Piñera led Chile throughout the heated 2011-13 student protests for education reform. But the economic savvy that characterised his first term in office — including an average economic growth rate of five percent— failed to satisfy the demands of society gripped by a desire for change. His surprise return to power contrasts with his first term, when he registered one of the lowest approval ratings for an outgoing president in Chile’s democratic history.
The Times spoke to Alexis Cortés, political science and sociology professor at the University of Alberto Hurtado in Santiago, via Skype, about the implications of Piñera’s win and the legacy of the woman he will replace, Michelle Bachelet.
What conclusions can you draw from this election about the maturity or consolidation of Chile’s democracy?
Chile’s transition to democracy has been seen as a pragmatic alternative in Latin America because of the way, among other outcomes, it has permitted the business sector to subordinate the demands of Chilean society.
The student protests that began in 2011 forced a change in this sense; suddenly there was a need to settle the scores of history. The (Michelle) Bachelet government responded to these changes by attempting to overhaul the political pact imposed by (former dictator Augusto) Pinochet, which is the Constitution. She failed to do so completely. The election of Sebastián Piñera is a step backward in this sense but the demands from society remain strong and in some way he will have to respond to them.
How might these demands condition his government?
The student protests marked the beginning of a new political cycle in Chile. Phenomena like the politics of consensus, or the subordination of social demands in favour of macro-economic balance, are now in question. Even in his campaign Piñera indicated flexibility, for instance in his position on free education, a position which clashes with his neoclassic, neoliberal values.
Some analysts, even those on the right, indicate that this has been a win for Bachelet.
Will he also be forced to make concessions to the pinochetistas (pro-Pinochet voters) whose votes he lapped up in the second round?
Piñera did not win as a result of the pinochetista vote. But this election is nonetheless a triumph for them because they see in Piñera an opportunity to push and defend their political project. Whether or not this translates into conditions for Piñera will depend on the configuration of power in his new government and the capacity of the opposition and human rights groups to respond.
How important was the unity of Chile’s right during this election?
The difference between Piñera’s first win in 2009 and this election is that the right was simultaneously much more diverse and much more unified. His success also has much to do with the new non-compulsory voting system (from 2012), which probably favoured him.
The Frente Amplio’s (Broad Front) candidate Beatriz Sánchez received a surprise 20 percent of votes in the first round. Does this indicate the emergence of a third political force in Chile?
It’s not the first time a centreleft, or in this case more leftist movement, has performed well in a presidential election. In fact, Marco Enríquez-Ominami had a strong showing in the 2009-10 elections. The difference this time is that there is a more organic, consistent political project behind the candidate.
And then, of course, the implications of the 2011 student movement on the political landscape in Chile. This was clearer in the first round where the Frente Amplio was also able to secure a significant amount of legislative seats. This cannot be overlooked.
What do you make of Chileans again choosing a former head of state as their president?
I think the most prudent way to interpret this is as a sign of the crisis among the political elite in Chile when it comes to the renewal of their leadership. The best example is the centre-left. It is surprising because of the high disapproval ratings Chileans have of their political system and parties. And in Piñera’s case because of the poor evaluation he received of his first term.
Bachelet herself leaves office with a poor approval rating, having finished her first term with around 83 percent approval...
The first round of this year’s presidential election showed that the Bachelet government was not as unpopular as many believed. She tried to implement reforms by channelling the expectations of 2011 but her efforts were not totally satisfactory. I don’t think this negative evaluation has to do with the reforms themselves but rather the way they were debated and prepared with negotiations, disputes, etc.
How will her overall legacy be affected by her second term?
She won’t be remembered for her popularity this time around but for making a convincing attempt at implementing changes, which in the long term will hold great significance in the history of Chile. She didn’t change the Constitution but she did initiate a constituent process that included civic participation; implemented a tax reform that returned a redistributive element to the function of taxes, which would have been impossible several years ago; took the first steps in the decommodification of the educational system; implemented an electoral reform that had immediate effects on the representativity of Congress; and hers has been a government that has advanced more than any other in addressing the legacy of the dictatorship.
But people aren’t satisfied with just that, and really this should be interpreted as a good thing for a society: that people aren’t ever fully satisfied with governments.