Chile: It’s the politics, stupid!

Despite economic success, Chile’s outgoing President Sebastián Piñera failed to build a winning electoral coalition among the centre-right, clearing the way for Michelle Bachelet’s return. Good economic governance isn’t enough.

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Outgoing President of Chile, Sebastián Piñera.

Today, March 11th, sees the return of Michelle Bachelet to the Chilean presidency, having already served her first term between 2006 and 2010. It also heralds the return of the centre-left Nueva Mayoría (New Majority), who ruled Chile for 20 years from the return to democracy in 1990 when it was known as the Concertación, after a brief four-year hiatus under the centre-right Alianza (Alliance) administration of outgoing President Sebastián Piñera.

In the aftermath of last November and December’s general elections, analysts have been casting around for ideas about why the Alianza failed to hold on to power. In fact they didn’t just fail; to put it quite simply they were roundly beaten both in the presidential contest and in congressional elections. In the first round of the presidential election, Bachelet received 47% of the vote compared to the mere 25% achieved by the Alianza candidate, Evelyn Matthei, with the rest hoovered up by the seven other candidates; the second round run-off saw Bachelet triumph by an even greater margin of 62% to 38%. Meanwhile, in the legislative elections the Nueva Mayoría took 67 out of 120 Lower House seats, against the Alianza’s 49, while in the Senate the balance of power now stands at 21:16 in favour of the Nueva Mayoría.

The principal reason for the Chilean puzzle is that to all intents and purposes, Chile has had a pretty successful four years. In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck on February 27th 2010, less than a fortnight before Piñera took office, Chile has recovered spectacularly in resuming its strong economic trajectory of the past two or three decades, registering average annual growth of around 5.5% despite the less than favourable global economic climate. Moreover, Piñera’s government managed to keep inflation generally low (below the 3% mark), while it has also brought unemployment down from around 10% to just above 6%, creating a million jobs in the process. Chile continues to top the regional league tables in macroeconomic performance, living standards and development indicators.

Bill Clinton famously won the 1992 US presidential election thanks largely to a slogan inspired by the words of one of his close advisers: “It’s the economy, stupid!” This phrase has continued to carry such political weight the world over, mainly because in the majority of cases it holds true: governments and leaders are judged above all for their economic record, because so much else in governance stems from the health of the economy a government presides over. And yet for Chile’s centre-right, such a strategy has not worked. In spite of all the economic success of Piñera’s administration, Bachelet’s reelection campaign was never really in any doubt, with Matthei herself admitting before the presidential election second round that she needed a “miracle” to overcome Bachelet.

Piñera holds up the SOS message sent out by the trapped Chilean miners in August 2010. Their rescue proved to be the high point of Piñera’s popularity throughout his four years in power.

It all appeared to have started so well. Half a year into Piñera’s term, the world watched on as 33 miners were rescued from the San José copper mine in the Atacama Desert, having spent 69 days trapped half a mile underground. More than a billion people tuned in to the live coverage and Piñera, an experienced businessman well grounded in the world of PR, lapped up the attention during Chile’s big moment in the international spotlight. The event served to prove to those unaccustomed to Latin American current affairs that Chile was no ‘Third World’ country – it was hell-bent on joining the world of the so-called ‘developed countries’ (2010 also saw Chile’s formal admission to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), known by many as the ‘Club of Rich Nations’).

Shortly afterwards, Piñera, Chile’s first elected President on the right hand side of the political spectrum since 1958, had seen his approval ratings soar to around 65%. But this wasn’t to last: less than a year later, they had plummeted to 26%, the lowest ever recorded in Chile since the return to democracy, and they would barely recover in time for the elections that saw the Alianza suffer its bruising defeats. The spark for this plunge in popularity came from the massive student-led protests which came to life in May 2011, bringing hundreds of thousands of Chileans onto the streets to protest the state of the country’s education system, demanding an end to extortionate fees and profit-making in secondary and university education. The protests soon began to focus on other widely-held grievances, not least Chile’s chronic and historic levels of inequality and social stratification – which many argued were dictated and reinforced by the inequity of the education system – as well as a general sense that the country’s political class was becoming ever more elitist and out of touch with the everyday lives of ordinary Chileans. With this in mind, Piñera was certainly not alone in suffering from significant damage to his reputation; his entire government received appalling approval ratings, and yet so did the centre-left, by now in opposition, as Chileans blamed them for their failure to address these issues during their 20 years in power.

