democracy, and ensure a power share between two large coalitions, it instead creates a system in which the election of independent and minority candidates is factually prevented, and where negotiation, compromise, and agreement between the two biggest coalitions are the main tools of governance.
This creates a dilemma for citizens who wish to vote for an independent candidate, as their chances to win elections tend to zero. Since citizens recognize this from the start, they tend to neglect independent candidates even when voters are favorable to these candidates’ programs and vote instead for the “less evil” of one of the two coalitions most likely to prevail. This remains in principle an undemocratic feature of today’s Chilean electoral system, and it remains to be seen if the two prevailing alliances of the left and the right will be able to find the will and the agreement to change it, and what the prize for such an agreement would be.
Lobbying and the Media
On the extra-institutional level, a second important problem cluster of the electoral process—and thus of the political system at large—is the lack of regulation of lob- bying and political financing by corporations and private individuals. Lobbying is currently completely unregulated in Chile. Thus, unlike with campaign donations, there is no way for the public to know who spends money on lobbying, who receives it, and who does the lobbying. The attempts to abolish this opacity have been unsuccessful in Congress for more than a decade.
Most outside observers assume that the lack of regulation primarily serves the richest corporations and family groups by letting them maintain control of the party system by financing it on all sides simultaneously, i.e. independent of actual ideological inclinations towards left or right.
This leads to another structural problem that Chile faces, which notoriously impacts election results and the political system overall. The anonymous donors in the political financing sector are often the owners of big media companies. Thus, they maintain a strong influence on the formation of public opinion. As independent observer Moni Acevedo puts it: “The popularity of the Pin?era government has gone up and down like a roller-coaster dur- ing the last 4 years because of the vigorous use of media by different interest groups.Since we find political illiteracy in considerable parts of Chilean society, people in general first believe politicians’ discourse, but after some disillusions they want to take them out of government. Then, they like to trust them again because they are influenced by populist actions like emergency vouchers or promises of new working places broadly advertised in the media. Bread and circus for the people – this strategy of the Chilean mainstream media doesn't tire out". The problem is not that Chileans did not understand these strategies of political media discourse. On the contrary, there was a new consciousness about the functioning of the electoral mechanisms and the actors of the political class during these elections that will continue to impact political behaviour.
The crux was rather manifested in the concentration of media ownership. Here again, the problem was — and remains — not the private ownership of TV-channels and newspapers, but the concentration of them in just a few hands who not coincidentally represent the biggest economic interest groups of the country. As many Chil- eans “consume” information through newspapers such as Mercurio and La Tercera or TV channels such as MEGA or Chilevision that are run by the “grupos econo?micos,” some may not be aware that Chilean media sometimes shows only a one-sided version of reality. Imbalanced“media use” in Chile is therefore mainly linked to the lack of diversity in ownership of the media.
What the Outcome and the Elections Depended On
As a consequence, in judging the outcome of the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2013 and the upcoming political trajectories, we must consider two aspects in particular: Firstly, the results depended disproportionally on mainstream media use for the center-right and, as far as the left was concerned, on the capacity of alternative media such as online-newspapers and social networks to create critical counter-opinions. This is a general political process in all “post-industrial” modern nations, But the Chilean elections showed once again an extreme range and concentration of the respective mechanisms and symp- toms, which will remain decisive for the new president’s success or failure.
Secondly, there was a factor widely underestimated in most international comments that complicated the vote: the newly introduced “voluntary voting system”, approved in December 2011. The first elections carried out through this system were the latest municipal elections on 28 October 2012. Jorge Atria of the Latin America Institute (LAI) Ber- lin, learning from the experience, explains the challenges connected with this new regulation for the future: “A new aspect that will impact all upcoming elections is connected to legal modifications of automatic inscription as opposed to voluntary voting. This novelty caused public attention and somehow generated a new reflection about voting when first applied to municipal elections. One of the most relevant consequences of that innovation in the long term could be an increasing number of voters that was more unlikely to show up in the previous system, in contrast to the voluntary inscription of each person that was enacted for the last elections. Now, every citizen is automatically ‘inscribed’ in the electoral lists, and thus is held responsible for fulfilling her or his duties of participation.
According to analysts Diaz, Huneeus and Lagos, the new electoral inscription pattern of Chilean citizens is be- coming a political factor beyond the 2013 elections that will introduce a lot of uncertainty for the predictions of which voter stripes exactly decide the elections and why. It is restructuring the electorate, and the parties will have to react to this process.”
The Student Protest Movement and the Elections
In contrast to these expectations, according to the last polls before the first round of the presidential elections on November 17th, the sum of voters that were not going to vote despite the new rule was almost 50%. Polls showed that winner Michelle Bachelet earned 47% of the votes cast against the 25% won by Evelyn Matthei, but is still considered an ambiguous figure. There is perceived ten- sion between a large degree of political mistrust, fostered by the failures of her previous administration, and her personal charisma, which affects all voter (and non-voter) demographics.
The main goals of Bachelet for the new legislature are the changing of the existing constitution, albeit “only” in Congress and not through a constitutional assembly; educational reform that would gradually lead to free post- secondary education (a goal that is probably not viable within this legislature); the change of the Binominal Voting System in favor of a representative one; tax reform in favor of the lower and lower-middle classes; a public pension scheme reform as opposed to the mostly-privatized system that exists at present; and “equal marriage” through the public recognition of homosexual partnerships.
