In the weeks leading up to the final round of the 2010 Chilean presidential elections, Eduardo Frei, the candidate for the center-left Concertación coalition, ran a political advertisement in which an invisible hand scribbled words such as “ass” and “go to hell” on a white ballot. A sober voiceover stated: “You may be angry and you may think there’s no way out, but submitting a blank or annulled ballot is a vote for the Right.” Similar ads concluded with a pencil sharply crossing the line next to Frei’s name, as if reminding viewers of the proper way to mark a ballot. The underlying sentiment was equal parts desperation and exhaustion, as the coalition that has governed Chile for twenty years was reduced to begging voters not to graffiti their ballots.
On the surface, this sentiment seemed surprising. Only four years ago, Michelle Bachelet became the fourth consecutive candidate (and the first female) from the Concertación coalition—a mishmash of political parties dominated by the left-leaning Socialists and the centrist Christian Democrats—to ascend to the presidency. After a bumpy beginning, Bachelet found her stride midway through the term, especially in the realm of social policy, where she managed to extend pensions to workers in the informal economy, expand healthcare, and strengthen the social safety net for the lower classes. During her final year in office (Chile’s constitution forbids consecutive presidential terms), Bachelet’s approval ratings soared to 80 percent; however, her sky-high popularity masked anxieties about rising crime, governmental corruption, a dysfunctional educational system, and a sputtering economy. Any hope that Bachelet’s personal popularity might buoy the next Concertación candidate was dashed almost as soon as the coalition decided against holding open primaries.
In early 2009, after two favored candidates, Ricardo Lagos and José Miguel Insulza, withdrew from the race, the Concertación tentatively announced primaries in which aspiring candidates would need the backing of six legislators to qualify. A 36-year-old filmmaker-turned-congressman from the Socialist Party named Marco Enríquez-Ominami secured the requisite signatures and declared his intention to run. Shortly thereafter, the Socialist Party changed the rules by preemptively nominating Eduardo Frei as its candidate, believing that Enríquez-Ominami was too young, untested, and unentrenched to represent the party. Rather than stepping aside and supporting the decision, Enríquez-Ominami resigned from the party and put himself forward as an independent candidate.
With his shoulder-length hair, sleepy eyes, and slang-laden speech, Enríquez-Ominami (or ME-O, as he’s affectionately known in Chile) magnetized younger voters and those frustrated with the apparent disconnect between party leaders and the popular base. In an open resignation letter to the Socialist Party, Enríquez-Ominami blamed party leaders for reneging on the “promise of joy, openness, and democracy that we made in the late 1980s. In contrast, [current party leaders] have opted for a dark, exclusive, and authoritarian style of politics, making the perpetuation of power their top priority.”
This was not a new critique. Since assuming power in 1990, eighteen months after a plebiscite that had defeated the dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet, the Concertación has been hamstrung by a binomial electoral system and a Pinochet-era constitution that together thwart minority parties, limit political participation from the masses, and concentrate power in party elites. Enríquez-Ominami campaigned on the promise of constitutional reformation and a more “citizen-oriented politics,” a somewhat vague platform that melded aspects of participatory democracy and decentralization with economic proposals that included privatization and the continuation of select neoliberal policies.
In contrast to Enríquez-Ominami’s outsider status, Eduardo Frei’s candidacy came across as a product of closed-door negotiations among ensconced elites. A Christian Democrat and a former President, the 67-year-old Frei has a thick, deliberate manner of speaking, favors white shirts with monochromatic ties, and walks with a stiff, lumbering gait. He exuded an aura of weary experience at a time when many voters sought generational renewal and new faces, and exemplified the lack of passion stirred up by the Concertación in this election.
Partly in response to Enríquez-Ominami and partly as a means of linking his candidacy to the Bachelet administration, Frei formulated a progressive agenda that, among other measures, called for the creation of a special commission that would transform the Pinochet-era constitution into a so-called “citizen’s constitution.” But Frei’s decidedly centrist record during his stint as President in the late ’90s undercut his efforts to rebrand himself as a liberal-minded reformer.
