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Chile's Presidential Election and Future of South American Left

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For those who believe that South America is in the grip of some kind of left revolutionary fervor, yesterday's election in Chile may have come as a surprise. With partial results from 60% of the country's polling stations now available, it appears that conservative billionaire Sebastian Piñera has ousted the ruling center left Concertación, 52% to 48%. It is a stunning upset in light of the fact that the right has not won an election in Chile for fifty years.

It's an ironic and difficult pill to swallow for the governing coalition, made up of Socialists and Christian Democrats. Current president Michelle Bachelet, herself of the Concertación, is enormously popular. Chile's first woman president, she enjoys an approval rate of nearly 80%. Unfortunately, Chilean law prevents immediate reelection and so Bachelet will have to wait until 2014 if she wants to run again.

As a result of the legal restrictions, Concertación ran lackluster candidate and former president Eduardo Frei who pledged to uphold modest continuity of Bachelet's welfare programs. It's a big setback for the Concertación, which has ruled Chile since the end of the Pinochet military dictatorship in 1990. Despite Bachelet's personal popularity, the coalition has become synonymous with corruption.

Piñera, a kind of Chilean Berlusconi who owns a television channel amongst other business holdings, and who piloted his private helicopter around the country to make campaign stops in isolated regions, is one of the word's 700 richest people. The politician opposes human rights prosecutions for military and police officers implicated in abuses during the Pinochet military dictatorship, and as such represents a political step backwards for Chile.

Piñera also stands against reform of the Chilean constitution, a relic of the Pinochet era. Moreover, some members of Piñera's coalition served in General Pinochet's cabinet, and Piñera's brother was the general's labor minister and an architect of the dictator's neo-liberal economic strategy.

A much better electoral outcome for Chile would have brought Marco Enríquez-Ominami to power. An intriguing and novel figure on the Chilean political scene, Ominami is an independent who broke away from the Concertación. A youthful 36-year old filmmaker and son of a leftist revolutionary leader killed by Pinochet's army during a 1975 firefight, Ominami resigned his position as a socialist congressman to run for president. Memorably, he called his opponents "dinosaurs ... who kidnapped democracy" and called for scrapping Chile's bicameral Congress in favor of a single chamber of parliament elected by proportional representation.

Though Ominami got the endorsement of Chile's newly formed Ecologist party and benefited from voter fatigue with the Concertación, he was eliminated in the first electoral round after garnering 20% of the vote. Particularly unfortunate was Ominami's failure to electrify Chilean youth disaffected with the political establishment. In recent years youth has shown some signs of engagement, and could constitute a potent political force for change in future.

In 2006 during the so-called "penguin revolution," tens of thousands of high school students, many wearing uniforms with little dark ties on white shirts, protested throughout Chile to demand educational improvements. Shocked by the protests, Bachelet wound up negotiating with student leaders and actually gave in to most of youth's demands.

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Though disappointing, the electoral turn of events in Chile should not come as an incredible shocker. With the exception of students and Mapuche Indians who have been fighting for land rights, Chile has not seen the emergence of dynamic social forces in recent years which could move the political agenda forward.

It's a reality sorely bemoaned by veterans of Chile's historic political struggles. Manuel Cabieses is a journalist who I interviewed in Santiago for my book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008). During the 1960s, Cabieses was a reporter with the Communist party paper and was picked up the military two days after General Augusto Pinochet took power in a coup d'etat. Cabieses was later imprisoned but made his way to Cuba after being released. Astonishingly, he later returned to Chile and worked with the underground Revolutionary Leftist Movement (known by its Spanish acronym MIR) against Pinochet. Today, he publishes a political magazine called Punto Final.

The media environment in Chile has proven challenging for the likes of Cabieses. Unlike Venezuela for example, Chile has no television station that espouses the views of the left. There are two left-wing bi-monthlies, El Siglo of the Communist Party and Punto Final. Both have notoriously low circulation. The Communist Party owns a radio station, and there are a few other progressive leaning stations. On the internet there is more political diversity than in TV and print, but digital media is still incipient in Chile where most people lack internet access.

