Conservative Billionaire Wins Chile’s Election, But A New Left Emerges
Conservative former President Sebastian Pinera won a new term in office, but that doesn’t mean that a majority of Chileans support a right-wing agenda, says scholar Rene Rojas. In fact, a main issue was that the center-left candidate wasn’t progressive enough
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Conservative billionaire Sebastián Piñera won Chile’s presidential runoff election with the solid majority of 54.7% on Sunday. His socialist party challenger, Alejandro Guillier, immediately conceded the election and wished Piñera good luck.
Leading up to the vote, polls included that the race would be far closer. The more surprising aspect of this presidential election happened in the first round, when Beatriz Sánchez, the candidate of the leftist coalition of parties, won 20% of the vote, far more than any had predicted. Joining me now to analyze the election results is René Rojas.
He is a visiting assistant professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Welcome René.
RENÉ ROJAS: Hi. Thanks. Thanks for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: Rene first, why did the Chileans vote for a conservative billionaire such as Piñera instead of supporting Alejandro Guillier?
RENÉ ROJAS: I think there are two things that need to be pointed out. The vote for Piñera in my opinion doesn’t indicate that there is a large or vast majority of Chileans who support a right-wing agenda. On the other hand, a vote against or what seems to be a majority vote against Guillier, the center-left candidate, doesn’t apply that most Chileans are against a progressive reform agenda.
I think that what happened was given these two options, which represent largely two ends of a very tight consensus that has existed since either return to democracy, at the elite official level, right? A consensus around market reforms. Given those two choices, Chileans didn’t feel very excited to come out and vote for Guillier. In fact, one might say he lost votes if you take into account all the center-left votes that occurred in the first round.
Whereas, the typical voter who votes for the center right did come out and vote, wanting an alternative to the center-left government policies which had been in place under Bachelet for the last four years, and really have been dominate in Chilean politics since 1990.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, Alejandro Guillier, he of course had promised to continue the legacy of the outgoing president, Michelle Bachelet, who had made a lot of progressive moves. I mean, she made university education cheaper for many Chileans, and strengthened unions, legalized abortion in the country, which is a difficult thing to do in Latin America. In spite of all of this, he was rejected as her successor. Why?
RENÉ ROJAS: Well, I think it’s precisely because of the nature of the reforms and the limits to the reforms and the limits to the reforms that Bachelet was able to carry out during these past four years. Bachelet came into office, again, four years ago, really on the crest of popular mobilizations, which the country hadn’t seen in over 30 years.
It was spearheaded by the student movement in 2011, which just turned into massive, massive protest movement. Then, was followed by other mass mobilizations. Labor was revitalized, rights, and labor protests, as well as popular rebellions against, or I should say for environmental rights. Mass mobilization recently against the privatization of pensions.
All these things had put reform on the agenda, and were pressuring Bachelet to actually carry out quite extensive reforms. Rather, her reforms were perceived to be mild by these new movement actors. They were thought to not go far enough, and so though she was able to carry out tax reform, education reform, and electoral, political electoral reforms, right? Again, these were deemed to be quite mild and not go far enough.
I think that while the average voter in Chile acknowledges that these reforms were carried out, really the story of these elections is the discontent. I mean, the dissatisfaction that she did not go far enough. I think that’s what explains the weak turnout for Guillier in the second round, and the strong turnout for the Frente Amplio, the Broad Left front in the first round.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right, and Sebastián Piñera, the new President Elect, of course is going to introduce perhaps totally different kind of reforms in the country. Being that he’s a conservative candidate, and also that he actually ruled the country. He was President from 2010 to 2014, and is a billionaire, comes from that class of elite rule in Chile. Tell us who he is, what he stands for, what his politics are?
RENÉ ROJAS: Yeah. As you said, Sebastián Piñera is really the top .001%, right? In economic terms. He is the very summit of the business class in Chile. There’s no doubt about that. There’s no doubt that he represents capital right now, but at the same time, there are some things that are worth pointing out.
First of all, the central left coalition that ruled 20 years prior to him, also defended the interests of the same class. There’s just no doubt about it. Under the Concertación as it was called, the coalition dominated by socialists and Christian democrats. Chile became one of the friendliest countries for business, one of the most unequal societies in Latin America and the world over.
So, I think there’s not too much difference there between the policies that he enacted his first term and that we can expect from him now, and the central left coalitions that ruled most recently, currently, under Bachelet.
I think it’s noteworthy that when he governed last from 2010 to 2014, prior to Bachelet, he really didn’t carry out a lot of conservative pro-market reforms that would have been much different than what the Concertación would have done. Interestingly, this is the second time that Bachelet hands over power to Piñera, and I think largely it’s because people recognize there’s not much of a difference.
They want some kind of change, there are not many options out there, so in this time, they voted for him. Now, his recent remarks as he campaigned for the runoff election also demonstrated that he’s very aware that he cannot rollback the reforms, even the mild reforms that Bachelet was able to implement.
