“Duel Between Childhood Friends”

The top finishers in the Chilean presidential election of 2013: Michelle Bachelet (l) and Evelyn Matthei (r). Source: elciudadano.cl

With this rather dramatic title, the Chilean grassroots newspaper El Ciudadano delivered its account of the first round of the 2013 Chilean presidential election, where former president Michelle Bachelet received 46% of the vote. The runner up, Evelyn Matthei, representing the governing Alianza por Chile, had 25% of the vote. Four key points stand out from this duel.

First, there is much that differentiates these candidates but, as the title suggests, much that binds them together. Their respective fathers were Air Force generals at the time of 9/11/73, but one of them suffered a gruesome fate: Alberto Bachelet, the former president’s daugther, was tortured in a military school where Evelyn Matthei’s father, Fernando, served as its commanding officer. Chilean human rights groups insist that General Matthei at least knew of the torture, but both families deny all accusations. On the other hand, the candidates’ political inclinations are crystal-clear. Bachelet, the candidate for the center-left Nueva Mayoría coalition, has promised to raise corporate taxes to fund proposed changes in the education system and bridge the wealth gap. Matthei, a center-right politician and former minister of labor, has promised to continue the business-friendly policies of outgoing president Sebastián Piñera and declared that economic growth, not tax increases, should fund government programs.

Second, and more crucially, this election was held within the context of a country that lost much of its status as one of Latin America’s exceptional cases, along with Uruguay and Costa Rica. What the student protests of 2011 have uncovered, in the opinion of Marta Lagos, director of Latinobarómetro, is not just a deficient education system, but something much deeper (my translation):

The student movement has uncovered all of the deficiencies of our ways as a society, where the concentration of power (politicians and entrepreneurs), of wealth (businesses), and decisions (political parties, legislature, government) is restricted to a very small and impenetrable group of people. This is a Chile where power and wealth is concentrated more and more every day. The student movement has uncovered this problem more than the problem of education, which is grave in and of itself but is not the only one. And the student movement has shown an instrument that Chileans have embraced enthusiastically: protest. Today there are protests against anything and everything.

Sure that there is social mobility in Chile. That is exactly where the problem is. It is true that 7 out of 10 students come from households where nobody had higher education. It is also true that 6 out of 10 youths that finish high school end up nowhere afterwards. The ni ni generation [neither working nor in school] increases. What no one says is how many of those who enter school finish it and find work. 

Statistics are pretty, but they do not tell the story of the difficulties on the way to the finish line or the failures. Evaluation [from citizens] is more accurate, but who utilizes evaluations as a statistic to show off? Nobody, because it would be impossible to show off. Therein lies the point.

Elections are supposed to be those evaluation points, but they cannot be so in Chile because those who have power have managed to have a system where they not only have the cake, but eat it as well. 

We are stuck in what matters most, which is the gateway, the access to… In the old Chile, nobody wants to give a little of what they have. In the new Chile, nobody wants to stop asking for it. With the same toughness that it is defended against, it is asked for. It is a country polarized by the people, not by the political parties.

This scathing conclusion is confirmed by Leticia Ruiz Rodríguez in her book chapter about the quality of Chilean democracy. In her estimation, one of the reasons why the quality of Chilean democracy is not as high as it should be has to do with the distribution of wealth, which is blatantly unequal and has not been addressed as forcefully as human rights.

Third, this election is unique in that it was held in the midst of a growing consensus on changing the present constitution, concocted by and bequeathed from the late dictator Augusto Pinochet. Designed to put democracy and its governments on a relatively short leash, it was amended – slowly but surely and through ordinary institutional channels – since 2000, but the reality starkly observed by Lagos has sparked repeated calls for more changes, particularly to jumpstart a much needed reform of the education system. Agreement ends there. Many people (including most of the defeated presidential candidates) demand the creation of a constituent assembly. Matthei, although cognizant of the need to amend the constitution, disagrees with the idea. Bachelet has stated publically that being receptive to the idea of a constituent assembly did not mean that she would necesarilly support it, prompting some to accuse her of turning coats for electoral benefit. Even if her real intention is to follow the same ordinary institutional channels already blazed, the fact that she does not have a strong legislative majority will make the process a difficult one. 8% of voters marked their ballots with the letters “AC” (Asamblea Constituyente) to voice their support to the assembly. 

Finally, once again, electoral abstention was considerable. A recent change in the voter law made registration automatic and lifted the penalties for not voting, and it was believed that variables such as recent grassroots effervescence and the high number of presidential candidates would energize citizens for this election. In reality, only 6.5 million out of a total registry of 13 million voters (or 56%) showed up to the polls, prompting Piñera to voice his disappointment. As hinted by Ruiz Rodriguez, both rules operated at cross-purposes: Automatic registration swelled the number of registered voters, but the removal of penalties for not voting might have encouraged abstention (considering Lagos’ judgment of Chilean electoral politics). Another factor, however, is simple voter fatigue, since legislative elections do not coincide with presidential elections and recently the post of regional councillor was made open to election.

According to Latinobarómetro 2013, the levels of support for democracy have increased since the last poll in 2011, but only by 8 percentage points. Only 15% would support an authoritarian government, but 26% are indifferent between either regime. 88% think that democracy is the best regime, but 38% are satisfied with it. This, in a nutshell, is the reality of the country that Bachelet and Matthei are poised to govern. The run-off round is scheduled for December 15.  


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