How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The wind seems to be blowing in favor of the Chilean right. The country’s left-wing parties are fragmented. Its current socialist government, headed by Michelle Bachelet, is deeply unpopular. And a few days before the runoff election on Sunday to choose the country’s next leader, the center-right candidate, Sebastián Piñera, who won the first round of voting, on November 19, is polling three to five points ahead of his opponent, the independent senator Alejandro Guillier.
Piñera, who served as president from 2010 to 2014, seems set to return to office. But his victory would be a bitter one, produced less by his platform’s popular appeal than by the division of the left and low voter turnout. No political force has a majority in Chile’s Congress, and Piñera’s victory would encourage the reemergence of various protest movements. For all these reasons, a government headed by him would not have much leeway to pursue a traditional right-wing agenda.
Over the last few years, Chilean society has changed in ways that will make it hard for Piñera to introduce the liberalizing economic reforms and conservative social programs that the right favors.
First, the electorate has shifted leftward. The economic modernization that the country has undergone over the last three decades has produced a more liberal citizenry. As younger generations become better educated in the years ahead, there is little chance that this process of cultural liberalization will come to an end. To the contrary: issues such as environmental protection and the rights of sexual minorities will gain salience in the next few years. It was no coincidence that, in August, Bachelet’s government was able to legalize abortion in certain cases—a measure that the right furiously resisted but that, according to polls, some 60 to 70 percent of Chileans supported. (Some of Piñera’s backers have said that they want to reverse that decision; doing so would provoke heated resistance.)
Second, over the last decade, inequality has become a major topic of public debate. Even though the disparity between Chile’s richest and poorest has declined slightly since the end of the first decade of this century, citizens’ anger with the problem has grown. In 2000, according to a report by the Chilean bureau of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), half of all Chileans surveyed agreed that it was fair that those who could pay more should have access to better health care and education for their children; today, only one-third do. The change is explained by the recent emergence of egalitarian social movements, such as the 2011 student protests that demanded that the government provide free, high-quality education for all Chileans. The right is not entirely blind to this reality, but it has not sought to remedy it, either.
Finally, a number of recent scandals have damaged the reputation of the business community, which has historically supported politicians on the right. The National Economic Prosecutor’s Office has shed light on instances of collusion between private companies in industries as varied as poultry, shipping, and diaper and toilet-paper manufacturing. In 2015, prosecutors charged one of the biggest business organizations in the country, the Penta Group, with involvement in the illegal financing of political campaigns for right-wing politicians. They also uncovered evidence that the mineral company SQM, which was historically controlled by a son-in-law of the former dictator Augusto Pinochet, had been involved in illegally financing campaigns for candidates on both the left and the right. Last but not least, recent research undertaken by the journalists Juan Andrés Guzmán and Jorge Rojas has shown that in the 1990s, Piñera and other Chilean businesspeople used tax-avoidance schemes that deprived the state of important resources.
VICTORY BY DEFAULT
All these changes—cultural liberalization, the politicization of inequality, and declining public trust in the business community—are bad news for Chile’s right. So why did Piñera win the first round, and why is he on track to win on Sunday?
There are a few pieces to the puzzle. The first is the unpopularity of Bachelet’s government: according to polls, in August, only 19 percent of Chileans approved of its performance. Bachelet’s poor ratings are due partly to Chile’s economic slowdown, which is itself a product of a decline in the price of copper—the country’s biggest export—between 2011 and 2015. But they are also the result of an influence-peddling scandal involving the president’s son and daughter-in-law that broke in early 2015. The controversy irreparably damaged Bachelet’s credibility.
In her first year in government, Bachelet was still popular, and she managed to rally a number of competing forces—such as the Communist, Christian Democratic, and Social Democratic Radical Parties—behind her administration. But as her popularity declined in 2015 and 2016, some who previously backed her governing coalition began to distance themselves from it. This was particularly the case among key members of the Christian Democratic Party, who demanded that Bachelet slow down her reforms in areas from education and labor relations to tax policy. By bowing to the pressure, Bachelet alienated others on the left, who grew increasingly critical of her government and, in 2016, decided to form a new political grouping called the Broad Front—a coalition of left-wing forces linked to social movements, such as the 2011 student protests. (Beatriz Sánchez, the Broad Front’s presidential candidate, took 20 percent of the votes in the election’s first round; she seems set to become a major political figure in the years ahead.)
Whereas centrists worried about the poor design of Bachelet’s reforms and her government’s apparent radicalism, leftists were disillusioned by her concessions to the center. Bachelet’s government thus disappointed two constituencies that initially sympathized with her agenda. Chile’s left-wing forces fragmented, running different candidates for the presidency and legislature. Six of the eight presidential candidates in the election’s first round were left of center.
But there is more behind the right’s likely victory than the problems of the left. Another factor is crucial: declining voter turnout. In 1989, when Chile returned to democratic rule, 86 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. In November, only 46 percent of them did. Research by the UNDP’s Chilean bureau has shown that the decline in turnout is particularly steep among the poor, who have historically been a reliable source of left-wing votes.
Piñera has taken advantage of this dynamic by focusing more on mobilizing partisans than on winning the votes of independents. That strategy will pay off in electoral terms, but the downside will be a narrow base of support. In the first round of the presidential election in 2009, Piñera won three million votes. In November, he won 2.5 million. An important segment of the electorate defines its political identity in opposition to right-wing parties. If Piñera wins on Sunday, it will be a victory by default.
There is some good news for the right: the price of copper has risen since the end of 2015, and Piñera is an experienced businessman with a team of skillful technocrats behind him. If elected, he should be able to keep Chile’s economy growing.
Still, he will struggle to govern. Chile’s presidential system will give him enough power to initiate some changes, but without a majority in either chamber of the legislature, he won’t be able to push through major reforms. He will have to make concessions to left-of-center groups, mainly the Christian Democrats, on issues such as the expansion of free postsecondary education and the reform of the private pension system. That won’t be easy: the more radical right-wing members of his coalition will resist compromise.
Then there is the fact that power in today’s Chile depends not only on the legislature but also on the street. Citizens have become less satisfied with democracy and are turning to protest to express their discontent, and social movements have politicized the anger of large segments of the electorate over the country’s economic disparities. Demonstrators tend to have strained relationships with their governments. That would be especially the case under Piñera, given his strong ties to business and conservative groups. In the years ahead, Chile will probably see massive protests demanding educational reforms and an end to the country’s private pension system. Dealing with those demands would be hard for Piñera.
Pollsters failed to predict the outcome of the election’s first round, and it is possible that Guillier will win on Sunday. He, too, would have a hard time governing. Despite his social democratic rhetoric, Guillier is an independent, and his relations with both the Broad Front and more established left-of-center parties are strained. He is also inexperienced, having worked as a journalist for more than three decades before entering politics in 2013. Like Piñera, he would have to deal with a citizenry angry with its establishment and hungry for egalitarian reform. Regardless of who becomes the next president, the real winners in the years ahead will be those who adjust to the changing territory of Chile’s popular politics.