Without a vibrant progressive media, progressive forces have had difficulty getting off the ground. The Mapuches, Cabieses said, were "atomized" just like the rest of society and the most radical Indians had been beaten back and repressed by the police. Labor unions meanwhile had suffered a severe decline since the 1970s. "The dictatorship," Cabieses remarked, "through repression and imposition of its economic model, were able to fracture social movements and almost succeeded in liquidating any kind of left political movement."

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Just a few years ago it seemed as if the left was sweeping across South America, but the question on many observers' minds right now is whether this tide may be turning. Already, the mainstream media is salivating over the prospect that Hugo Chávez and his ilk may have hit a road block.

In a recent Newsweek feature entitled "Latin America isn't tilting left, it's tilting right," Mac Margolis writes that many voters throughout the region are experiencing incumbent fatigue coupled with the fallout of the economic downturn. In this sense, what is happening politically in South America might bear some resemblance to the United States where voters have become dissatisfied with Obama and the Democrats in Washington.

"Another explanation," Margolis writes, "might be that the Latin American left is no longer what it used to be. Or rather, it was never what it was made out to be." "Make no mistake," he writes. "Beating the gringo devil and bashing capitalism can still make pulses race in much of the hemisphere, but, when it comes to casting ballots, what appears to move the majority is pragmatism."

Juan Forero, no friend of the Chávez regime in Venezuela, has also chimed in. Writing in the Washington Post, he remarks that while the right is not making a comeback pragmatists are on the upswing. "Voters," he says, "are showing a preference for moderates rather than firebrand nationalists who preach class warfare and state intervention in the economy."

There's a bit of smug self satisfaction here though Forero's argument is worth considering. Take a look at Chile's major political figures and it's clear they hardly differ in the nature of their proposals. Bachelet has pumped money into social programs and publically criticizes neo-liberal economics and the Washington Consensus. Fundamentally however she never rocked the broad consensus around free trade and Chile's fiscal conservatism. So ingrained is free trade in Chile that even had the Concertación won, the country would not have shifted its adherence to this underlying economic ideology.

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Such pragmatism and political conservatism is bad enough in Chile, but what is really distressing is the possibility that such a trend could spread into neighboring countries and thereby derail the left within the wider region. Indeed, 2010 is fast shaping into an anti-incumbent year which could water down and dilute many recent political gains.

Take for example the case of Brazil. Though Lula of the Workers' Party has promoted important anti-poverty programs, Brazil boasts one of the most conservative monetary policies on earth. After he rattled financial markets during his first presidential campaign in 2002, Lula won over skeptical investors by embracing economic pragmatism. Brazilian labor may not care for such economic policies, but the fact is that Lula, like fellow pragmatist Bachelet, is enormously popular.

But now the Brazilian left, such as it is, may be headed on a similar collision course to Chile. Like Bachelet, Lula is barred by law from running for a third consecutive term. He has backed his chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, to be his presidential successor and to run in the October, 2010 election. However, Rousseff has little political savvy and none of Lula's charm and charisma. In polls, she trails centrist São Paulo governor José Serra of the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party or PSDB.

Regardless of who wins, neither candidate is expected to undertake dramatic changes to Lula's market friendly policies. Investors meanwhile are enchanted by a race between two mainstream candidates. For its part, the left is placing its hope in either Ciro Gomes, a former governor of the state of Ceara, or Marina Silva.

Lula's former minister of the environment, Silva has said she might run on the green party ticket. A remarkable woman whose personal story I recount in great detail in my upcoming book, No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, April 2010), Silva could appeal to women voters, amongst others. However, she trails in popularity and polls show that voters are more interested in jobs, crime and other concerns more than the environment -- Silva's signature issue. Moreover, the green party has little clout and is viewed as fringy.

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With pragmatism on the rise, South America needs to foster the creation of a solid bloc of left leaning countries that can counter Brazil's huge political influence throughout the region. The problem however is that within the immediate neighborhood there are very few candidates which could fill this void.

Across the border from Chile in Argentina, the Peronist party stands for the political and social status quo and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's political fortunes have waned as of late. Uruguay and Paraguay have progressive leaders but have been rather centrist and politically quiet. In any case, neither country carries much economic weight. That leaves the perpetually convoluted Andean region. The problem here however is that Colombia and Peru still have right wing, pro-U.S. regimes in power and the future does not bode well for the left.

