Does the Chilean right have any chance in November against Bachelet?

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Earlier this year, before anyone had jumped into the Chilean presidential race, you could easily have thought that the inevitable candidacy of popular former center-left president Michelle Bachelet was a kind of dress rehearsal for Hillary Clinton’s potential 2016 U.S. presidential race.chile

After four years away from La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace, and fresh off a stint with the United Nations as the head of the newly created UN Women group, Bachelet was not only the overwhelming favorite to win the presidential nomination of the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia (Concert of Parties for Democracy), the coalition of Chile’s center-left parties, but to win the November 17 election outright, perhaps with enough support to win an absolute majority and avoid a presidential runoff for the first time in two decades. 

True to form, Bachelet returned to great fanfare in March, declared her candidacy for president and won the Concertación primary with over 75% of the vote, putting her on track to accomplish what no other former president has done in the post-Pinochet era — return for a second term at La Moneda.  While Chilean presidents are prohibited from running for reelection, they are not prohibited from running for a second, non-consecutive term.

But the path has only smoothed for Bachelet as the Chilean right has lurched from one crisis to the next, settling on its third-choice candidate for president, Evelyn Matthei (pictured above) late last month.

Her hasty selection ensures that the next president of Chile will almost certainly be a woman, but it also establishes a new dynamic in the race.

Matthei and Bachelet were once childhood playmates when their fathers served together in Chile’s air force.  Matthei’s father, however, supported Augusto Pinochet after the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende.  Bachelet’s father, a general who opposed the coup led by then-general Pinochet, was later imprisoned and tortured by the Pinochet regime until he died in 1974 imprisoned.  Bachelet and her mother emigrated to Australia and East Germany, though Bachelet returned to Chile in 1979 to pursue a career as a pediatrician.

Matthei is not incredibly conservative on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, and she has a reputation as an outspoken, independent, and sometimes profane voice in Chilean politics.  Given that she’s more personable than the candidate she replaces, Pablo Longueira, a former senator and minister of economy in Piñera’s administration, she could well turn out to be a better standard-bearer for what was always going to be an uphill fight.  It also helps that she’s not burdened with having directly supported Pinochet in the 1980s, tedious baggage that Longueira would have carried with him into the election.  Pinochet’s toxic legacy is one reason that Piñera has been only the first right-wing president Chilean president since the Pinochet left office in 1990.  Piñera himself has become increasingly unpopular in office, though he’s bounced back from a 2012 nadir — the latest July Adimark survey gives him a 37% approval rating (with 53% disapproval).

Longueira abruptly withdrew from the race in late July after disclosing that he was suffering from severe depression.  

Pinochet’s legacy remains the defining aspect between Chile’s two center-right parties, the conservative Unión Democrata Independiente (UDI, Independent Democratic Union) and the more moderate center-right Renovación Nacional (RN, National Renewal), who held a joint presidential primary on June 30 to nominate Longueira under the broad umbrella Coalición por el Cambio (Coalition for Change), though the center-right is more widely known by its former name, the Alianza por Chile (Alliance for Chile).  While the UDI formed in the 1980s to support Pinochet, the RN formed in 1988 as a more breakaway faction over the issue of the 1988 plebiscite on Pinochet’s continued rule.

Matthei, an economist by training, entered Chilean politics through the RN, and she entered the lower house of the Chilean Congress, Cámara de Diputados (Chamber of Deputies) in the first set of post-Pinochet parliamentary elections in 1989, though her early rise stalled after she became embroiled in a 1993 wire-tapping scandal that also implicated Chile’s current president Sebastián Piñera (who comes from the RN, not the UDI).  Matthei bitterly quit the RN, but she won a seat to the Chilean Congress’s upper house, the Senado (Senate) in 1997 as an independent and in 1999, she joined the rival UDI.  Piñera appointed her minister of labor and social security in early 2011.

Despite the fierce infighting between the UDI and the RN after Longueira’s withdrawal, Matthei’s ties to both parties in some ways makes her a perfect compromise candidate, though she still remains an underdog and she’s more conservative than Piñera, even if she’s not as conservative as Longueira.

