Sunday, December 15, Santiago, Chile, 15:00 hrs: the sun is at its apogee, the sky clear and temporarily free of the polluted halo that clings daily to the foothills of the Andes dominating the city. The suffocating heat of the southern summer is already here. Facing the municipal building in the municipality of the neighbourhood of La Florida (south of the capital), a supermarket (of the multinational Wal-Mart) stands out, as also a large Christmas market and the ‘Bellavista La Florida’ high school. Just as in the first round of the presidential elections of November 17, this municipal building has become a voting centre. The passers-by look out of the corner of their eyes at the soldiers posted at the door of the high school voting centre. Seldom, some of them go in.
After a week’s work, usually a long one [i]
, couples loaded with plastic bags take a break less than ten days before the end of year festivities. There is a continuous upheaval between the stands with objects brought from China and those with local craft products or coloured garlands. To the bewilderment of some, the shopping centre Américo Vespucio, on the other side of the immense Vicuña Mackenna, remains closed: the authorities have decided to close the shopping malls, temples of consumerism, on this day of elections. It does not matter: at the same time the neighbourhood of Meiggs, very close to the city centre, has been invaded by a sea of people; thousands have come to take advantage of what the neighbourhood businessmen have to offer. Business is good and there is a record turnout. ‘You don’t vote here, you buy,’ reads a sign at a shop entrance.
From early on, the web page of the conservative daily, Mercurio
, observes the very low turnout. Once his “civic duty is over”, the outgoing President, Sebastian Piñera (a very, very rich businessman who led the Right to victory in 2010 for the first time since the end of the dictatorship in 1989 [ii]
) solemnly declares: “If a Chilean does not want to vote, it shows his lack of love for his country”. In vain.
This is the sixth presidential elections since the start of the democratic transition, but the first ones were held on the basis of voluntary voting (with automatic registration in the lists). As it happens in many Latin American countries, the registered voters then were obliged to vote under the threat of fines. Before this, many Chileans, above all the young and people of the less affluent classes, did not register themselves in the electoral census: in a word, eyes that don’t see, hearts that don’t feel.
The municipal elections of 2012 were held under new laws. Abstention reached 60% which sent shivers down the political circles. Despite the presence of nine candidates in the first round of the presidential elections, less than half of the 13.5 million of the voters (of a population of 17 million) came out to vote. At the end of this election day, the result did not offer any surprises: facing Evelyn Matthei (Right, 37.8% of the votes), Michelle Bachelet will be the next President with more than 62.2% of the votes, but the clear triumph of Bachelet who was President between 2005 and 2010 came with 255,000 less votes than in her first term [iii]
. Only 41% of the voters turned up, the lowest figure since the transition, data to which must be added the vote denied to more than 850,000 Chileans who live abroad (a legacy of the military regime).
For Laurence Golborne, former minister and a figure on the Right, “it is worrying that only 25% of the Chileans elect the President” [iv]
. On the contrary, the director of the Electoral Service, Patricion Santa María, highlights that the marked abstention cannot in the least take anything away from the legitimacy of the results. The Christian Democratic senator, Ximena Rincón, who has a following of a number of deputies, affirms: “President Obama was elected with only 40% of the votes and nobody doubts his leadership”. Obama to the rescue of Chilean democracy? More than the jig of numbers, the ensemble of political leadership knows from years that the Chilean political system suffers from a grave representative crisis, a system based on the constitution inherited from the dictatorship (1973-1989) and cemented during the governments of Concertación, a coalition among Socialists, social liberals and Christian Democrats (1990-2010). At the entrance of the Christmas market of La Florida, an old man with a striking face, says ironically: “It is better to take advantage of this beautiful Sunday to do Christmas shopping than vote. In any case, of what use is politics to us? Tomorrow we will have to get up just the same to go to work.”
