By R Viswanathan (*) The Leftist coalition candidate Michelle Bachelet won 47% of the votes in the presidential elections held on 17 November while her rightist rival Evelyn Matthei got just 25% votes.
Two more candidates to the far left got ten percent votes each. Since the Constitution requires the winner to get 50% of the votes, the two leading candidates will go for a run-off election on 15 December. Bachelet is expected to win easily. This means the return of the Left after a gap of four years. The Left had ruled Chile for twenty years since the restoration of democracy in 1989 after the Pinochet military dictatorship. Bachelet was the last leftist President in the period 2006-10 and she could not seek reelection since the Chilean Constitution does not permit two consecutive terms. The centre-right coalition government of Sebastian Piñera, which had come to power in 2010 has not been able to sustain the brief right turn beyond a single term.
In the Congressional elections held on the same day along with the presidential one, the leftist coalition has won 50% votes and the rightist one got 38%. The Left has won a majority in the lower house with 68 seats out of the total of 120 and 21 of the 38 senate seats. The Communist Party, which is a coalition member of the Left has doubled its representation in the lower house to six. Four former leftist leaders of the student agitation including the charismatic Camila Vallejo who was the poster girl of the protest movement in 2011-12, have entered the Congress.
The outgoing conservative government of the billionaire-President Piñera which delivered on the macroeconomic front with average GDP growth of 5.7% from 2010 to 2012 failed the middle class and poor who felt left out in the growth story. Piñera is ending his term with the lowest popularity rating in comparison to his predecessors since 1989. During the student protests in 2011-12 he and his ministers made insensitive remarks showing their lack of empathy for the lower classes. In contrast, Bachelet is seen as a kind motherly figure who could feel the pulse of the downtrodden and oppressed. She is the daughter of an Air Force General who died following imprisonment and torture by the Pinochet regime while her opponent Evelyn Matthei is the daughter of another senior Air Force officer who was part of the dictatorship. Bachelet herself was detained, tortured and exiled by the military regime.
The return of the Left does not mean any drastic change of direction. It will be just course correction and more inclusive growth. In her election manifesto, Bachelet has promised free higher education, increase in taxes and constitutional reforms. But Bachelet will be able to do only limited educational and tax reforms and will find it difficult to change the constitution (vestige of the Pinochet era) since her coalition does not have the two thirds Congressional majority required. But she could still try to negotiate with her right wing colleagues since the moderates from the right have won and the hardliners have lost in the elections.
Chile has already established its distinction as the Latin American country with the most stable and sober democracy with a dynamic and growing market. Chile stands out in the region as the country with the least corruption, crime and violence. It has successfully reduced its dependence on copper exports and diversified its exports and economy. It has signed FTAs with the most number of countries, ranks ahead of other Latin American countries in credit ratings and the World Bank Index of ease of doing business, investor-friendly policy regime, one of the best pension systems in the world and a solid sovereign wealth fund created from windfall profits made by the high prices and demand for its copper exports in recent years.
The victory of Left in Chile is part of the left turn of many countries of Latin America in the last two decades after having suffered rightist military dictatorships in the last century and the neoliberal policies of the post-dictatorship governments which had worsened the problems of inequality and poverty and caused the Lost Decade of the region. But the left that emerged was of two kinds: the radical group lead by Chavez; and the moderate and pragmatic group which has come to power in Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Peru. People have got disillusioned with the radical model after seeing the tragedy of Venezuelans suffering from the highest rate of inflation, scarcity of essential and consumer items, mismanagement of economy, power shortages, foreign exchange rationing, import controls and the rampant crime, violence, kidnappings and corruption while the democratic institutions have been damaged badly.
President Maduro, who imitates Chavez, continues the policy of confrontation and class warfare with a daily discourse of crude abuses, insults and threats to opponents, polarizing the society. On the other hand the Chilean Left is enlightened, respectful of opponents and seeks to make changes in a conciliatory and democratic manner. The Latin Americans are attracted more and more by this Chilean model of moderation and pragmatism; balanced mix of pro-poor and pro-market policies: as much emphasis on creation of wealth by the private sector business as on the distribution of wealth among the poor. This constructive model is the dominant trend in Latin America. This is good for the long term health of democracy and inclusive economic growth of the twenty first century Latin America.
(*) R. Viswanathan, Distinguished Fellow, Latin America Studies
Gateway House, Indian Council on Global Relations