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Heirs of Pinochet

Contrary to the received wisdom, the first round of the elections in Chile did not indicate any upsurge in support for the forces of neoliberal reaction, argues Roberto Navarrete. But the left must overcome its fragmentation if it is to halt future advances by the Chilean right

February 8, 2010
8 min read


Roberto Navarrete is an editor of alborada.net, a website covering Latin American politics and culture


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Twenty years after the referendum that ousted the dictator Augusto Pinochet, the result of the first leg of Chile’s presidential elections, held on 13 December 2009, has placed the country’s right within striking distance of being elected to office for the first time in 50 years. The billionaire businessman candidate of the right-wing Coalicion por el Cambio (‘Coalition for Change’), Sebastián Piñera, got 44.1 per cent of the vote, while the former president and candidate for the ruling centre-left coalition Concertación para la Democracia, Eduardo Frei, obtained only 29.6 per cent – a huge drop from the 46 per cent obtained by the same coalition at the last presidential election in 2005.

A large part of the Concertación vote went to Marco Enríquez-Ominami (MEO), who obtained 20.1 per cent. MEO, who resigned from the Concertación and stood as an independent candidate, is a former Socialist Party deputy whose father, Miguel Enríquez, was the leader of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (Movement of the Revolutionary Left / MIR). Miguel Enríquez was killed in 1974 fighting against the Pinochet dictatorship and is seen as an iconic figure of the left. The candidate of the Communist-led coalition Juntos Podemos (‘Together We Can’), Jorge Arrate, is a former Socialist Party minister who had left the Concertación. He got 6.2 per cent, a slight increase over the coalition’s results in the previous presidential election.

Whose defeat, whose victory?

While the Concertación’s defeat has been interpreted by many as a defeat for the left and a victory for Chile’s right, a closer look at recent electoral results reveal that this is not necessarily the case. While the right in Chile has maintained a consistently high vote (close to 45 per cent) since the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1989, the 44.1 per cent obtained by Piñera in the December 2009 first round is below what was achieved by the right in the 1989, 1999 and 2005 presidential elections.

More significantly, the results reflect a strong protest vote within the left of the Concertación (represented by MEO) and the extra-parliamentary left (represented by Arrate), which together obtained around 26 per cent of the vote. This reveals a deep dissatisfaction, especially among the younger electorate, with the Concertación’s uncritical continuation of the neoliberal economic model inherited from the dictatorship, and the slow pace of political reform of Pinochet’s 1980 constitution, which ensured the perpetuation of the neoliberal model. There is also widespread disillusionment with the market dominating areas such as education, health, pensions and the utilities. The Concertación did not respond to the electorate’s desire for real change, and compounded this by nominating an uncharismatic former president widely viewed as responsible for deepening the neoliberal reforms inherited from the dictatorship.

During its 20 years in government, the Concertación, has attempted to moderate the harsh social impact of the Pinochet dictatorship, which had transformed Chile from one of the least unequal countries in the continent to one of the most unequal. But it has still continued the dictatorship’s free-market model, centred on exporting primary goods, with mineral (primarily copper) exports accounting for about 60 per cent of Chile’s foreign earnings.

Chile’s mineral wealth had been nationalised in 1972 during Salvador Allende’s government, but Pinochet opened the sector to foreign investment. Codelco, the state-controlled copper mining company, now controls only 30 per cent of copper production in Chile; foreign companies account for most of the rest. In 2006 alone, foreign mining companies earned around US$20 billion, which not only exceeds their gross investment in mining in Chile during the past 30 years but is equal to about 60 per cent of the government’s budget for that year.

During his previous presidential period, Frei and his successors, Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet, signed free trade agreements with the US, the EU and China, which have set Chile’s foreign policy on a diametrically-opposed path to most of its neighbours. This has made it impossible for Chile to participate in the South American Common Market (Mercosur), and other initiatives such as the Bank of the South, which seek economic integration for Latin American countries.

