The following commentary on the Chilean Presidential Election is the second in a series written by Lynne Novack, Tower Center Senior Fellow and Associate Director of the Tower Center Program on National Security & Defense. She is currently on sabbatical in Coyhaique, Chile. Click here to view the first installment.
Chile’s presidential election runoff vote occurred this past Sunday, the 17th. The Conservative candidate Sebastian Pinera was elected with 52 % of the vote (vs. 48 % for the Concertacion candidate Eduardo Frei).
Amazingly, Pinera is the first democratically-elected conservative candidate in over 50 years, the last one since 1958 — long before Allende. And this is in a South America that has shifted to the socialist left in most countries over the past decade, including Chile. Concertacion (socialist party) President Michelle Bachelet will end her term with the highest ratings in the polls for any president ever. This is a huge and shocking change for Chile, with thousands of government jobs in the balance as the transition occurs.
It’s always a tricky thing to talk politics in Chile, given the continuing sensitivities from the coup toppling Salvador Allende and installing the General Pinochet dictatorship in 1973. Since Region Aysen is the most remote area in Chile, there are those who came here to escape Pinochet. Others, large landholders and important business leaders, were Pinochet supporters. Even though the Allende presidency was overthrown 37 years ago, and Pinochet left power 20 years ago, Chileans have an aversion to mentioning those times with outsiders, but hold it inside as a dark, shameful, and frightening period of their history.
However, before and after Chile’s final runoff vote, I’ve spoken with several individuals who gave me interesting feedback on current Chilean attitudes:
- A German Argentine immigrant entrepreneur with a successful food import/export business. In Chile since the mid-80′s, and now about 60, he confirmed that he preferred Pinera, but said it really won’t matter for Chile or for them. While not denying Pinochet’s sins, he said that Pinochet had set into place a formula to protect Chile: 1) an independent judiciary, 2) an independent central bank, and 3) an independent economy. So no matter who won, not much could change. He added that in the 20 plus years he has lived & done business here, he never has once been asked for a bribe. (And we have had the same experience in the past 15 years. We’d never offer a bribe, and if we did, we know we would instantly be arrested!)
- A Chilean musician from a well-connected family, she founded an excellent classical music school for children. She has also run the library and served as the regional cultural director in the Bachelet administration. About 49, she has two young adult sons that are active in environmental issues. To my surprise, she said she wasn’t involved in the campaign, and didn’t care who wins. She added that the young generation (her sons’ generation) feels disenfranchised from the system — so they didn’t register or vote. This is a big problem for Chile. Under the law, citizens aged 18 and up can register, but once registered they are required to vote for life — and there is no option to stay away from the polls as a protest. As a result, this is the smallest percentage of under-30 voters ever. She, being a survivor of the Allende era and Pinochet coup, is concerned about the Pinera victory — not because he or his administration would do anything wrong, but because there are forces on the extreme right or extreme left (particularly the left) who could cause problems.
- A Swiss-Chilean immigrant, and his Swiss wife, both in their late 30′s. He is an architect & structural engineer, and an up & coming business leader here, while she has interrupted her nursing career to raise their children. They reported that recently the Swiss government issued Eduardo Frei a passport, and nobody knows why. Usually, passport applications go through the Swiss cantons, but nobody knew anything about this, and he has no connection to Switzerland. Apparently, this attracted quite a lot of attention and questioning in the last days of the campaign. (It is interesting, however, to note the (invasive) treaty the US recently negotiated with the Swiss that permits the US to investigate Swiss banking accounts does not apply to people who hold Swiss citizenship.)
- A Chilean trauma surgeon in his mid-30′s, located in Santiago these past few years, and now wanting to relocate to Coyhaique. He said that there is total upheaval because the entire health system is federal, and thus with the election transition, all the administrators are in jeopardy of losing their positions. He added ironically that everyone will see much more efficiency and performance in the next few months, as the government positions have been safe sinecures for sitting back and relaxing. Now everyone will start working because they want to prove their worth, so much more will get done.
- A young woman from a military family, who has not found a job in Coyhaique after 2 years, even with 15 years business experience. The problem, she indicated, is that all the jobs here are government positions, and the government won’t touch anyone who doesn’t come from the correct (leftist elite) background. She supported Pinera because he comes himself from a middle-class background, and has promised to support and provide private sector jobs for the poor and middle class. When I asked her feelings after the election decision for Pinera, she said “Vindication – yes, that is exactly it.”
- An Argentine-Chilean woman from a small farming family in Coyhaique, now 40 and running a small business. She has lived and worked in Coyhaique and in Argentine Rivadavia de Comodoro, an oil city in far south Patagonia. She told me that the government is incredibly inefficient, and that there are few opportunities for the poorer people to improve their lives through education, nor are there jobs for those who want to work.
We were at a special non-political event on Sunday evening, when we noticed several people gathered anxiously around the radio as final election results were coming in from around the country.
Everyone there– mostly young professionals in their 20′s, 30′s and early 40′s — voiced the need for a change, as the government has not just become stale, but riddled with nepotism. These younger people did not have their own memories of the trauma of the Allende/Pinochet years. But apparently the vote tightened in the last few days as the Concertacion put heavy emphasis on those dark days, resulting in many more of the older voters turning to Frei for fear of the Conservatives. It also turned out that about 200,000 voters abstained from voting, even though required. Most probably, these were originally voters for independent Marco Enriquez Ominami, who only gave his tepid if not negative endorsement to Frei days before the election.
The tension grew as the numbers were pretty close, but when the final results declared Pinera the winner, there was a general cheer in the room, and glasses raised in celebration. That night, there were the largest crowds ever seen celebrating in the streets of Coyhaique, all happy about Pinera, except one poor forlorn Frei supporter, waving a limp banner by himself.
The most recent reports indicate that President Bachelet will help coordinate the transition to the President-Elect Pinera administration. There will be many thousands of government civil service jobs changing during the upcoming period, and it should be a fascinating, but confusing, process to watch.
I should point out that there is a huge difference between Chile and the US in forms of government service. The U.S. has City, County, State and even some Federal hospitals, airports, highways, police, welfare services, ad infinitum. In the US, if a presidential party changes, it is a mad scramble in Washington DC, but has little to no effect in Hattengap, Arkansas. A city or county election might affect local jobs, but not the rest. Here, even the guy driving the road grader is affected because his bosses will now lose their jobs. Everything here emanates from Santiago, or flows back to Santiago for approval.
Many feel that this was not necessarily a win for Pinera, but a loss for the Concertacion that has gotten increasingly older and out of touch with its electorate. No matter, however, Pinera will have to deal with a Congress — Senate and House of Deputies — in which there is no clear majority for either side in these recent elections. That along with the closeness of the vote has not given Pinera a clear mandate for a strong conservative agenda, indicating that change may be less than expected — or feared.