What the protests came to emphasise was that with living standards on the rise, and the emergence of a strong, informed and politically-aware urban middle class, voter priorities have shifted dramatically in recent years. The country’s economic performance, and any associated trickle-down material benefits for its citizens, are no longer enough: Chileans now have more immaterial concerns such as social inequality, care for the environment, the strength and quality of democracy, and a more direct and horizontal connection with their elected representatives. According to a study by the Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Contemporánea (Cerc – Centre for Studies of Contemporary Realities) carried out in 2012, 81% of Chileans believed that economic growth had mainly benefitted the rich, with only 19% agreeing that growth had improved the lot of all Chileans. In an editorial for The Guardian back in August 2011 at the height of the protests, the Chilean journalist Cristián Cabalin wrote that “Chile is today a more complex country than it was two decades ago, but the current political system does not recognise this. Piñera is [a] member of a stubborn elite that continues to control the country as it always has, without recognising that Chileans now live in a completely different context. He believes that Chileans have the same needs that they had during their return to democracy: political stability and public security. However, most citizens want to build a more equal society, with the same opportunities for all”.

Student protests in Santiago. The protests were the detonator for Piñera’s low approval ratings and the basis of Michelle Bachelet’s electoral promises.

The centre-left have been deemed guilty of a similar crime by Chileans, with the record of their 20 years in power somewhat tarnished retrospectively by their failure to overturn many of the authoritarian enclaves left by the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990), such as social inequality and the incomplete nature of Chilean democracy, and indeed at the height of the protests their approval ratings were even worse than those of Piñera and the Alianza. However, it is arguably Bachelet’s stated willingness to engage properly with Chile’s social movements – addressing their concerns with wholesale institutional reforms and working hard to correct what she readily admits were the failures of her first term – that has given her the edge in the recent elections, and which has persuaded Chileans to give her and the Nueva Mayoría a second chance. The incorporation of some of the student protest leaders into the new ruling coalition has no doubt helped to foster the impression that this government is more serious about addressing Chile’s social ills.

Another crucial factor has been Bachelet’s personal popularity – at odds with that of many sectors of her Nueva Mayoría coalition – which has been largely retained over the four years since she left office with approval ratings approaching 80%. Her likeable personality and charisma have gone hand-in-hand with her optimistic vision of reform to the country’s constitution and its education and tax systems, all intended to make Chile the more equal and inclusive country that protesters have been pressing for. Bachelet’s candidacy stood in stark contrast to that of Matthei, who in her defence had it thrust upon her after the rise and fall of the Alianza’s preferred candidates, Laurence Golborne, Andrés Allamand and Pablo Longueira, the latter standing down just weeks after earning the coalition’s presidential nomination due to depression.

Critics have also laid the blame squarely at the feet of Piñera himself, for failing to maintain unity of his coalition during the electoral campaign. Some have suggested that Piñera was simply putting his own personal ambitions – including a potential bid at reelection in 2017 – ahead of the needs of his own party. The lack of political leadership by Piñera and the internal divisions that this created helped muddy the waters of the Alianza’s campaign message. Whereas Bachelet and the Nueva Mayoría put themselves firmly on the side of the social movements, Matthei and the Alianza were unwilling to make any promises of the kind of institutional change demanded by a majority of voters. Their message continued to be built around the premise that the best way to improve the wellbeing of Chileans was to ensure maximum economic growth leading to more government revenue for spending on social programmes, despite overwhelming evidence that voters had had enough of this particular strategy.

Michelle Bachelet, with newly elected MPs and former student leaders Karol Cariola (L) and Camila Vallejo (R). The support of some of the student protests’ key leaders in Bachelet’s reelection campaign and incoming government has been, and will continue to be, essential to her efforts to answer the demands of Chile’s widespread social movements.

The shift in voter priorities is a concept that the Alianza has been demonstrably incapable of grasping, as Piñera continued to mistakenly believe that running a country was similar to running a business. When he declared (link in Spanish), shortly after Bachelet’s victory in the second round of the presidential election, that Chile’s economic growth was due to good governance by his administration, rather than simply due to the high global price of copper (Chile’s main export and a key source of state revenue), he is unlikely to have won over many new sympathisers. In taking their demands to the streets and then voting back in a Nueva Mayoría they had had enough of just four years ago, Chileans have demonstrated that economic growth is no longer the most important thing they look for in their elected rulers. It’s the politics, stupid!