While Enríquez-Ominami was able to garner twenty percent of the vote during the first round of the presidential elections—more than any previous independent candidate, though not enough to advance to the final round—he was hampered by low turnout among young adults. Roughly three-fourths of Chileans under the age of 30 abstained from voting, reflecting an alarming malaise among the generation that came of age during Chile’s democratic transition. As Camila, a Chilean graduate student who recently graduated from the under-30 demographic, told me: “I’m not going to legitimate the system put in place by Pinochet. It’s a democracy by accord, a back-door democracy, and everyone knows that. They don’t govern by the people, they govern for themselves.”
Even though the two left-leaning candidates, coupled with Jorge Arrate, the Communist Party candidate, secured nearly fifty-six percent of the total vote, it was evident that Frei wouldn’t be able to rely on Enríquez-Ominami supporters in the final round. A significant portion of these voters desired an alternative to the longstanding governing order, and the mantle of change was immediately seized by Sebastián Piñera, the candidate for the right-wing Alianza coalition and the clear-cut victor in the first round, with forty-four percent of the cast ballots.
An indefatigable billionaire with a doctorate in economics from Harvard and stakes in the national airline and the country’s most recognizable soccer team, Piñera has an air of easy confidence that borders on smugness. He parts his thick gray hair to the side and keeps his 60-year-old body in trim, soccer-playing shape. During interviews, he twitches with nervous energy. The Frei campaign depicted him as a helicopter hovering over the ground-level problems of the masses. In a sly advertisement from the ME-O campaign, a doctor slathered Enríquez-Ominami’s arm with mayonnaise, wedged it between two slices of bread, and took an open-mouthed bite. Scrunching up his face, the doctor declared: “Ugh, Marco no es rico,” playing off a Spanish word that can mean both “delicious” and “rich.”
Piñera spent the final month of his campaign darting up and down his long country, seeming to gain energy from each small town he visited. He posted YouTube videos of cycling treks with family and friends, gave disarmingly polished interviews, and mimicked Michael Jackson’s macabre dance moves from the Thriller video on a popular Chilean talk show. Resurrection from the dead proved an apt metaphor for Piñera, who was trying to become the first right-wing candidate to win a democratic election in Chile since 1958.
As the biographies of the candidates suggest, the legacy of Pinochet’s violent dictatorship continues to weigh heavily on the Right in Chile. Among the 3,000 people murdered by the Pinochet regime was Enríquez-Ominami’s father Miguel, a leader of a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist organization. Only a few months old during the 1973 coup, Enríquez-Ominami was exiled with his mother to France, where he spent most of his childhood. And days before the first round of voting commenced, a Chilean judge charged six men connected to the Pinochet government with the murder of Eduardo Frei’s father. An ex-President of Chile himself and a supporter-turned-critic of the Pinochet dictatorship, Frei’s father died in 1982 before undergoing routine stomach surgery; mustard gas and thallium were allegedly found in his body—possible evidence of an intentional poisoning.
As a longstanding member of the National Renovation, the center-right party of the Alianza coalition, Piñera was able to distance himself from the party most commonly linked to the Pinochet dictatorship: the hard-right Independent Democrat Union (or UDI). Though his brother had been a minister in Pinochet’s cabinet, Piñera voted against the 1988 plebiscite that would have extended Pinochet’s rule. On the campaign trail, he asserted that no members of Pinochet’s regime would serve in his government, although he later backtracked under pressure from the hard right, indicating that not everyone who served under Pinochet bears responsibility for the dictatorship’s abuses. In December, he told military officials that he would try to halt lawsuits filed against them by victims of human rights violations, voicing his desire to focus instead on Chile’s future.
Of course, not everyone in Chile is capable of forgetting the past. Hector Salgado, an exile who was imprisoned and tortured during the early years of Pinochet’s regime, told me: “It’s a never-ending situation for me. If Piñera were to choose [for his Cabinet] someone from Pinochet’s government, believe me, I’d be the first to protest.” For his part, Frei repeatedly brought up the Right’s supposedly unrepentant support for the military dictatorship and the Concertación’s moral authority during the transition to democracy. Rather than engaging with this dichotomy, Piñera attempted to move beyond the postdictatorial stigmatization of the Right. In his own words: “There are some of us who are not the heirs of Pinochet.”
