Latin America’s Leftward Turn
Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution
Crisis in Bolivia: Evo Morales, MAS and Elite Resistance to Change
Rafael Correa and the Struggle for a New Ecuador
Jennifer N. Collins
All Change in Paraguay: The Promise of Fernando Lugo
Indigenous Peoples and the Left: Tentative Allies
Donna Lee Van Cott
Brazil’s Landless and the Revolt against Neo-liberalism
Harry E. Vanden
Bachelet’s Chile: Business as Usual?
From Néstor to Cristina: Argentina and the Kirchners
Mark P. Jones and Juan Pablo Micozzi
The Costs of Indifference: Latin America and the Bush Era
Omar G. Encarnación
James J. Brittain
Cuba after Fidel: Continuity and Change
Strugglers for a Decent Colombia
Bonaparte in Egypt: Precursor to Bush
Warren I. Cohen
Volume 10 ● 2008—Latin America Turns Left
Bachelet’s Chile: Business as Usual?
On a continent recently characterised by volatile politics and problems of governability, Chile is often cast as an island of stability and success. Undoubtedly, in comparative Latin American perspective, Chile’s economic growth and political stability are remarkable. This image of Chile as a model democracy was further reinforced with the election of Michelle Bachelet in January 2006 as the region’s first popularly elected woman president who had no connection to a politically powerful male relative.
However, during its first two years in office, the Bachelet government has been plagued with difficulties, including massive student protests, labour unrest, cabinet instability, internal governmental divisions, and allegations of ineptitude in a major reorganisation of Santiago’s transport system. Bachelet’s responses to these crises have been widely criticised and her government has suffered in public opinion polls. While many have tied these problems to Bachelet’s characteristics as a leader, often overlooked is how the very model of transitional politics in Chile is also to blame. Although stable, Chile’s Concertación coalition, which has governed the country since the return of democracy in 1989, is based on a pattern of carefully structured politics at the elite level designed to avoid potential instability that might lead to a reassertion of military authority. Therefore, while some of Chile’s problems can certainly be tied to Bachelet as a leader, the irony is that this very pattern of elite politics so central to maintaining the transition is also at the root of the deeper challenges facing Chilean democracy. In essence, both Chile’s success and some of its recently revealed failures have grown out of the same model of elite-driven politics.
This article surveys Chilean politics since the return of democracy, beginning with an overview of the legacy of the military government and an account of how political elites, primarily within the Concertación, succeeded in establishing a very successful model for transition. The article recounts the successes of Chile’s post-authoritarian political and economic systems. The rise of Bachelet is then analysed, during which it is suggested that her candidacy solved a fundamental problem for an aging coalition, but failed to transform the elitist model of politics that is increasingly subject to criticism among Chileans. The article concludes with a discussion of the challenges facing the governing coalition in transforming Chile politically from a model transition into a model democracy.
The Pinochet Dictatorship
The Pinochet dictatorship has cast a long, but retreating, shadow over contemporary Chilean politics. Chile’s deep crisis and polarisation of the 1970s culminated in a violent military coup on 11 September 1973, which removed Latin America’s first popularly elected Marxist leader, Salvador Allende. The military government’s seizure of power ended an almost uninterrupted 150-year period of competitive party politics in what was one of Latin America’s oldest and most successful democracies. The Chilean military government, like similar dictatorships that came to power in Brazil (1964), in Uruguay (1973), and in Argentina (1966), was not the typical “man-on-horseback” military regime that had been historically the norm in Latin America. Rather, these governments, often termed bureaucratic authoritarian regimes, aimed to restructure society fundamentally to root out the populist and leftist elements that were perceived to have led to economic crisis and social polarisation. To that end, the Chilean military authorities violently suppressed any opposition, outlawed political parties and trade unions, and engaged in widespread human-rights abuses and state-sponsored killings.
The military authorities also sought to restructure the country economically, blaming long-standing statism and the populist policies of the outgoing Allende government for Chile’s deep economic crisis. Pinochet and his advisers engaged in a radical economic restructuring, adopting the monetarist ideas of Milton Friedman as their guiding principles. The size of the state was reduced and tariffs were dramatically lowered. A generally free-market, laissez-faire set of economic policies prevailed, which included the partial privatisation of health care, social security and education.
