Victor Figueroa Clark, author of Salvador Allende: Revolutionary Democrat (Pluto, 2013), has written an article this week for lefthistory.com, in which he analyses the results of the recent Chilean elections. We’ve reproduced the article below.
The 2013 elections were fought out on the background of the massive social mobilisations of last two years, and amid growing calls for institutional change to the political system left by the Pinochet dictatorship. Inequality, injustice and the legacy of the coup all played a role in the electoral campaign. Now the results are in it is possible to outline what this means for the future.
There are several relevant factors in analysing the results. Firstly, a relatively low turnout of 6,600,000 voters from a potential 13 million. However, many commentators expected a maximum voter turnout of 8 million, so this result isn’t too bad in that light. However, what it shows is that a significant proportion of the population remain unconvinced of the possibilities of the political system to effect real change, are apathetic, or were so convinced of the defeat of their candidates that they didn’t set out to vote.
Secondly, Bachelet and the New Majority coalition failed to win in the first round of the presidential election. Since there was some confidence that victory would be achieved in the first round this is something of a blow. However, despite this Bachelet’s figures show she has maintained her share of the vote, showing a solid core support. Matthei, while doing better than some polls indicated, has still dropped down to 25% of the vote, from an average of 45% voting for the right in recent years. Furthermore, while Bachelet failed to get a first round majority, candidates arguing for deep systemic change accounted for 62.73% of the vote, showing a clear majority for changes, and the vote of the left was in fact double that of the right. In other words, this is still a clear and serious defeat for the right.
The failure to win in the first round means a second presidential election on 15th December between Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei, in which no serious commentator expects Bachelet to do anything other than win. The size of her victory in the second round will carry some political weight though and is important.
Thirdly, in the parliamentary elections Bachelet’s New Majority coalition did not achieve the number of seats necessary to push through constitutional changes alone, although they did achieve a majority in both houses of parliament. Here the effects of the binomial system were played out again (For example in the Senate the New Majority won 50.48% of the votes and got 21 senators, while the Right got 37.97% and took 16 seats). As a result, in the Senate the New Majority is 5 seats from the necessary quorum for changing the constitution, and in the Congress they are 10 seats off that required majority. However, the New Majority did achieve 10 ‘doblajes’ – situations where their candidate pairings won enough votes to take both seats in their constituency (a peculiarity of Chile’s binomial system). The New Majority will now have 58% of Congress, a clear majority for change.
Moreover, the size of the victory in parliament does mean that Bachelet will be able to push through two of the main elements of her platform – tax reform and educational reform. It is in the key issue of constitutional reform that the New Majority will have to negotiate to get any changes through.
With regard to this point of constitutional change, the effects of the elections on the internal politics of the two main coalitions will be important. Among these effects are the following:
The hard line of the right, represented by the UDI party has suffered a grave defeat. Several of its leading ideologues lost their election campaigns and the party as a whole has gone from 38 deputies to 29, an indication of their loss of influence. Some commentators argue that this will mean a severe loss of influence and the end of the UDI veto in parliament. Within the right it is the more moderate wing, the Renovacion Nacional (RN) that has come out tops, a fact that opens the potential for negotiations over constitutional and other reforms, since historically it has been the UDI that has blocked any talk of reform to the model imposed on Chile by their gurus, Pinochet and Jaime Guzman.
Here the Christian Democrats and the right-wing of the Socialist Party have been dealt serious blows. The leaders of both these wings of the old Concertacion coalition, Soledad Alvear and Camilo Escalona, lost their seats. While the Christian Democrats as a whole remain the largest party of the centre, and the largest party in the New Majority, it is the more left-wing of their candidates that have done well overall.
The left has been significantly strengthened within the New Majority. To the extent that some commentators are arguing that the Socialist Party and the Communist Party are the big winners of the elections. The Socialists have won 6 extra seats in Congress, while the Communists have doubled their representation to 6 seats, with most of their candidates winning high majorities. Furthermore, both inside and outside the New Majority all but one of the leaders of the student movement were elected, who all have quite strong left-wing agendas of change.
What this means is that both within and outside the New Majority those arguing for reforms are in the lead. Within the New Majority the victories of the more left-leaning candidates will force conservatives on the defensive, increasing the possibilities for reforms to succeed. Within the right, the strengthening of the RN means there is some possibility that a deal can be cut between the New Majority and the RN to push through some form of reforms to the constitution, although this would necessarily be less far-reaching than many on the left want to see. However, even if they only manage to reform the electoral system they will have managed to fundamentally change the face of Chilean politics, and opened the road for further changes down the road.
What is clear is that the New Majority government of Michelle Bachelet will not be implementing any revolutionary changes, but then that was not really the proposal. For the left, the New Majority was always about providing institutional power to complement the social mobilisation for change. It is about laying the basis for more democratic and socialist-leaning reforms in the future. It is about destroying the Pinochet legacy, and these elections have shown that the people of Chile have taken a long step in that direction – although how long a step it will be, will be determined by the continuing social mobilisation for change and the power dynamics within the New Majority and within the Chilean right.