Moreover, it’s clear that the Chilean right remains fragmented after the June 30 Alianza primary.  Longueira, the UDI’s candidate in the primary, is a longtime figure of the Chilean right who has served in Chile’s Congress for decades and was appointed directly by Pinochet in the 1980s to head the University of Chile’s student federation, which makes him a polarizing figure among the general Chilean electorate.  But his popularity on the right allowed him to score an upset victory by a vote of 51.37% to 48.62% in the Alianza primary over Andrés Allamand, the RN’s candidate, a former Piñera administration minister of defense and a generally more moderate candidate.

Both parties are now likely to turn toward winning as many seats as possible in Chile’s simultaneous parliamentary elections — Chileans will elect all 120 members of the Chamber of Deputies (who serve four-year terms) and half of the 38-member Senate (who serve eight-year terms).  Under Chilean election law, the country is divided into 60 electoral districts, and Chileans elect two deputies directly from each

Meanwhile, on the same day, Bachelet swept to victory with more votes in her respective Concertación primary than the combined votes of both Longuiera and Allamand, demonstrating the difficulty of the center-right’s task even before the latest setback.

But the frontrunner to face off against Bachelet throughout 2012 and early 2013 had been Laurence Golborne, who served as minister of mining from 2010 to 2011 and oversaw the popular rescue operation that saved 33 miners trapped for 69 days during the 2010 Copiapó mining accident.  Although he later served as minister of energy and minister of public works, it was Golborne’s star turn as the government’s protagonist during the Copiapó disaster that made him the most appealing choice to take on Bachelet.

Ghosts from Golborne’s private-sector past as CEO of Chile’s largest retailer Cencosud tripped up his candidacy — the Supreme Court fined Cencosud for abusive practices during Golborne’s leadership of the company, and it was discovered that Golborne failed to declare assets held in the British Virgin Islands.  He promptly dropped out of the race in late April.

Bachelet, who defeated Piñera in the December 2005 presidential election (and a January 2006 runoff), comes from the Partido Socialista de Chile (PS, Socialist Party of Chile), the party to which Allende belonged and the more leftist of the three major parties in the Concertación. Those parties include the centrist Partido Demócrata Cristiano (PDC, Christian Democratic Party) of former presidents Patricio Aylwin (1990-94) and Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle (1994-2000) and the social democratic Partido por la Democracia (PPD, Party for Democracy) that former president Ricardo Lagos (2000-06) founded in the 1980s as an alternative to the Socialist Party when it remained illegal.*

With such a weakened opposition, Bachelet has doubled down on her leftist credentials in the 2013 campaign, and she has won the nomination of the Partido Comunista de Chile (Communist Party of Chile), which uncharacteristically joined with the traditional Concertación parties to form what Bachelet calls her Nueva Mayoría (New Majority) coalition.  In recent presidential elections, the Chilean Communists ran a separate candidate and the party has won between 3% and 6% of the first-round vote.

Bachelet has echoed more broadly leftist themes in her campaign, including the issue of Chile’s widening income inequality and a growing push to distribute more equitably the wealth from Chile’s copper mines, which were nationalized in the 1960s and 1970s (and remained so despite the otherwise neoliberal economic policy of the Pinochet regime).  She hopes to enact sweeping tax and education reforms, including a push for free universal education, if elected to a second term.

An alternative challenger, Marco Enríquez-Ominami (or ‘MEO’ as he’s known in Chile), is also contesting the race as a business-friendly progressive in the mould of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the leader and founder of the Partido Progresista (Progressive Party), formed in 2010 as a center-left party outside the Concertación.  Enríquez-Ominami’s 2009 independent presidential campaign won 20.14% of the vote in the first round while the Concertación candidate, the former president Frei won just 29.60%.  That split the center-left electorate — Piñera won 44.06% of the first-round vote before he ultimately defeated Frei by a 3.3% margin in the January 2010 runoff.  Franco Parisi, a conservative economist and television commentator, is also running as an independent candidate.  Unless Matthei manages to turn around the Alianza‘s fortunes soon, she could well face falling to third or even fourth place behind MEO or Parisi.

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* The original version of this post stated that Bachelet was the first president of the post-Pinochet era to come from the Socialist Party; in fact, Lagos was jointly a member of the Socialist Party and the PPD, and he was the candidate of both parties in the Concertación primary of 2005, making Lagos the first and Bachelet the second Socialist president since 1990.

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