Michelle Bachelet’s victory has not been much of a surprise. At the end of her first period, the opinion polls gave her a popularity level of more than 80%. After a period in New York at the head of a United Nations office for women (UN Women) specialising in their defence, she returned to Chile after an impeccable media campaign. Her success in the primaries (74.92%) of June 30 led to an expectation of victory in the first round. To criticism that pointed out how Concertación directed and deepened the neo-liberal model when it was in power from 1990 to 2010, Michelle Bachelet has known how to forge a new narrative to animate part of her electorate. First, the coalition has managed to integrate the Communist Party (PCCh) and small social democratic organisations [v]
, thus creating the ‘New Majority’. In exchange for several seats and arguing that now it is necessary to create a vast electoral majority around a minimum reform programme, the PCCh (the leading Left-wing party in Concertación) has become an important ally at this moment in defending the progressive image of the former President. The organisation set up a hundred years ago by Luis Emilio Recabarren has doubled its parliamentary representation. Among the six Communist Deputies are two young women: the former leader of the Communist Youth, Karol Cariola, and one of the figures of the 2011 student movement, Camila Vallejo (elected with 40% of the votes). Despite the Christian Democrats (DC) grinding their teeth, the PCCh offers the future government (limited) intermediaries with the social movements, in particular the head of the trade unions (CUT) led by the Communist Francisa Fugueroa, who had openly called to vote for Bachelet. The day after the elections, the PCCh president, Guillermo Teillier, could not confirm participation in the government, but reaffirmed his “loyalty” to the programme defended by the President while emphasising the historical importance of this victory at the ballot boxes: “the Communist Party had not gained a presidential election since the time of Salvador Allende [vi]
Apart from the PCCh, a host of parties of the New Majority have benefited from the notable performance in the legislative elections (held together with the first round of the presidential elections) and obtained a comfortable majority in the Congress, with 21 senators of the 38 and 68 Deputies of the 120). This position of strength will give the executive qualified majority to begin modifying some of the “organic laws” and start with the promised reforms despite the many locking mechanisms of the “Pinochet constitution”.
A government of reforms?
Michelle Bachelet, who benefited from an abundant team of 500 experts, organised her campaign around three principal lines with a profusion of political marketing [vii]
In the first place, the promise was of a constitutional reform –“participative, democratic and institutional” – that will need an agreement in Parliament with the Right (to obtain the necessary two-thirds). The discussion could be preceded by a consultation with “civil society” and be ratified by a referendum: the candidate, queen of ambiguity who also juggles with the internal tensions of her coalition [viii]
, has refused to pronounce in favour –or against – a truly constituent and popular assembly (CA) to the great disappointment of the collectives who enlivened the campaign with “Vote for CA” [ix]
. The second axis is the fiscal reform equivalent to 3% of the GDP destined to increment (moderately [x]
) the enormous profits of the country’s principal companies and multinationals. And, finally, an educational reform that will seek to respond, in part, to the huge youth mobilisations of 2011-2012 [xi]
On victory night, from the luxurious Plaza San Francisco hotel, Michelle Bachelet thanked “the street”, particularly the youth and reiterated her promise of creating a “free, quality public educational system”. “Today, I say, let nobody doubt that profit cannot be the motor of education”. In a country where the educational market is enormous and where many in charge of Concertación are protagonists of this juicy business, some have doubts with a modicum of reason [xii]
. More so, when the reform is foreseen as being “gradual” and will be done in six years (that is to say, beyond the presidential term), allowing students free access to the universities by way of public grant. Nevertheless, it will not eliminate the hegemony of the private universities and the system of private grant-driven high schools (a system born in the last days of the dictatorship).
Neo-liberal fragmentation and the awakening of social movements
As the historian, Mario Garcés states, Chile is currently characterised by “social awakening” and eruption of social movements [xiii]
. The power of the student struggles for education was preceded by huge mobilisations in different regions (as in Magallames or Ayasen), by important environmental battles and also by the rediscovery of the strikes for salaries and diverse, radical union struggles.
In this framework, some see Bachelet’s election more as a firebreak to stabilise the neo-liberal export model in conditions of an increase in social conflicts, among whom are sociologists Felipe Portales and Alberto Mayol. The latter analyse the fire-resistant figure of Bachelet as a “Christological” figure embodying in the collective imagination the pain of the dictatorship (she was tortured and her father was an assassinated constitutionalist General) [xiv]
. This candidature will allow a Concertación in decline to recover part of its legitimacy without questioning the macroeconomic equilibrium and the interests of the multinationals. In this respect, the candidate and her team reiterated that –without an “exclusive ideological agreement” – “maintaining an active relationship of economic coordination with the Pacific alliance” [xv]
, a strategic alliance supported by the USA along with Mexico, Colombia, Panama and Peru, would be indispensable. Hardly were the elections over that the Bolivian President, Evo Morales, did not hesitate in challenging the new President, insisting on the “pro-imperialist and pro-capitalist” character of the Alliance. “I doubt that [Michelle Bachelet] is a Socialist. And here I’m going to speak straight, publicly: if Bachelet continues in the Pacific Alliance, the definition will fit whom it corresponds to, where [she] comes from and what [she] wants” [xvi]
In the first round on November 17, some eminent figures of the managerial class did not doubt supporting the former President, starting with the heavyweight figure of local capitalism, Jorge Awad, president of the association of Chilean bankers, who stated till what point the fiscal reform planned by the candidate would be painless and that Bachelet had already demonstrated that it would be an efficient guarantee of foreign investment (particularly in mining). Awad is not an exception: the support from the large companies to the Socialist paediatrician was thrice that given to Evelyn Matthei, the Right’s candidate presented by the Alliance for Chile [xvii]
Matthei was only a fallback candidate owing to successive chain desertions. She is also the daughter of a General, but one who supported the dictatorship. Member of the Independent Democratic Union (UDI), she heads the most reactionary current of the coalition, promising to govern “with Bible in hand”. The outgoing President (Sebastian Piñera) and some members of National Renewal, the other party of the coalition, have been stoking the strategy of a liberal renewal of the Right with the aim of recovering power in 2017. But the spectre of Pinochet and the massive human rights abuses still hover above the coalition and the UDI is far from being liquidated: it still is the main force in Parliament, thanks particularly to the well-worked practice of patronage in the poorest neighbourhoods.
