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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Chile votes for the (center-)right

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

Back in October 2008, I noted on Chile's democratic restoration, two decades on that "President [Michelle] Bachelet is constitutionally barred from running for re-election in 2009, and opinion polls have her 2006 runoff rival, Sebastián Piñera of National Renewal as the early favorite." Well, fifteen months later this has come to pass: in a closely fought runoff presidential election last January 17, billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera of the right-of-center Coalición por el Cambio (Coalition for Change; formerly the Alianza por Chile or Alliance for Chile) narrowly prevailed over former president Eduardo Frei-Ruiz Tagle, the candidate of the ruling, center-left Concertación alliance.

Having emerged well ahead of Frei - but short of an absolute majority - in a first round of voting last December 13, Piñera was generally expected to prevail in the runoff vote, although opinion polls accurately forecast a tightening race. While the Communist Party-led Juntos Podemos Más (Together We Can Do More) alliance - which came in fourth place in the first round - quickly endorsed Frei, the Concertación eagerly sought a clear endorsement from deputy Marco Enríquez-Ominami, an erstwhile Socialist who ran as an independent in the first round, coming in a strong third place with twenty percent of the vote.

However, in the end Enríquez-Ominami - popularly known by his initials ME-O - only gave Frei a half-hearted, personal endorsement in which he didn't even mention the latter by name. Consequently, Piñera remained ahead of Frei all the way to runoff day, when he prevailed with 51.6% of the vote to Frei's 48.4%, largely by winning over many first round ME-O voters who wanted change after two decades of back-to-back Concertación governments.

Piñera's triumph is the first by a center-right presidential candidate in Chile since 1958. It constitutes a heavy blow to the Concertación parties, which will be out of office for the first time in two decades, and could conceivably part ways in the not-too-distant future. It is also significant because during the course of the past two decades Chilean voters had repeatedly rejected right-wing parties at the polls, as these had strongly supported Gen. Augusto Pinochet's 1973-90 dictatorial regime. However, Piñera - who stood behind the "No" option in the 1988 referendum on the extension of Pinochet's mandate for a further nine years - ran successfully as a moderate.

In addition, the Concertación lost its majority in the Chamber of Deputies for the first time since 1989: the Coalición won the largest number of seats, even though the Concertación (running in a joint ticket with Juntos Podemos Más) narrowly outpolled the Coalición and won the most votes in 35 of the 60 two-member Chamber districts (to 24 for the Coalición).

This peculiar outcome was due to the fact that unlike in past elections, the Concertación failed to secure majorities of two-to-one (or more) to win both seats in any district, whereas the Coalición prevailed by more than two-to-one in one district - Santiago's upscale District 23 (Las Condes-Vitacura-Lo Barnechea). Thus, the Coalición won 23 first-place seats, both seats in District 23, and 33 second-place seats, for a total of 58 seats, while the Concertación had 35 first-place seats in as many districts, plus 22 seats in twenty-three districts where it came in second place (the exception being District 23) for a total of 57 seats (including three Communist deputies, the first elected under the party ticket since 1973); the remaining five seats went to independents and regionalist independents.

Meanwhile, the election in nine of the Senate's nineteen two-member constituencies brought no changes to the composition of the upper house, with the Concertación and the Coalición winning nine seats apiece - exactly the same result as in the preceding 2001 Senate poll in these constituencies. Presidential and Legislative Elections in Chile has detailed results of Chile's recent election, along with election results since 1989.

Given that neither the Concertación nor the Coalición will have an overall majority in the Senate or the Chamber of Deputies, it shouldn't be surprising that Piñera has suggested a government of national unity; indeed, he may try to attract centrist Concertación supporters - mainly from Frei's Christian Democratic Party (PDC) as well as the smaller Social Democratic Radical Party (PRSD). From a historical perspective, it would not be at all unprecedented: PDC has joined forces with the right in the past, most notably during the presidency of Salvador Allende, to oppose his left-wing Popular Unity government. Thus, the Christian Democrats may go the way of Chile's old middle-of-the-road Radical Party - the predecessor of PRSD - which emerged as the kingmaker of Chilean politics during the early-to-mid-20th century by alternately forming alliances with the right and the left.

Moreover, President-elect Piñera's National Renewal (RN) holds far fewer seats in the Chamber of Deputies than its coalition partner, the Independent Democratic Union (UDI), which stands to the right of RN. From that perspective, seeking centrist support from PDC and PRSD (which appears set to jump ship) may be a way to not only attain a clear legislative majority, but perhaps to secure a counterweight to the right-wing UDI as well. That said, the old Radical Party's repeated change of allegiances eventually led to a damaging split from which it never recovered (its right wing broke away when the party backed Salvador Allende in 1970); PRSD is a shadow of its former self, and its much diminished political presence nowadays should serve as a cautionary tale for the Christian Democrats.

The recent general election in Chile is already notable for having introduced the first alternation in power between center-right and center-left alliances since the restoration of democratic governance, a development that until now had been conspicuously absent from post-Pinochet Chilean party politics. It remains to be seen if Chile's turn to the right will also pave the way for a major realignment of political forces in the South American country.