On the streets of Santiago, supporters of the arch-neoliberal candidacy of multi-billionaire Sebastián Piñera were celebrating the electoral victory of the right wing coalition against the once hegemonic ‘left-wing’ Concertación party. The Concertación, a left-wing coalition of Socialists and Christian Democrats, ruled Chile, uninterruptedly, since the return to democracy in 1989. They fielded former President Eduardo Frei (1993-1999), who left office with an approval rating of only 28 percent—imagine fielding George W. Bush for the presidency again and you get a feeling of how ‘unwise’ the decision was.
Unsurprisingly, the Concertación was only able to receive a mere 29.6 percent of the vote, largely in line with Frei’s popularity back in 1999. The Concertación was unable to get the message that voters wanted ‘real change’ and it nominated a former President who instituted much of the neoliberal reforms that Chilenos today are itching against. However, many commentators are making egregious mistakes in deciphering what is happening in Chile. They assume that the defeat of the Concertación is a defeat of the left and the ascendency of the right in Chile; if one were to actually look at the results the opposite is true.
To some commentators, Piñera’s ‘victory’ proves that the change Chilenos want is more neoliberalism, more of the same policies that have engendered the same pessimism and hopelessness that millions of Chilenos voted against. If one were to take the time to look back at the trends electorally we can see that the right-wing parties in this round actually got a smaller share of the vote than previous elections, post-1989:
RN+UDI, as a percentage of the total vote
1999 (1): 47.51
2006 (1): 48.64
2009 (1): 44.05
One can clearly see that for all the hype, the right in Chile has actually lost a lot of ground and has been reduced to generally the same constituency that it had in 1989; thus, it also obvious that the left in Chile has increased in strength, but not in cohesiveness. Chilenos do not want to have a more neoliberal government, what Chilenos want is another alternative. The Concertación is unable to offer that alternative, because it was the same party that legitimized and institutionalized neoliberalism structurally and democratically; however, it would be unfair to state that the Concertación was not forced to enact these policies, since Pinochet and Pinochetismo were potent forces politically after 1989. The Partido Communista, with the baggage of the Allende era, also is unable to offer a viable alternative, that being said, the party has increased its voting share from 5.4 percent in the 2006 election to 6.21 percent in 2009.
Enter Marco Enríquez-Ominami, popularly known as MEO. He protrudes an Obama/Clintonesqe style and offers not only a more progressive economic platform, but also a socially progressive platform as well. He was part of the Socialist Party wing within the Concertación party, but left the party raising objections to the candidacy of Frei. MEO did not have a clear platform, nor did he have an actual party organization behind him, but he was arguing for a new Chile, who has claimed to have sympathies to Chavez. I do not believe that MEO offered anything of real substance other than to become an ‘empty signifier’ for a nascent populist movement seeking change that no other party was able to give.
It is obvious that the Chilean ‘third way’, neoliberal state is reaching its limits of co-optation and demands are beginning to go beyond what the neoliberal ideology and state is able to concede. The second round will determine whether or not Piñera can articulate his vision of Chile as one of ‘change’, I do not think he will succeed, because the trend is to the left.
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