A principal reason why Piñera was able to overcome the postdictatorial stigmatization of the Right was that he promised as much continuity as change. He vowed to stay the course on successful Concertación programs that have diminished poverty levels and extended social safety nets. During the debates, he championed the state’s role in reducing economic inequality. He prominently featured a gay couple in one of his political advertisements, a gesture which angered the more conservative factions of the Right. On many points, his platform was almost impossible to distinguish from Frei’s. Enríquez-Ominami opined that the candidates were “too much alike and too much a part of Chile’s dark past,” a reference to the Christian Democratic Party’s initial support of the 1973 coup. While he announced his decision to vote for Frei, Enríquez-Ominami refused to urge his supporters to do likewise and promised to fight as an independent candidate in future contests in order to assure that this would be the last election in which “voters will have to choose between two figures who represent Chile’s transition to democracy.”
Alongside his pledge to continue on popular social programs, Piñera hammered away at the perceived weaknesses of the Concertación. In the opening pages of his plan for governance, he stated: “Just as in 1988 when, after seventeen years of a military government, change was necessary to open the doors for democracy, so too is change required today to open the doors for progress.” The change that Piñera espoused revolved around middle-class fears of deteriorating educational standards, failing security and, especially, economic stagnation. Piñera promised to hire 10,000 new police officers to combat delinquency, stumped for upgrades in public education, and vowed to make state-run programs more “efficient,” largely by slashing bureaucracy and revamping a governmental system that he claimed had ossified over decades in power.
Nowhere was Piñera more at ease than when discussing economic matters. Despite Bachelet’s adept handling of the recent global recession, Chile’s annual economic growth had stalled at 3.7% over the past decade. Piñera promised to raise this rate to 6% by the end of his term, while creating one million jobs and nearly doubling the country’s per capita income in the process. He placed a renewed emphasis on innovation and small businesses, and put forth labor reforms that would weaken unions and make it easier for businesses to fire workers. Overall, the vision for Chile that he sketched out was heavily informed by his own entrepreneurial background. It would be a streamlined and calculative country, mindful of class differences yet driven by ambition and the bottom line.
For many, the race was characterized as a choice between the “lesser of two evils.” A Chilean engineer named Rodrigo told me: “As far as I can tell, the reason for voting for one candidate over the other boils down to impeding the opposing coalition from gaining or maintaining power. I mean, those loyal to Frei don’t even like Frei all that much. They just don’t want the Right in power…Many people voting for Piñera in general are bored with the Concertación and all the bad habits [the coalition] has developed after years in power.” In the days before the election, Piñera’s once comfortable lead vanished, as numerous voters who were undecided or thinking about annulling their ballots broke for Frei. But this late surge would not be enough. On January 17th, 2010, Piñera defeated Frei with a little over 51 percent of the total vote.
Ultimately, Piñera’s electoral victory could precipitate the realignment of the two coalitions that have dominated Chilean politics over the past two decades. In the coming year, Piñera’s center-right platform will face resistance not only from the Concertación, which already has objected to Piñera’s proposed labor reforms, but more significantly from the Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI), the hard-right party within his own coalition. In order to rein in the powerful UDI and push legislation through a divided Congress, Piñera will likely need to woo centrist members of the Concertación, particularly the Christian Democrats. At the same time, the Concertación’s electoral loss could lead members of the Socialist Party to demand reformation and renewal within the coalition, or to break away altogether and align with Marco Enriquez-Ominami. In essence, these coalitions will have to determine if the forces that brought them together at the end of the dictatorship are strong enough to keep them united in a vastly different political environment. The reality is that it has been so long since the Right has assumed power through democratic means in Chile that the effects of Pinera’s victory, both for the country and the larger region, have not yet come into focus.