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Chile: The Shape of Things to Come


By *Armen Kouyoumdjian* 

altSo Sebastian Piñera has won, as I have unflinchingly predicted since January 2008. In fact, Piñera did not win as much as the Concertación lost. It did not lose last December 13, nor this January 17. It lost when it promised a cut in poor people’s electricity bills, and allowed the suppliers to steal it from hundreds of thousands of potential beneficiaries. It lost when it thought it could lie to the 2006 student movement, and make them think that a useless ad hoc committee would address their grievances. It lost when it promised a new hospital for Easter Island three and a half years ago, and has yet to lay down even a foundation stone. It lost when it promised to shorten waiting lists in the public health system and left them actually longer. It lost when it promised that all Chileans will have emergency medical facilities like the ones that helped save the life of the Finance minister’s daughter, and forgot about it within a few days. It lost when it spent UU$4bn of public money into transforming a functioning public transport system in Santiago into a daily misery for millions of commuters whilst pretending there was no money for other essential needs. It lost when it shied away from jailing a single corrupt senior public official or private corporate manager caught breaking the law.

It lost when it caved in to the blackmail of businessman Horst Paulmann and his Albert Speer-inspired Costanera Centre project, which breaks both the letter and spirit of the environmental impact legislation, whilst refusing to deal with a Spanish-owned water treatment plant (La Farfana) whose odours have made life hell for the inhabitants of a whole Santiago neighbourhood (Maipu) for years. It lost when it said it would have only new faces in the government and in the latest campaign, and ended up emptying the old politicians’ asylums to fill in posts and committees.They even dug out Frei Senior from hisgrave,iterally. It was a political mass suicide of the Guyana sect dimension.

The fact that not only did Eduardo Frei recognise defeat as early as 6.45 p.m. after the first bulletin of results, which covered 60% of voting stations, but that the distance between the two (about 52-48%) is sufficiently clear, is the reason why this report is being sent earlier than I was expecting.

Please note that that even if there were a cabinet announcement in the next 24 hours, there will be no further free coverage by me of this election.By predicting the result two years ago, and not letting myself be swayed by outsiders and the murmurs of last minute “miracles”, I think my record is sufficiently clear. It is not my face you will be seeing on TV, hearing on the radio or reading in the press in coming days, but I hope you remember who was consistently right.

Composition of congress

Few people have so far concentrated on the composition of Congress, even though it is fundamental to the conduction of government. In fact, it is amazingly difficult to find the final results of the December 13 legislative elections broken down by parties. Not on the congressional sites, not on the electoral service site (SERVEL), nor on the Ministry of the Interior site. Partial or confusing information only, so what follows is given without guarantees. Contrary to a well-maintained legend, I have proclaimed ad nauseam that Chile is NOT a presidential regime as the expression is generally understood. The only thing a president can do is appoint or dismiss a number of people (around 2,000 currently) and propose laws, but at the end they have to be voted by Congress.

In the full elections for the lower House of Deputies, which has 120 seats, the Piñera crowd, including independents formally supporting his coalition, got 58 seats. The impressive thing is the 37 seats directly obtained by the extreme-Right UDI, making it almost twice as large as the 19-strong Christian Democrats.

The Concertación got 57 seats (19 CD, 18 PPD, 11 PS, 5 PRSD, and three Communists, elected for the first time in decades, and one pro-Concertación independent). The three deputies from the Concertación breakaway group known as the PRI called on supporters to vote for Frei so they may be seen as a conditional support in the new Congress. There are two uncommitted members to make up the total of 120 deputies, 45 of whom are first timers.

altThough only half the Senate was up for re-election, the final make-upappears to have 20 Concertación members (9 DC, 6 PS, 4 PPD, 1 PRSD), as against 16 for the Piñera lot (8 each for UDI & RN). There are two independent members, but in any case with 20/38 the Concertación has a small majority there and can shoot down any Piñera legislation they do not like. One Frau Ena Von Baer, a former scribbler at their Libertad y Desarrollo think tank, was standing as a UDI senator for the first time.

She appeared to be ahead as the counting proceeded, so even though she is in her mid-thirties, married with two children, she decided to act like a teenager at a TV show meeting her pop idols. With a bare midriff, she started jumping up and down in victory. Her Ardennes battle advantage was short-lived because a recount finally gave victory to her Piñerista colleague from RN, Francisco “Patton” Chahuan, with 682 votes.

Her chances of showing her naked stomach in the corridors of Congress thus became kaput. Arabs like Mr Chahuan did quite well, capturing eight deputy seats and 3 senate ones.

As in the past, ad hoc agreements across parties will have to be made if some legislation is to be passed, but the former Concertación, who might hope that their desert crossing will only last four years, has no incentive to make life easier for the Piñera administration. As for any sensitive constitutional reforms, Maazel Tov!