This program acknowledges the change in the expectations of many Chileans, which under the influence of student arguments, seem to tend to post-material values and more accentuated social equality.
According to the latest survey of Centro de Estudios Pu?blicos, Santiago de Chile (CEP) of September/October 2013, 85% of Chileans support the reduction of income differences, 83% the nationalization of copper, 74% the introduction of free tertiary or post-secondary education, 63% the decriminalization of therapeutic abortion, particularly in case of rape, and 40% the legalization of marijuana. All of these statistics demonstrate a marked change from the beliefs of a previous generation in Chile. The impact of the student movement is also mirrored by the entrance of four candidates in the Camara de Diputados (Chilean parliament) who came directly from the student movement, and some of whom are still students.
There was even a presidential candidate, Marcel Claude, who claimed to be supported by the student movement. However, in reality he only has partial support. He also may have been supported by additional, yet unseen points of influence; it is unknown how many student representatives joined parties before the 2013 elections in order to “penetrate” them “from below.”
On November 17th, Bachelet’s leftist coalition Nueva Mayori?a won 12 of the 20 seats in the Senate and 68 of the 120 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. While this was a victory for the left, it means that the proposed modification of the constitution will be impossible without a broad agreement between the left and right, since a 3/5 majority is needed for changing it. It also means that the new president will in many ways face a more problematic term in office than her predecessor, since she will hardly be able to live up to the expectations of those who voted for her. The most impressive development impacting the coming years, however, is the performance of the candidates from the student protest movement. The 2013 parliamentary elections were indubitably the biggest political success for the Chilean student movement in the past 20 years, consecrating it as a first-class political and institutional factor of meta-party traits for the years to come. The former student leaders Camila Vallejo (43.68%), Giorgio Jackson (48.14%), Gabriel Boric (26.17%) and Karol Cariola (38.50%) triumphed in their battles for parliament seats. According to post-electoral declarations, they tended to support Bachelet’s“New Majority”, but were not collocated within the leftist parliamentary whip.
Janus-Face of Potential Winner Bachelet
Michelle Bachelet called up for the support of the elected student leaders to support the “New Majority” in order to better govern and exert more pressure on the center-right in order to get its approval for constitutional change. Cooperation between former student leaders, as new members of the parliament, and the new president is now a viable — though complicated — path to modify es- tablished politics and accelerate change in Chile. Whether this is ultimately for better or for worse remains to be seen.
From the viewpoint of the students, Bachelet remains an ambiguous figure not to be fully trusted. One reason for this view and for the students’ lack of euphoria after Bachelet’s victory in the first round stems from her role during the so-called “Penguin Revolution” in 2006, a first wave of protests started by Chilean high-school students against the educational and political system when Bachelet was president.
The protest of “the Penguins” was precipitated by the reform of the the general educational law (LOCE), which induced a broad privatization process of the educational system. After months of demonstrations, Bachelet called for aid of the Presidential Advising Council, which was formed by representatives of the professors and rectors of universities, academics and directors of schools (both high school and university), and leaders of the student movement. The council was formed by 40 people, six of whom were students.
Joaqui?n Vasquez Amarales interprets Bachelet’s respective behaviour in 2006 as follows: “After some months, the students left the Presidential Advising Council, claiming they were being ignored, and that it was just an instrument of president Bachelet to hide away their protests. Despite this, a new law was proposed to replace the former LOCE: the LGE (General Law of Education in Chile). This law put restrictions to subsidized private schools and regulated the entrance exams to excellence high schools, ignoring other demands: the end to municipal school administration, and greater participation in educational decision-making.
This experience represents a difficulty for the new student leaders to believe in the authenticity of the intended changes of Bachelet. In their view, the question of Bachelet’s authenticity will depend on her ability to emancipate from her role as a “marionette” of the leaders of the left alliance, who over-influenced her former presidency.
Outlook: Chile After the Elections
Will the outcome of the 2013 elections pave the way for a “second”, more “mature” phase of Chile’s democracy? Will Chile tend towards continuity, given that the parliament, due to the binomial voting system, remains evenly split between left and right, or can there be serious change? Will Pinochet finally rest in peace, with his constitution adapted to the contemporary needs of a modern, flexible and open democracy?
Most Chilean political researchers expect no wonders from the newly-elected president. At the same time, any potential success of change will depend on her cooperation with the representatives of the student protest movement, especially with the social psychology and the public opinion formed through the country’s interaction with this movement. If student-leaders gain confidence, the new presidency could mark the beginning of the end of the long period of “transition”, where a new generation, with no fear of institutional changes and which no longer tolerates the heritage of dictatorship, could renew the spectrum of politics and introduce new ideas linked to the necessities of the younger stripes of the population.
So will we witness continuity or rupture with the existing political “common sense” in Chile? Be it as it may, one teaching of the 2013 elections was that the only way to “unlock” Chile’s “locked” democracy is through improving the democratic voting process. Chileans should act on their uneasiness with the system, and simply vote for what they believe in, instead of voting for the “lesser evil”. That will be the best way to do what is right both nationally and individually.