TCS Daily

More Continuity Than Change

By Patricio Navia - February 1, 2006 12:00 AM

Although Michelle Bachelet's presidential election victory has understandably made news, as she is the first woman president in Chile (and the first woman who is not the widow of an important political leader to be elected in Latin America), the fact that she represents the longest ruling coalition in the country's history sheds more light into recent political developments in the most successful economy in Latin America.

Although Bachelet is a lifelong militant of the Socialist Party, her election should not be wrongfully included in the wave of leftwing victories in Latin America. For one, Bachelet is from the center-left Concertación coalition that has ruled Chile since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990. As the fourth consecutive Concertación president, Bachelet represents much more continuity than change. Because she has promised to maintain the economic policies that have made Chile the most successful economy in Latin America, her election is more an approval of the economic and political development model implemented by Christian Democrats (PDC) and Socialists in Chile than a leftwing turn that resembles developments in other Latin American countries.

The first Concertación president, PDC Patricio Aylwin (1990-1994) talked about a "free market social economy" and vowed to give neo-liberalism a human face. True, poverty was dramatically reduced from 40 to 20% and the economy more than doubled in ten years. But the policies adopted by Aylwin and his successor, PDC Eduardo Frei Jr. were squarely in tune with those promoted by the Washington Consensus and international lending institutions.

Ricardo Lagos, the third consecutive Concertación president -- and a socialist -- further deepened neoliberal policy. In addition to signing free trade agreements with the U.S. and European Union, Lagos adopted a very conservative fiscal policy, a structurally-built fiscal surplus of 1% of the GDP into the national budget. Even in 2005, an election year, and despite the soaring copper prices (Chile's main export commodity), the Lagos administration showed remarkable fiscal spending restraint. The absence of lavish spending did not mean lack of focus on social programs. Ambitious and well-designed programs to promote access to health, education and infrastructure development have radically transformed Chile under Lagos, who is leaving office with approval ratings of more than 60%.

Because of the economic success and political stability of the Concertación 16-year old government -- and because the conservative parties overly identified with Pinochet's authoritarian legacy during much of the 1990s -- and Lagos's superb performance, the Concertación easily won the 2005 election. With more than 51% of the vote, the center-left coalition secured its 12th consecutive electoral victory, a majority in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate (for the first time comprised of elected members only). Yet, the Concertación's presidential candidate, Michelle Bachelet only obtained 46% in the first round (the lowest for any Concertación presidential candidate since 1990). Because she is a woman (which scared some men away) and because she underplayed her proximity to Lagos, Bachelet was forced into a runoff where she obtained 53.5% of the vote.

Despite her electoral troubles, Bachelet successfully attracted voters who had historically been less inclined to support leftwing candidates. Men have supported more strongly than women the candidates of the center-left coalition (in Chile, votes are tallied separately by gender). If Augusto Pinochet obtained only 44% of the vote in the 1988 plebiscite that brought an end to his 17-year dictatorship, his support among women reached 47.5%. In all elections held since the return of democracy, conservative parties captured a higher share of women's votes than the Concertación.

In 1999, Lagos won the election with 51.3% in the runoff. But in the first round and the runoff conservative Joaquín Lavín got an absolute majority (50.6% and 51.4% respectively) among women. Lagos became president with a 54.3% among men and 48.7% among women voters in Chile. In 2005, Bachelet captured 47% among women (44.8 among men) in the first round. In the runoff, she won 53.3% among women and 53.7% among men. Because most of those—primarily men—who had supported the Humanist-Communist candidate in the first round (5.4%) voted for Bachelet in the runoff, she ended up collecting more votes among men. Yet, her ability to attract many women voters constitutes a fertile ground for the Concertación's electoral future. Although it is too early to tell, the electoral prospects of the center-left coalition in 2009 seem already very solid.

Thus, even though her election does point to some differences and changes with regard to previous Concertación presidential candidates, Bachelet's electoral victory in Chile is above all a loud ratification by Chileans of the road map that has made that southern nation the most successful economy in Latin America in the past 16 years and one of the most solid and plural democracies in the region.

Patricio Navia is Professor at the Center for Latin American Studies at New York University and is a regular columnist for Chilean leading daily 'La Tercera'.


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