Future public apointments

Those who know the ins and outs of Mexican politics will be familiar with the phenomenon of the “Año de Hidalgo”. This is the last year of office or a given administration, and usually considered as the time to “see yourself right” before you are back on the streets. (“Año de Hidalgo. Chinga su madre quien deje algo “ as the saying goes). One hears of something similar going on in the outgoing Chilean administration, sometimes with specific instructions to that effect from the bosses, particularly in regional administrations where controls are looser. Once that is done, including lower caste hangers-on, up to 20,000 people could be on the street from their juicy sinecures of the Concertación. Do you remember the scene in the 1987 Bertolucci movie, ‘The Last Emperor,’ when the eunuchs are expelled from the Forbidden City? Well, that’s what it will more or less look like.

So where is Piñera going to recruit their replacements? We might have a partial answer as early as in the coming 24 hours, as far as ministerial portfolios are concerned. There will be several sources. Not a few will be given to second and third division remnants of the Pinochet years, who have been lying low and toning down their discourse, a bit like Saddam Hussein’s former Republican Guard members, but keeping their weapons until the field is open for a new attack. Make no mistake about them. They are older but not wiser or different. They are totally unreconstructed, and with over twice as many deputies as their RN partners, supported by the UDI shock troops.


The Reconquista of much of the social progress made under the Concertación (for what it’s worth) will be their main target, together with such things as rolling back divorce reform, gay rights (notwithstanding accusations in that direction against their late ideologue Jaime Guzman), therapeutic abortion, etc.. Forget about any support for the environment, which even under the Concertación was tackled in a very perfunctory matter. Remember, such people eat babies, every day of the week.

Another source will be the academic world, as the many higher education establishments which right-wing religious and business groups have set up over the years, have a good supply of specialists in various areas. Unfortunately, their specialization is theoretical, often based on foreign books whose real origins are in the Ukrainian countryside of a century ago, and totally unsuitable to today’s Chile.

It is like someone with no natural talent in cooking opening a restaurant with the help of exotic cookbooks. The advantage of these academics is that not only will they not be very greedy in terms of income, but the law permits public servants to give classes in their spare time, so they will not have to forego that. This may not even apply, as most will not be civil servants and can do what they want in their spare time.

Also contributing will be the various think tanks such as Libertad y Desarrollo, Instituto Libertad, Fundación Jaime Guzman, etc who have been for some time preparing teams in various areas, again totally inexperienced in public service. These are made up of enthusiastic young people, reminiscent of the idealistic Chicago Boys of the mid-70’s, who thought they could change the world (they did, they gave us George Bush, José María Aznar, Bernard Madoff and Lehman Bros.). Contrary to the earlier generation, they are unlikely to work for a pittance though. Austerity is not a Chilean trait any more. Last but not least there will be the “tokens”: people from other parties, even former Concertación activists, who have moved towards Piñera out of disgust, directly or through the MEO route. Contrary to most other candidates, they are more mature and many might have experience of government outside the Pinochet years.

They will be named to give the impression of pluralism. How much and how long they can withstand the pressures of the hard nucleus once in the job, remains to be seen. Even the other groups do not agree on many things and there are some very strong personalities involved, which may cause instability.

Established career civil servants cannot be fired, but their life can be made unpleasant by shifting them to unimportant tasks and away from real policy decisions. It is most likely that the first division (i.e. the Cabinet), in its first version, will be presentable (“probably not include Pinochetists”, as Piñera announced ambiguously), but in the corridors of power will be lurking dark intriguing monks of the medieval variety, or modern-day Rasputins (Sergio Melnick is a shoe-in for the part) who will be the real policy-makers. Those interested in the current fad for vampires know that they cannot enter by force. They have to be invited in.


The style and two stages of public policies Anyone watching the movements of candidate Piñera would have realized that he drives around in the passenger seat without his seat belt on. Similarly, Eduardo Frei was filmed at the back of a motorbike without a helmet. Admittedly, millions of Chilean pendejos do the same, but shouldn’t the future head of state give an example (both in respecting the law and safeguarding his personal security)? Piñera probably thinks he is an immortal busybody, and will be a hands-on president of the kind Chile has not seen for some time, a sort of sub-tropical Sarkozy. He might end up quickly rubbing his ministers and advisers up the wrong way, going for media impact rather than fundamentals. Gimmicky aspects will be favoured over in-depth changes.

altI can see two stages in the four-year mandate of Sebastian Piñera, in a scenario which fans of B&W horror movies of half a century ago will recognize. In the first step, people will feel well, thinking they are in a brave new world, surrounded by caring people. Some socially-oriented measures will be announced, some draft legislation among which a couple of bills may actually be passed.