The right’s Coalition for Change alliance represents a political pact between Renovación Nacional (RN), a party representing Chile’s big business interests and Unión Democrática Independiente (UDI), an ideologically conservative party with a significant popular following. The party was created by Pinochet’s main ideologue, Jaime Guzman, who is closely linked to Opus Dei and other ideologically conservative Catholic sects. UDI is the largest party in the country with a large representation in Parliament (40 members, nine senators).

The alliance’s candidate, Sebastian Piñera, formerly a RN senator and one of Chile’s richest people, is the closest the country has to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. Piñera’s fortune, estimated by Forbes at more than US$1 billion, was amassed during the Pinochet dictatorship, when his brother and former business partner, Jose Piñera, a labour minister under Pinochet, was the one who reformed the mining law, opening the mineral sector to private investment. Jose Piñera was also responsible for implementing a privatised compulsory pension scheme and a comprehensive liberalisation of labour laws, which set back a long history of gains by the trade union movement in Chile.

Sebastian Piñera’s business group owns stakes in several major Chilean companies in the energy, mining and retail sectors; it has 100 per cent control of Chilevision, a terrestrial TV channel; owns the largest airline in South America, Lan Chile; and owns the country’s most popular football team, Colo-Colo.

Piñera is a declared admirer of Alvaro Uribe’s right-wing government in Colombia and, if elected president in the second round of the Presidential election (underway as Red Pepper went to press), he is likely to align Chile with Colombia and other US allies in the region. This would represent a dangerous trend for the Latin American integration process that is being promoted by the Mercosur countries (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay) and the countries of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

Political responsibility of the left

In addition to the Concertación, the left bears political responsibility for the current situation. The dispersion, confusion and demoralisation of its traditional popular power base can be attributed to a large extent to its inability to generate a wide united front of all the progressive anti-capitalist forces. It has still not recovered from the fragmentation caused by the repressive measures of the dictatorship, which exiled and physically eliminated its best leaders, and the slow insidious action of an electoral system that rewards coalitions and makes it virtually impossible for small parties to obtain parliamentary representation.

In the absence of a popular and democratic alternative to transform Chilean society, a vote for the Concertación represents the ‘lesser evil’. It currently offers the only means to contain the ability of Chile’s oligarchy to administer the one remaining enclave of political power outside their dominion – the government itself. At the time of writing, before the second-leg election result is known, it seems that the only chance of preventing the right’s victory in this and future elections lies in adopting a broad platform of renewal in the Concertación programme. The electoral arithmetics indicate that if Frei were able to attract around 90 per cent of Arrate’s vote and 75 per cent of MEO’s he would stand a chance of winning.

The reform programmes of both MEO and Arrate, representing the left critique of the Concertación, are comprehensive. They includes tax reform; the creation of a state-controlled pension provider; the end of the ‘bi-nominal’ electoral system; the recovery of state control over basic mineral resources (copper, lithium and water); strengthening the public education and health systems; environmental policies focused on people rather than short term profit; and a call for a constituent assembly that will lead to a new constitution to finally put an end to the authoritarian enclaves left by the dictatorship.

However, in the few weeks that have elapsed since its dismal performance in the first ballot, the Concertación has shown little evidence of responding to the discontent among its supporters. It has failed to reform its political leadership, and its discredited undemocratic practices make it uncertain as to whether it will be able to enthuse the protest vote in order to win in the second round.

So as Chileans prepare to vote once again the stage is set. A Piñera victory would mark a new stage in a long process of ideological erosion in Chile – the one that began with the overthrow of Allende’s democratically elected government in 1973 by Pinochet’s brutal US-backed forces. Responsibility for this erosion also lies with the Concertación, who by unquestioningly siding with the neoliberal project has both contributed to making people believe that there are no alternatives to the capitalist system, and destroyed the foundations of humanism and solidarity in parties such as the Socialists – the party of Salvador Allende – that had a long anti-capitalist tradition in Chile.

Roberto Navarrete is an editor of www.alborada.net, a website covering politics, media and culture in Latin America

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Roberto Navarrete is an editor of alborada.net, a website covering Latin American politics and culture


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