The Democratic Transition
Problems of external and internal legitimacy, together with a desire of Pinochet to extend his presidency, led him to propose a plebiscite on his continued rule in October 1988. This decision was a tactical error on Pinochet’s part. Had he simply called for an open presidential election, he probably would have won given myriad divisions within the opposition and likely multiple presidential candidacies that would have split the opposition vote. As it was, the format of the plebiscite allowed Chile’s resurgent, and now largely legal, parties to unite behind a much simpler issue on which they all could fundamentally agree: that the Pinochet dictatorship must end.
The seventeen parties of the opposition created the Concertación de Partidos para el No (“Agreement of Parties for the No”, referring to the preferred vote in the plebiscite). The coalition defeated Pinochet in the plebiscite, mustering 55 per cent of the vote. This victory provided unity within the coalition and the impetus to remain in being as the country entered the period of competitive electoral competition (the alliance became known as simply the Concertación). Following Chile’s first open and free presidential elections in seventeen years, Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin led the Concertación to victory and assumed the presidency in 1990.
With Chile’s return to democracy, a stable pattern of two-coalition competition quickly emerged between the centre-left Concertación and a rightist alliance now known as the Alianza por Chile, or simply the Alianza. The Concertación has governed since the return of democracy as the lengthiest and most stable coalition in Chile’s history. Three more Concertación presidents succeeded Patricio Aylwin: the Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei (1994–2000), the Socialist Ricardo Lagos (2000–6), and the Socialist (and current president) Michelle Bachelet (2006–10).
This successful transition has transformed Chile into the paradigm for democratic transitions in Latin America. Almost without exception, Chile is cast as a success for achieving a balance between an effective economic model and a negotiated political transition, with few parallels on the continent. However, while in comparative perspective Chile’s successes are many, there are underlying tensions with respect to both the economic and political model.
An Economic Paradigm?
Chile’s economic successes are so well known that many refer to the country as Latin America’s “Asian Tiger”. Chile’s growth rates are unrivalled in Latin America. GDP growth rates averaged over 5.6 per cent annually between 1990 and 2005, reaching as high as 10.8 per cent in 1995. The overall size of the economy increased by almost 50 per cent between 1995 and 2005. In 2005, Chile had the highest GDP per capita in South America, surpassing Argentina, the country that traditionally ranked highest. Concertación governments have also very successfully managed inflation and unemployment. Inflation held below 9 per cent between 1995 and 1998 and below 4 per cent between 1999 and 2005, while unemployment rates have held under 10 per cent, peaking at 9.8 per cent in 1999 but gradually dropping to 8 per cent in 2005.
In a region where the plight of the poor has not improved appreciably in recent years, Chile stands out. Concertación governments’ poverty eradication efforts have borne impressive fruit, with the percentage of the population living in poverty decreasing from 45.1 per cent in 1987 to 18.8 per cent in 2003 and that living in extreme poverty falling from 17.4 per cent to 5.7 per cent during the same period. One of the most often used measurements of poverty in Chile is the number of minimum salaries required to purchase the basic basket of goods for a family. This figure dropped from just under 4.5 minimum salaries in 1990 to 2.1 in 2004. The combination of well-designed social policy and spectacular economic growth is largely responsible for this improvement. Reform of the very restrictive Pinochet labour code, consistent increases in the minimum wage (rising 93 per cent in real terms when adjusted for inflation), and special aid aimed at poverty eradication have added to this success. The lives of Chileans have also improved as regards government social policy, with a ten-fold increase in government spending on health between 1990 and 2005 and just under a ten-fold increase in spending on education.
The questions of the underlying roots of this success and where to assign the credit or blame are still divisive in Chile. Supporters of Pinochet maintain it was his neo-liberal economic policies which transformed Chile into the free-market dynamo it is today, and that Concertación governments have simply managed the success without fundamentally altering the Pinochet model. Many of Pinochet’s critics acknowledge that he set the country on its current economic course, but are more critical of the process of reform and its outcome. They contend that Concertación governments have substantially improved the imperfect model that they inherited from Pinochet. The real story is much more complex than these two rival accounts.
