The failure of the governing coalition in Chile to win Sunday’s presidential election was as predictable as the forthcoming failure of the British Labour party to win re-election in the spring. It is rooted in similar causes: tedium, irritation and dissatisfaction on the part of the electorate, and division, incompetence and intellectual bankruptcy from the Concertación alliance (of socialists and Christian Democrats) that has ruled the country since the overthrow of General Pinochet.
Maybe the result will not be too bad for Chile, although it will have a baneful impact on Latin America, which had been moving in a more progressive direction in the past decade. Sebastián Piñera, the new president, is a wealthy businessman but a political lightweight, and he will struggle to disassociate his government from its powerful Pinochetista supporters. The Unión Demócrata Independiente, the current representative of the long-established fascist current in Chilean political life, is the largest party in the lower house of Congress, whereas the now-opposition Concertación appears to have a majority of one in the Senate. Piñera will have similar problems to those of the outgoing, nominally socialist president Michelle Bachelet, in securing support for his conservative programme. Bachelet was probably the most popular president in Chilean history, but her legislative achievements have been negligible. She was unable to transfer her own personal popularity to the Concertación’s losing candidate, the lacklustre former president Eduardo Frei.
Piñera’s problem, aside from his congressional difficulties, is that he is an old-fashioned, not to say antediluvian supporter of the neoliberal economic model, in a world that is rapidly becoming aware of its limitations. Chile is often perceived by outsiders as an example of just how positive that model could be, yet in practice the growing discontent of large swaths of the population, reflected in the election result, is similar to that experienced in other Latin American countries – leading to popular explosions of rage that have brought about serious political change.
Chile likes to think of itself as an exception in the Latin American context, but its underlying problems are not dissimilar: millions still in irreducible poverty amid gross scenes of capitalist excess, active and angry students who see their dreams of the future frustrated, enraged indigenous peoples whose lands and forests have been plundered, endemic and seemingly ineradicable corruption, and the survival of an ultra-conservative constitution, the poisoned legacy of General Pinochet.
There is little in President Piñera’s background, nor in that of the ultra-rightwing political forces upon whom he will be forced to rely, to lead one to suppose that he will successfully tackle all, or indeed any of these problems. The progressive groups that make up the Concertación, meanwhile, have four years in which to rethink, re-organise, and reconsider what the future holds. Faced with the resurgence of the implacable right, they may find that the Concertación itself, which has served the country reasonably well in the post-Pinochet era, is no longer an adequate instrument for the 21st century. Something else will be needed.