The results of Chile’s recent presidential election raise real questions regarding the future of Chilean social democracy. At the presidential level, socialist president Michelle Bachelet will hand over the presidential sash – for the second time – to the rightwing Sebastián Piñera, while in congress the right fell only slightly short of achieving an overall majority. After four years of what was supposed to be a transformative, almost revolutionary, period of reform, the left is divided and lost.
It is an extraordinary result not only for President Bachelet, who returned triumphant four years ago to take the helm of a renovated coalition with an ambitious reform agenda, but also for the Chilean centre left, which appears to be following in the footsteps of its continental cousins, unable to defend itself against a populist left and an increasingly conservative right.
The performance of Chilean social democracy was influenced by three factors: its past, its handling of the previous government, and the ability to claim the centre ground.
The Nueva Mayoría (New Majority) coalition is heir of the Concertación, arguably the most successful political coalition in the country’s history. Made up principally of Socialists and Christian Democrats, the Concertación governed under four consecutive presidents from 1990 to 2010, shepherding the country from authoritarianism to economic growth and stability. It did so by learning the lessons of the past, valuing consensus-building and ensuring that the expansion of social policy was back up by solid economic fundamentals.
After 20 years in power the Concertación was leaderless and exhausted. During the Piñera government that followed, a new generation, unencumbered by memories of democratic breakdown and economic chaos, took to the streets demanding an expansion of social rights. For the subsequent 2013 elections the Concertación knew that its only option for victory lay in bringing back Bachelet. Moreover, the left wing of the coalition saw in the emerging social movements a rationalisation for bringing back its own long-delayed demands. They brought in the Communist party and some former student leaders, rechristened the coalition the Nueva Mayoría (New Majority), and cobbled together an election platform filled with promises of reform. In doing so, Bachelet was betting that she would not only avoid the kind of street protest that had plagued Sebastián Piñera’s first government, but also that she might co-opt social pressures and channel them into government. For President Bachelet, fulfilling those promises was not only about implementing change: she was convinced that part of the broad political and social discontent, in Chile and elsewhere, arose from public anger at politicians not keeping their word. She was determined to keep hers and, once in office, the election platform was cited as if it were Mao’s Little Red Book. It was the roadmap that outlined the extent, but also the limits, of reform.
Nueva Mayoría politicians talked of prioritising the social agenda since, according to them, the country for too long had worried about economic growth and governability. The new government very quickly went about implementing several of these demands, from free university tuition to constitutional reform. The promise was of a transformational government that would bring in a new constitution, tax, labour, pension and electoral reform, and totally revamp the educational system. Moreover, they were interlinked. Tax reform was necessary to fund education, for example. A new constitution was necessary to make the desired structural changes in education. Electoral reform was required to legitimise the congress that would be needed to pass the new constitution.
The design and implementation of the reform agenda left few satisfied. The business community was scared off by the tone coming out of government. The left within the governing coalition grew increasingly frustrated by the timidity and slow pace of reform, which was further hindered by accusations of corruption in the president’s family. Bachelet’s popularity plummeted, reaching a low of 15% in 2015. Most reforms are either incomplete or need adjustment.
The Christian Democratic party, a guarantor of centrism in the Concertación, all but left the Nueva Mayoría coalition, fielding its own candidate in the recent presidential elections. Former student leaders who had formed their own political bloc also bolted when they realised that Bachelet’s educational reform would not be what they expected. Bolstered by a generational conviction of their moral certitude, they reject anything that smells of the old Concertación, including compromise and consensus. For many post-Pinochet youth, it’s all or nothing. Precisely the attitude that their grandparents’ generation saw degenerate into dictatorship.
Given the disintegration of the coalition, the unpopularity of its reforms, and the lethargic economy, it was little surprise that for the second time in less than a decade Michelle Bachelet will cede the presidency to Sebastián Piñera. The question is, what happened to the Chilean centre left?
First, it very clearly abandoned the political strategy of valuing consensus. Eager to co-opt emerging groups and protect its left flank, it readily adopted the language and posture of the Frente Amplio, the conglomeration of parties and movements that arose principally out of the student movement, which harboured a generational suspicion of everything done before. In doing so, the Nueva Mayoría disowned its own very successful legacy, and alienated the centre, both within its coalition and with the public at large.
That left the centre open. The Christian Democratic party, which had occupied that space since the 1960s, found itself stuck in a coalition with little influence. Other new parties had hoped to claim the centre but were the victims of a new electoral system that favoured larger parties. In the end it was Piñera who, despite shifting to the right on social issues, managed to occupy that space. He did so not by offering the policies that social democrats used to offer, but by offering their style: responsibility, seriousness, and language that at the very least suggested concern for the middle class.
It is here where Chilean social democracy most resembles its European namesake: it doesn’t yet know how to speak to its traditional base because that base has changed so much. Who is the new middle class? What does it expect from government? How do global economic and social pressures affect their preferences? One hopes that this is the discussion upon which the Nueva Mayoría now will embark.