And now what…
Mrs Vázquez is a peripatetic clothes seller. Poor and head of a large family, she does not feel “represented either by Matthei or by Bachelet”. She opines that the latter’s victory would forebode “new strikes and demonstrations in every sense. Surely, the times of Popular Unity will return and there will be destruction and violence. And who will pay for the breakage? Clearly, us, the people.” Many trade unions and collectives are on the feet fighting but more to reconstruct the social fabric and with the perspective of demanding more from the government. In a society that remains one of the most unequal in Latin America, and where insecurity rules in the labour market, it is not an easy task [xviii]
There are many hidden signals confirming that 2014 could nevertheless be a “heated” year. Recently, the libertarian list ‘Lucha’ won the presidency of the Students’ Federation of the University of Chile (FECH). Its leader, Melissa Sepúlveda, rejected voting in the second round of the presidential elections and spoke out against the “parliamentisation of the struggles”, a dig at Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola as also the other Deputies from the student movement: Gabriel Boric (Autonomous Left), who has won his wager of gaining admission to Parliament without the support of Concertación, and Giorgio Jackson (Democratic Revolution) aged 25, autonomous ally of the New Majority and elected Deputy for Santiago.
For its part, the daily, Mercurio, after having campaigned for Evelyn Matthei, now signals that one of the objectives of the new government would be “containing the expectations that have been aroused, to canalise them [xix]
[i] Many salaried people work 45 hours a week, six days a week, as the labour law, legacy of the dictatorship, permits.
[ii] See, " Au Chili, les vieilles lunes de la nouvelle droite", Le Monde Diplomatique, mai 2011.
[iii] Official results: www.eleccionservel.cl/ELECCIONES2013/vistaPaisSegundaVuelta
[iv] Figure, as also the following,, from “Abstention: The spectre that shadows Bachelet’s emphatic victory, El Dinamo, Santiago de Chile, 15 de diciembre de 2013, www.eldinamo.cl/2013/12/15/abstencion-el-fantasma-que-ensombrecio-el-contundente-triunfo-de-bachelet .
[v] The Citizens’ Left (IC), that arose from the Christian Left and the Broad Movement for Socialism of the former Socialist senator (MAS) Alejandro Navarro.
[vi] www.pcchile.cl/?p=8563 .
[vii] http://michellebachelet.cl .
[ix] A little more that 10% of the voters in the second round marked their voting slips with “AC” to signal their support for a constituent assembly (http://marcatuvoto.cl/ ).
[x] As the minister for Concertación and high functionary of the IMF, Nicolás Eyzaguirre, stated to assure the “market”: www.latercera.com/noticia/politica/2013/12/674-556497-9-nicolas-eyzaguirre-la-reforma-tributaria-de-bachelet-es-una-reforma-moderada.shtml .
[xi] See Víctor de la Fuente: « En finir (vraiment) avec l’ère Pinochet », La valise diplomatique, agosto de 2011. En español.
[xii] The links between Concertación and the educational market has been confirmed by the latest investigation of journalist María Olivia Mönckeberg: For profit: the scandalous history of the private universities in Chile, Santiago, Debate, 2013.
[xiii] Mario Garcés, El despertar de la sociedad. Los movimientos sociales de América Latina y Chile, Santiago, LOM, 2012.
[xiv] It can be stressed that Bachelet sought to embody more a Marian and maternal figure (much more than Christological), protective, open and consensual, infantilising even, of the Chilean people
[xviii] Despite an annual growth of 5% of the GDP, 5% of the richest part of the population earns 275 times that of the 5% of the poorest. See the surveys of the foundation Sol: www.fundacionsol.cl .
[xix] El Mercurio, 16 de diciembre de 2013.