First, the market model was never as market-oriented as many contend, and during the Pinochet era state influence was gradually reintroduced once the shocks occasioned by the introduction of the market model coursed through the economy in the early 1980s. The state-owned copper company CODELCO was never privatised. In addition, the severe economic privation caused by the shock of the rapid introduction of the free-market model led the Pinochet government to intervene increasingly in the area of social policy. This intervention was then expanded to other areas. While most observers tie Chile’s export boom to free-market policies, state intervention in research and development, export promotion and the identification of infant industries was essential to the development of the fruit, fish, and forestry sectors—Chile’s best-known sources of non-copper exports. Even Chile’s much-vaunted tariff policy was subject to manipulation by the Pinochet government at crucial times to protect particular industries; the state also actively engaged in a wide range of export-promotion activities and founded a semi-public trade-promotion authority.
Second, free-market proponents often overlook the crucial historical and structural foundations of the country’s successful economy. Chile enjoys healthy oversight institutions, an efficient state apparatus, and, by comparative regional standards, scant corruption. Indeed, Chile is an outlier in Latin America in most indices of corruption, consistently ranking among the cleanest countries in the world, at about the same level as the United States, and far removed from its Latin American neighbours. Chile in this sense is not a paragon of unbridled free-market orthodoxy, but is an example rather of the pragmatic and rational use of state resources combined with a relatively open and macro-economically successful free-market economy.
The final complicating feature of the meta-narrative of the Chilean economic story concerns its challenges rather than its accomplishments. The country’s economic system is widely seen abroad as a sterling example of success, and certainly in comparative regional terms Chile has done quite well. However, its economic model poses some genuine problems for Chileans, particularly the least advantaged. While growth has been impressive, it has actually skewed income distribution, making Chile, along with Brazil and Colombia, one of the least equitable countries in the world. Also, while levels of extreme poverty have decreased, there is a sector of the population that, despite government efforts, remains in chronic poverty. In addition, even for Chileans who have escaped poverty, the social-policy legacy of the Pinochet government disadvantages working people. While Chile’s privatised health, education, and pension systems have benefited professionals and the business class, many Chileans have been forced to rely on under-funded state programmes in these areas, creating what amounts to a dual society as regards social provision.
Pinochet’s Political Legacy
All successful economic programmes must be underwritten by a coherent political model. Chile’s political formula for success also makes it stand apart in the region. However, there is an irony to the genesis of Chile’s transitional model, given the unmistakable imprint of the military regime. Much of the success of Chile’s model is rooted in the reality that the country’s democratic transition did not produce absolute winners and absolute losers. While Pinochet lost the plebiscite of 1988, he did succeed in imposing on the democratic authorities his constitution and model for transition. The Concertación coalition defeated Pinochet in the plebiscite and forged a post-authoritarian governing coalition, but it had to do so according to the rules of the game established by the outgoing authoritarian regime. Therefore, while in many Latin American countries democratic transitions were preceded by the relative weakening of the military, in Chile the military remained an important actor and was able to dictate the institutional conditions of its departure. Chilean elites thus inherited an institutional structure that they did not design and that was extraordinarily difficult to reform. In contrast to most political systems in which elites craft institutions to serve their own interests, Chile’s democratic institutions were imposed.
The 1980 constitution bequeathed by Pinochet provided a number of prerogatives for the armed forces and other institutions appointed or influenced by the military authorities. With respect to governing institutions, although the constitution underwent substantial reforms in 2005, for most of the post-authoritarian period the democratic authorities had to operate in the institutional straitjacket imposed by the military regime. The constitution created an exaggerated presidential system, a weak legislature, several institutions whose membership was determined by the military or which had a de facto pro-military majority, and high quorums for constitutional reform.
