Commentary: Chilean Elections

The following commentary on the Chilean Presidential Election was 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 Chile and promises to send election updates.

It’s now more than one week after the Chilean Elections, and we arrived here in Coyhaique on Election Day last Sunday.

First we stopped in Santiago for a night, and met up with friends for dinner. Maria Jose is the young artist who paints abstract Patagonian landscapes (she had a show in Dallas last year), and her husband Miguel is an architect. They, along with everyone we’ve talked to, from our friends to cab drivers and workmen told us that they want the center right conservative candidate, Sebastian Pinera, to win. Interestingly, Maria Jose pointed out that while artists traditionally tend to support the left, they are now tired of the difficulty in finding jobs and commissions, and they think the Concertacion has gotten old and stale. The only friend of ours who has argued fiercely to keep Concertacion in power is herself the former regional minister of culture under Michelle Bachelet’s government.

Sunday was the national Election Day, and there was nobody on the roads, no restaurants or bars open, no alcohol for purchase anywhere, and all stores closed. We got an apologetic letter from our hotel concierge notifying us that all venues in the hotel would be closed. Santiago was as pollution free as we’ve ever seen it, as we drove to the airport. Our flight south left at noon, and by the time we arrived in Coyhaique (the capital of Region Aysen in Chile – a town of about 50,000), the election was well under way. I went to the grocery store to stock up on some food, and they hadn’t just cordoned off the wine shelves, but had removed every bottle. With an apologetic shrug, the store assistant said, “Sorry, it’s the election. Everything will be back tomorrow.” And of course, it was.

First an explanation of the Chilean system. Chileans have a multi-party system, but they have tended ever since the democratic transition from Gen. Augusto Pinochet in the late 1980’s to form coalitions, resulting in a de-facto two-party system. The Concertacion is a coalition of the the leftist parties, and the right-leaning parties have participated in a coalition calling itself Alliance for Chile, or Alianza. Presidents are not allowed to run for re-election, and the law was changed so that President Bachelet served only a 4-year term rather than the 6-year terms of her predecessor.

This year, the conservatives were represented once again by candidate Sebastian Pinera, a self-made billionaire, and a charismatic and attractive businessman who is a chief stockholder in LAN, the Chilean airline. He is an economist with a doctorate from Harvard.

The Concertacion selected in an internal process, without conducting national primaries, Eduardo Frei, the 67-year old former president whose father had also been president. He was widely considered to be a dull candidate bringing nothing new to the table. The Concertacion was stunned earlier this year by the announcement that 36 year old filmmaker and former socialist congressman, Marco Enriquez Ominami, was breaking from the party to run as an independent candidate. He was popular, especially with the disillusioned youth of Chile, and pulling a large percentage of the vote from Frei.

Pinera did win the first round last Sunday, but with only 44 percent. Concertacion’s Eduardo Frei polled 30 percent, while Marco Enriquez Onimami drew 20 percent.

The big question now is whether Mr. Enriquez Onimami will reunite with the Concertacion to bring a larger bloc to the polls, thereby defeating Mr. Pinera. There will be a run-off between Sebastian Pinera and Eduardo Frei on January 17. Meanwhile, everything here is very calm, and nobody seems to be overly concerned one way or another.

From Coyhaique Chile, with warm holiday greetings to my friends in the Tower Center,
Lynne Novack