Then suddenly, people will realize that these nice people are actually aliens from another planet that they thought was not inhabited any more, with a hidden agenda. They will rise in the middle of the night (sorry to mix my cinematographic metaphors) and start doing nasty things to the population. Rather than care about the poor, they might revive the Pinochet plan of sending them instead to Bantustans in Patagonia. (Why do you think they built the Carretera Austral? So that Austrian backpackers and adventurous ambassadors have an original holiday?)

Hah! The same guys who will be in the top jobs on March 12 are the ones who once told foreign diplomats: “we have three million poor in Chile we do not know what to do with. We wish we could send them away somewhere.” The promise of a million new jobs in four years? Even if the new cabinet was made up of Christ’s apostles, that is technically impossible.

The first concern of the electorate, as all polls show, is public security. For years, different factions have been arguing as to the cause and remedy of the notable deterioration in crime levels. The right calls for “a strong hand” (Mano Dura), but what is that? Sending the troops down South to create a Chilean FARC or a Zapatista movement among the Mapuches? (Well, at least it would give the navy something more serious to do than bothering topless Dutch girls on Reñaca beach). Hitting demonstrators harder every time they protest about something? And why is white collar crime or corruption never punished? Polls also show that human rights issues are very low on the worry list of the population, so it was a mistake for Frei to score an own goal in relation to the possibility (actually quite likely) that his father was assassinated.

Foreign affairs and defence

Though Piñera has indicated his wish to maintain good relations with both the region and further away, in practice (and depending also on the holder of the ministerial portfolio), things may be a bit more complicated. Whenever there is tension with either a neighbour such as Peru, or one of the “progressive” regimes such as Venezuela, a much tougher approach could be adopted, rather than immediately trying to reduce the temperature as has been the case in earlier years. The USA will obviously be pleased at the result (though, apart from not persuading president Lagos to join the Iraq operation, there has been little tension in recent years). There should be no change of any substance in the relationship with China, which has been steady since the Pinochet years, and China is now Chile’s first trading partner.

The right has never been very interested in Defence, and as mentioned in the last monthly reports, there could be a mild economic squeeze on the armed forces. The new administration will also have to implement the recently voted reform of the ministry, and also tackle remaining legislation on the cards such as reforming procurement finance, tackling the increased cost of military pensions and defining a new status for the armed forces’ personnel.

I am not Chilean, unable and unwilling to seek public office, and have limited ambitions in life. All that interests me is that the dollar goes back to 800 pesos and that I am rid of my psychopathic neighbour. On that basis, I don’t give a hoot if the next cabinet is entirely made up of the young tarts who appear on CHV’s Jingo programme. Any future for Meo Independent maverick candidate Marco Enriquez Ominami got 20.13 % of votes in the first presidential round, but not a single congressional seat. The only other outsider to stand for president in recent memory, businessman Francisco Javier Errazuriz, got 15.4 % of the votes in 1989 and several congressional seats for his UCC party. It prolonged his life but then he went into a steady decline, and all but disappeared. He is now outside the political arena.

With no congressional representation, and his unwillingness to latch his wagon to the two front-runners, MEO is going to have a hard time keeping in the public eye except as a newspaper columnist. “Agua pasada no mueve molinos”, as the Spanish saying goes. Do not get impressed by the current rearguard action. A new party was created on January 7. Waste of time. Chileans are not interested in desert crossings which provide no jobs, consultancies, power or prestige. New parties are created and die every month, and you do not even hear about them. A coalition of parties supporting him put up candidates in 79 districts, and got a combined vote of just 4.6 %. Obviously few people regarded him as a credible alternative of government. His belated lukewarm support for Frei surely disappointed those who thought he wanted a different future, not the best of a bad job, and if anything reflects his personal anxiety in remaining in the public eye.

Can he make another outsider comeback in 2013, or be re-engaged in a renewal of the Concertación? Not impossible but unlikely (he is not even a deputy any more), though unless Piñera does a wonderful job for the masses, the Right may be very pushed to find another attractive candidate after him (perhaps Lavin, who once came very close).

Huevada de la semana After the first round last December 13, President Bachelet described the polls as “having given a democratic example to the world”. Really? And how is that? It was just a run of the mill election like dozens of countries have every year. Chile is not Iraq nor Afghanistan (not yet anyway, wait until the infiltrated Israelis all over the south put their plans into action). There may have been a time when a democratic election in Latin America without army intervention was an achievement. That was 20 years or so ago.

Also in the running for electoral huevada is Alvaro Vargas Llosa, son of Mario, who published, well after the first round, an article in a US neo-liberal journal that the second round would be between Piñera and Marco Enriquez Ominami…I hope his father knew better who he was supporting when he visited before the polls.

*Armen Kouyoumdjian is a Latin America analyst based in Santiago. He can be contacted at:

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