"To the Latin left," remarks Mac Margolis of Newsweek, "there is no leader more reviled than the Colombian president [Álvaro Uribe]." Nevertheless, there is no denying that Uribe, who has clamped down on FARC guerrillas and revamped bullet-ridden cities like Bogotá, Medellín and Cali, enjoys huge popularity.

If Colombia's constitutional court rules that he can run for a third term in the May, 2010 election Uribe would probably win. Even if the change is not put into place, experts anticipate that Uribe's handpicked successor Juan Manuel Santos would prevail in the election. In Peru meanwhile, disgraced former President Alberto Fujimori's daughter Keiko is a political frontrunner for the 2011 election and wants to pardon her father for past human rights abuses and crimes against humanity. Ollanta Humala, a dubious left populist, trails in polls.

At least Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia don't seem to be moving towards pragmatism. But more than ten years on, Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution remains a bundle of social and political contradictions. The ALBA barter program, creation of an alternative Sucre currency and Bank of the South are all positive and innovative initiatives which stand to foster alternative economic development. If they are designed in such a way as to encourage radical democracy and not top-down decision making, the communal councils ought to continue and to be strengthened.

In other ways however Chávez has conducted himself as a rather conventional populist advocating for classic resource nationalism. There may be a ceiling on the Chávez model, however: if oil prices surge again expect Venezuela to gain new adherents. Otherwise, one might expect the Bolivarian alliance to lose traction. If the opposition can unite for legislative elections in December, 2010, it could win a majority as recession, inflation and mismanagement erode Chávez's support.

In any case, Chávez has already lost some ground in Central America with the toppling of ally Manuel Zelaya. In El Salvador, the new left under Mauricio Funes seems more partial to Brazilian pragmatism than any kind of populist, Chávez-style populism. Chávez himself meanwhile seems to have become mentally unhinged and recently remarked that former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was a "patriot." Such comments suggest that the South American left should look elsewhere for a new standard bearer.

Andean populists confront other contradictions and problems, chief amongst them the extractive model of development. Across the region, leaders have been pushing boondoggle infrastructure projects in order to facilitate the export of raw resources. Historically, this extractive model has not fostered equitable economic development let alone social harmony.

As I've been writing on my blog Senor Chichero, Ecuador is enmeshed in oil extraction and this has sparked deep social and environmental unrest. Apprehensive about oil development proceeding on their lands, Indians recently protested the Correa regime by blocking Amazonian roads. Condescendingly, Correa called Indians "infantile" for objecting to legislation which would deny them consultation on mining and oil drilling projects.

Tragically, protests along the blocked roads led to violence. The Indians claimed that 500 police attacked them which resulted in two deaths and nine wounded by gunshots. The Correa government, the Indians declared, had "blood on its hands" and pledged to carry out international legal action over violations of their collective and human rights.

Because of these inherent contradictions, the most politically and socially hopeful country right now in the Andean region is not Venezuela or Ecuador but Bolivia. That's not too surprising given the nation's long tradition of grass roots indigenous mobilization. Indeed, it was the Indians who propelled Evo Morales to his recent and second electoral victory which has solidified the president's desire to proceed with his socialist program.

Less demagogic and messianic than Chávez, Morales has also pursued resource nationalism and has a compelling vision of Bolivia as a "plurinational," multi-ethnic state. However, unless electric cars take off and Bolivia becomes an energy powerhouse by developing its lithium deposits, Morales won't have nearly as much cash to throw around as Chávez.

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South America is no longer following a right wing political trajectory or extreme economic neo-liberalism. However, as Chile demonstrates, the region could easily fall into uninspiring pragmatic leadership.

From the United States, it's easy to romanticize South America as being in the throes of dramatic political upheaval and a move towards some kind of radical left. The reality however is that right now social movements, with the possible exception of Bolivia, are not powerful enough to truly effect deep seated change or to transform the intrinsic, fundamental structures of society.

If Chile becomes a trend and Brazil elects more uninspiring pragmatic leadership, the South American left will have to reinvent itself if it wants to remain relevant in future.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008) and the upcoming No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his blog.