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Commentary: Chile Stays the Course

BUENOS AIRES  When Sebastián Piñera  the moderately conservative tycoon who was recently elected president  takes office on March 11, Chile will experience what some political scientists consider a watershed in every successful transition to democracy: the rotation of power among political parties.

After General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship gave way to democracy in 1990, the center-left coalition known as the Concertación won four consecutive free and fair presidential contests. After 20 years in office, it will now cede power to Piñera´s Coalición por el Cambio, composed of his center-right Renovación Nacional and the more conservative Union Demócrata Independiente.

The long rule of the Concertación reflected its success. In almost all areas, from political stability to economic development to poverty alleviation, Chile has done very well over the past two decades, certainly much better than its Latin American neighbors. The rightist opposition had to solve the puzzle of defeating a coalition that had maintained Pinochet’s most successful policies (mainly the free-market, export-oriented economic model) without being tainted (as many Coalición leaders are) by links to his bloody regime.

Piñera benefited from his own critical stance towards the military government, and from an electoral campaign that emphasized the liberal much more than the conservative aspects of his coalition. Instead of vindicating Pinochet and appealing to traditional Catholic values, Piñera offered a centrist vision of change that included more rights for homosexuals and an emphasis on social issues (in a country that, even after 25 years of strong growth, remains very unequal).

Piñera’s victory was aided by the sclerosis of the Concertación, which ran as its candidate the Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei, the least popular of its four presidents of the last two decades. (The current and popular Socialist president, Michelle Bachelet, could not legally run for reelection.)

Even worse, after the Socialist Party denied a young deputy, Marco Enríquez-Ominami, the possibility to compete in a primary against Frei, Enríquez launched a quite successful independent candidacy, which split the Concertación vote in the first round. With more internal democracy and some renewal in its leadership, the ruling alliance might have secured a fifth term.

How much change does Piñera represent for Chile? First, a look at the numbers: the president-elect won the second-round vote with only a slight popular majority (51.6%), and will have fewer seats than the Concertación in the Senate. The rough balance of power that has characterized Chilean politics over the past 20 years will continue during Piñera’s four-year term: only incremental, negotiated change will be possible.

Moreover, at a substantive level there is not really that much difference between the two alliances (and even less between the centrist Piñera and Frei). Yes, traditional constituencies of the right, such as the business sector, the military, and the Church, will find a somewhat more welcoming government, but a sharp rightward turn is unlikely.

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The most controversial change that Piñera is likely to seek is the partial privatization of CODELCO, the huge and highly profitable state-owned copper company. But, even if this politically risky move succeeded, he would just be deepening the economic model started by Pinochet and followed by the Concertación.

In foreign policy, Chile is expected to adopt a harsher stance towards the Cuban dictatorship and Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, while retaining the policy of integration with Argentina and Brazil, and of negotiation with Bolivia (over an old territorial dispute).

The real action may actually take place within the two political coalitions. Previous signs of exhaustion in the Concertación have worsened after the electoral defeat. Several key party leaders have resigned. The smallest of the alliance’s parties (the Radicals) quickly negotiated a deal with the right in Congress (though it was canceled after the ensuing political scandal). And Enríquez-Ominami may continue to build his new force at the expense of the Concertación. Other tensions may erupt without the unifying incentives of power.

As the cleavages inherited from the military years fade and the ideological ocean that once separated left and right becomes a navigable river, there is potential for coalition reshuffling. Piñera needs more votes in Congress, and the experience of other multi-party presidential democracies such as Argentina and Brazil shows that it is not difficult for incumbents to attract coalition partners in exchange for government posts.

Tensions in the new ruling coalition are also possible. Piñera has said that he will emphasize technical competence in his cabinet appointments, with a bias towards the young. This may bode ill for traditional politicians of the right who have been waiting two decades for a chance in office.

One factor, however, may hold everything together: Bachelet can and may run again for president in 2013-2014. Her popularity, plus the toll that holding office might take on the Coalición, could turn the Concertación’s recent narrow defeat into a future victory. This prospect gives incentives for both alliances to stay together.

Carlos Gervasoni is Professor of Political Science at Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.


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