Friday, February 19, 2010

A Bit of Background and Context on Current Chilean Politics

I think it's only appropriate to use my first substantive post for some commentary and background on the current political situation here in Chile into which I’ve arrived. This is indeed an interesting time for this country, who just this past January concluded their presidential elections, with the conservative billionaire Sebastián Piñera defeating the center-left candidate Eduardo Frei in the runoff.

Now, within most political contexts (at least, I suppose, that we in the North or other parts of Latin America are accustomed to), this would seem rather banal. For Chile however, Piñera's victory is quite significant on a variety of levels.

Firstly and perhaps most importantly, the election of Sebastián Piñera signals an official end to the nearly two decades of continuous leadership by the center-left coalition known as the Concertación. In fact only a handful, indeed if any, political organizations in the world have had as much success at effectively leading a democratic state as the Concertación. Over the past 20 years, Chile has established itself as arguably the most stable, peaceful, and best-functioning nation in the region. This is a remarkable feat in and of itself, but especially so considering the extreme challenges posed the historical and geographic conditions of South America that undermine the ability to run a functioning, let alone democratic state, and a quick look around at Chile's neighbors illustrates just how difficult this is.

Of course, Chile is not immune from some of the same problems as its neighbors. There is a substantial income inequality gap between the wealthiest of society and the poorest; infrastructure definitely lags behind European or North American standards; and other, though perhaps less “official,” indicators of underdevelopment, such as just the sheer number of stray dogs living on the streets here in Valpo (it’s quite remarkable!), suggest that Chile faces these same challenges as well.

But it is also clear that Chile ranks at or near the top of Latin America in not only most of the social and economic ranking systems, but many of the political indices as well, such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index and The Economist’s Democracy Index. From 1990, since just before the Concertación came to power, until 2006, the poverty rate was reduced from nearly 40% of the population down to just 13%. And significant progress in these areas has been made under current President Michelle Bachelet, who actually defeated Piñera back in 2005 and whose popularity and approval ratings are amongst the highest in the world.

And these high degrees of socio-economic and democratic political development under the Concertación are most remarkable considering that they came immediately in the wake of 26 years of the right-wing dictatorial regime of Augusto Pinochet, who with the support of the United States ran one of the most notorious governments in Latin America. Much credit should then be afforded to Concertación leadership for stabilizing democracy and development amidst these turbulent conditions (though the role of the Chilean people themselves and civil society cannot be discounted either).

This of course leads into the second significant point to be made about Piñera’s victory, which is that it is the first return to power by the right in Chile since Pinochet stepped down. While I don’t particularly agree with some of the “Piñera = Facha [Fascist]” sentiments expressed down here, there are indeed some troubling right-wing connections for Piñera that betray his carefully-cultivated mainstream image. Piñera’s own brother was a high-ranking minister in Pinochet’s government and several of his top aides and political allies have close ties to dictatorial regime and the reactionary Catholic sect Opus Dei. Piñera himself also amassed his personal fortune under Pinochet’s neoliberal “shock therapy.”

Some may say that this is merely what is to be expected in politics, especially in a context where extremists held power for so long, that whichever candidate from the Chilean right who came to power would have some “dirty hands,” so to say. Can’t we just move on? Or better yet, perhaps this can in fact serve as evidence that Chile can finally or actually has in fact “moved on” from its unsavory past? Here however I would have to disagree, and instead assert that if this is the case that it is in fact more emblematic of a deeper ethical problem as opposed to evidence of “progress.” Complacency with regards to our political leaders’ shady connections suggests a normalization and/or acceptance of these poor characteristics that we should instead be trying our best avoid, and in the case of Chile perhaps this is even some semblance of a “return” to this state. These questions also altogether avoid any discussion of justice, as very little responsibility was ever truly meted out for the crimes and abuses of power perpetrated under the coup regime. As such, Piñera’s victory is for many Chileans not only a troubling rebirth for many of the same shareholders of power from the Pinochet era, but the calls for “moving on” and “change” are indeed also a slap in the face to those who still bear the physical and emotional scars of a nightmare that wasn’t all that long ago.

Going back to Piñera himself, in his attempts to distance himself from Pinochet’s legacy he may instead be molding himself into a more refined version after another unpleasant figure on the right, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. Chilean friends of mine are incredulous of the billionaire’s attempts to self-identify as “middle-class” despite owning key stakes in one of Chile’s top soccer clubs and its national airline. Piñera has also already come under intense criticism for cashing in to the tune of millions after wrapping up his victory. And just last week I was fortunate enough (if one so wishes to call it that I suppose…) to witness the bizarre “spectacle” of his cabinet appointment ceremony, in which he personally handed out flash drives with all of his “goals” and “ambitions” to each of his new team members on national TV. (As I remarked to a friend, “You better believe that Mitt Romney is taking notes on this as we speak!”)

And so, in so many words, this is the political situation that I am stepping into here in Chile. As for actual analysis of the election itself, political scientist Robert Funk has been invaluable: the general message however has been that this election result, despite efforts by favorable allies in the mainstream media to depict it as otherwise, was not so much a ‘victory’ by Piñera as it was a ‘loss’ by the Concertación, whose complacency, poor campaign management, and a tepid candidate spelled an end to its own rule. Hence, in a way, the coalition was a victim of its own success, yet it may also be seen as taking a fall for a recent slump in performance indicators that may or may not be linked to the global economic downturn.

As always, there is much more to say, but I will save it for another day. How this situation plays out from here, both in terms of how Piñera will govern (most analysts I’ve read thus far don’t expect much of a change, especially in terms of domestic policy; personally I see the recent developments in the regional politics as the most interesting area to watch as it offers the most potential for Piñera to define himself) and how the Chilean people will react to his rule (I am most interested in the divide between more traditional mainstream core of society and radical fringe elements and the tension between them). More to surely follow as things develop…

No comments:

Post a Comment