In fact, the reading that he came away with of the first round, which I think was the correct reading, was that most Chileans wanted to push further, wanted more not radical, certainly more profound reforms. He campaigned as if he were the candidate of continuity who would tweak some reforms, he wouldn’t roll them back, he wouldn’t also push them to the extreme, but that he was the candidate of continuity. It was quite interesting how his rhetoric changed during the last few weeks.
SHARMINI PERIES: What’s his background? How did he become a billionaire and how will that influence what he might do when he gets into office in March?
RENÉ ROJAS: Well, he represents the new crop of oligarchs that emerged in Chile under the dictatorship which was from 1973, beginning with the Pinochet coup that toppled the socialist government, Allende’s government. All the way to 1990, there was really a free for all where new business elites and clans really just benefited hugely from the privatizations of state industries, and overnight many of these people became just ridiculously wealthy.
Piñera represents that process of privatization, that transfer of wealth to this new hyper-elite business class in Chile. That’s how he amassed his wealth, and he, again, he will govern in the interest of that class. But again, it’s really worth underscoring that that is exactly what the center-left coalition did beginning in 1990. It governed to defend and promote the interests of business elites.
So, while in person, he embodies this class, I think in government we shouldn’t expect too much of a difference between what he will do and what the Concertación, the center-left governments, up until now. Largely he represents I think the right-wing end of that really narrow consensus that emerged and was consolidated over the last 30 years.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. René, you mentioned the most surprising result happened during the first round of voting last November when Beatriz Sánchez, a candidate of left-wing parties, won 20% of the vote, just two points short of making the runoff vote herself. Why did the left do so well and then what were they campaigning for? Where will they stand when Piñera takes office?
RENÉ ROJAS: This is the key. I think this is the big takeaway from these elections, right? The emergence of a new left alliance, which established itself on the political scene, something that we had not seen since before the dictatorship. Let me start by saying a bit about who or what this new coalition is, what it stands for, and then I’ll go on to how it was able to have such a good showing in the first round, and finally, I’ll cover what we can expect for them under Piñera’s presidency.
The Frente Amplio, the Broad Front, as it’s called, right? Was only just formed in January of this year. It was an effort to bring together new left parties and new social movements that emerged during this wave of mobilizations, the cycle of protests that I described earlier, beginning really very, very forcefully in 2011 with the student movement.
Those movements generated new small left parties, pretty radical parties. Many of them consider themselves libertarian socialists, autonomists of some sort, yet with a clear orientation toward influencing and eventually taking state power through elections. So, these are small parties that emerged from the student movement largely, and other mobilizations that occurred since then.
They also brought together some of the old small fragments of the radical left that had not been able to gain any traction over the last 30 years, and they decided to finally compete in these elections on a more coherent and cohesive platform. They were largely able to do this because one of the outcomes of the student mobilizations was that many leaders of the movement were elected to Congress in 2013.
So, from this pulpit that a couple of them had, they were able to constantly criticize the weakness of the reforms, constantly put out positions that were further to the left, galvanize public opinion, so that when it was time for the election, there was a big chunk of the electorate recognized what they stood for, who they were, and actually sympathized with this version of more radical reforms.
They went through a primary process, they selected, or I should say in the primaries they elected Beatriz Sánchez, who’s kind of a personality from the media. She’s a radio talk show host. Interestingly, she was the former colleague in radio of Guillier, the center-left official candidate in the elections.
But as I said, their message was able to resonate with large sectors of the population who are just completely fed up with this consensus, this neoliberal consensus between the center left and the center right, and again, surprising everyone, they took one-fifth of the vote and became, as you said, very close. 130,000 votes shy of actually passing onto the runoff election.
SHARMINI PERIES: In the early 2000s, where the turnout was in the 80% range, but recently it has dropped to 50% in the last, I guess 18 years. How do you explain this?
RENÉ ROJAS: It’s very simple. Over the course of those years, voting became something that was no longer compulsory. It used to be mandated by law that everybody had to vote, so you had artificially high turnout rates. Once voting was no longer compulsory, as I said, people who were very, very fed up with the way things have gone since re-democratization, 30 years back, they just stopped voting.
Since then we’ve had American, U.S.-style voter turnout rates, hovering around 50% or even lower, and that’s what we saw in these elections as well. There was just a slight bump from the first round of elections to the runoff elections. One would have thought that given the importance of these elections, that more people would come out to vote. But in fact, it didn’t happen. It was still below half. There were over half of voters stayed home.
SHARMINI PERIES: René, when there’s compulsory voting requirement, does that tend to favor the left or the right, or center?
RENÉ ROJAS: It’s interesting. At least over the last few elections in Chile, I don’t think it has favored one camp over the other. I think largely the distribution of votes has remained the same. I think had voting been compulsory this time around, with a new leftist option on the table, we might have seen different results, but the key is that prior to these elections, there hadn’t been a third independent left option, so you don’t see any difference in voter distribution reflected pre and post electoral changes.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, René. I thank you so much for joining us today and we’ll keep an eye on this as I am sure you will, too. Thanks a lot.
RENÉ ROJAS: Okay, thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.