Monday, January 11, 2010

Anticipating a Piñeira victory

By this time next week Sebastian Piñeira could be Chile’s president-elect. If so this would be the first time in 20 years that the country had a right-wing politician in that position.

Piñeira’s leading position for the second round should not be surprising. Although President Michelle Bachelet continues to receive good approval ratings, she has not been able to transfer them to the Concertación candidate, Eduardo Frei. That this is so shows how much Chile has changed since 1990.

The past 20 years has seen a generational change in Chilean politics, with the Pinochet era an increasingly distant memory for older voters and a chapter in the history books of the young. Significant in this respect were the mass protests against the education system in 2006, which were led by secondary school students. That moment marked an end to fear of repression. In addition the Concertación government had become increasingly disconnected from the electorate, as the Transsantiago fiasco demonstrated.

But the implications of the Piñeira victory go beyond Chile. 2010 may see the election of other presidents of the Right, including Alvaro Uribe in Colombia in May and José Serra at the head of an increasingly right-wing coalition in Brazil in October. Added to this is the decline of the Left in both Peru and Argentina, which might presage its defeat in 2011.

Indeed, over the past year there has been increasing interest and concern about the Right in Latin America, especially following the coup in Honduras in June 2009. Indeed, the manner of President Zelaya’s departure and the moves against him following his declaration to hold a non-binding public consultation to change the constitution had echoes in Salvador Allende’s own call for a referendum before the 1973 coup.
The rise of the Right in both Chile and Honduras highlight diverging trends in Latin America. On the one hand the Honduran example was similar to events in those states practicing ‘21st century socialism’, through a failed coup in Venezuela in 2002 and a potential one in Bolivia in 2008. On the other hand Chile seems to conform to the ‘loyal’ Right which exists in social democratic states including Brazil and Uruguay, where confrontation is limited to the electoral arena.

The reason for the differences in the Right’s development in Latin America owes much to the so-called ‘pink tide’ that swept the region during the last decade. This was a reaction to the unrepresentativeness of representative democracy and the rising economic uncertainty and vulnerability resulting from structural adjustment and liberalisation. Whereas social democratic governments in Brazil, Uruguay and Chile sought to mitigate those changes through the introduction of targeted social programmes, 21st century socialism in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela coincided amid high levels of social polarisation and pressure by the Left to ‘refound’ the state through constitutional reform on the other.

But even if the Right differs in its political strategy across the region, what are its constituent parts? Regardless of where it is based, it does seem accurate to talk of a Latin American Right. On one hand it shares a commitment to its previous 1980s-90s incarnation through continuing support for liberal economic and socially conservative positions (e.g. being against abortion and freely available contraception). On the other hand it differs from that version by being inclined to maintain many of the social programmes of the Left, particularly the cash conditional transfers paid to families to send their children to school or to feed them. The reasons for doing so not only include the support that governments gain as a result, but that such programmes are cheap, at around 1% of GDP. In addition, their foreign policy, especially in relation to the US, is likely to be similar to that of social democratic governments by being both nationalist and independent. In part this is due to changes in Washington as well, following the more confrontational Bush by the relatively enigmatic Obama.

This then, would seem to the parameters of a Piñeira government: it would not mean a return to the unrestrained capitalism of the 1980s, but rather a development or reimagining of the Concertación model of the 1990s and 2000s. In other words, just as the Concertación inherited the structure of the military regime and adapted it, so would Chile’s first right-wing president since 1989 face a similar situation.

(Posted here since I don't expect anyone to take it up in the Chilean newspapers this week)

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