One of the legacies of the military regime that has most affected post-authoritarian political competition, however, is the legislative election system known as the “binominal system”. The military government traced many of the problems of democratic rule during the 1960s and 1970s to Chile’s multiparty system. The electoral reform that created the binominal system represented a purposeful effort by the military to limit political competition by reducing the number of political parties through electoral engineering. The election system establishes two-seat districts for elections to Congress, wherein each party or coalition can present two candidates for each of the sixty Chamber of Deputies districts and each of the nineteen Senate districts. The military authorities assumed this shift from Chile’s historic proportional representation system would compel parties to fuse in order to compete successfully.
Chile’s parties proved more powerful and resilient than the military expected. Rather than coalescing and joining and thus reducing their total number, they have formed coalitions in which they engage in elaborate and time-consuming negotiations to share legislative seats. Because there are only two seats per district, and there are multiple parties within the Concertación, the parties must negotiate to divide candidate slates among themselves. The reality of trying to balance party and coalition interests means that this is necessarily an elite exercise, and the populace takes a very limited role in candidate selection.
Elite-driven politics have also been at the centre of how the Concertación has governed. One of the keys to its success was a negotiated power-sharing formula that distributed ministerial and vice-ministerial posts among the various parties of the coalition according to a quota based on relative levels of support. This arrangement, which amounted to something of a pacted democracy, underwrote the maintenance of coalition unity and prevented the potential divisiveness that might have led to renewed military intervention.
This pattern of elite-driven politics also extended to relations with the right, amounting to potential veto powers among the former supporters of General Pinochet. In what has become to be known in Chile as the democracia de los consensos, Concertación governments have negotiated directly with the opposition and with powerful players on the right, such as business associations and producer groups, to craft agreements before legislation is introduced in Congress. Even within the Concertación, and among its allies such as trade unions, negotiated agreements outside Congress have often been the norm regarding controversial legislation. While aimed at securing the democratic transition by avoiding potentially destabilising demands, this model has also minimised the role of the citizenry and the Congress in government policymaking.
All of these very creative measures aimed at consensus-building and agreement are really at the root of what has made the Chilean transition successful. They have now become an institutionalised pattern. The ultimate irony is that as Chile approaches the twentieth anniversary of democracy, this highly successful model has now also become the root of Chileans’ criticism of their own political system. While they were more likely to accept elite‑dominated politics during a delicate democratic transition, as democracy has become consolidated, Chileans are increasingly critical of this model. Many have begun to disparage the government as making decisions a puertas cerradas (behind closed doors), and to claim that Chilean democracy is evolving into a partidocracia (a party-dominated political system).
This evolving citizens’ vision of the coalition was not lost on Concertación leaders as the 2005 elections approached. In addition, after sixteen years in government and three successive presidential administrations, the coalition was beginning to show signs of wear. Still, it was undeniable that Concertación governments had been successful and popular. Towards the end of his term, President Lagos had popularity ratings that consistently hovered around 70 per cent. Therefore, the Concertación coalition realised that if it was to win the 2005 election it would have to find a candidate who simultaneously represented continuity and change. In naming Michelle Bachelet, the coalition triumphantly succeeded in achieving this goal.
The Bachelet Phenomenon
Bachelet’s victory is routinely portrayed as part of a general leftist political trend that swept Latin America from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s. The standard list of such presidential victories lumps together very different types of president. The list usually includes Michelle Bachelet (Chile), Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Brazil), Tabaré Vázquez (Uruguay), Nestor Kirchner (Argentina), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), and Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua), as well as the “almost wons”, Ollanta Humala (Peru), and Manuel López Obrador (Mexico). However, such assimilations of disparate presidents and candidates are very deceptive. Although all are leftists, only a few represent anti-system or anti-party tendencies. Moderate leftists with more of a social-democratic orientation were able to build working legislative majorities to govern, and did not spark a vehement and divisive reaction by opposition leaders in their countries. Bachelet, Kirchner, Lula, and Vazquez fit into this category. These presidents differ markedly from the more populist, nationalist and anti-system leaders whose presidencies or candidacies have been deeply divisive (Chavez, Morales, Ortega, Humala and López Obrador).
Although Bachelet is no Chávez, she is also not the typical Chilean politician, a factor that was very much part of her popular appeal and the rationale for the Concertación in choosing her as its standard-bearer for the 2005 election. Bachelet had long been active in Socialist Party politics (she entered the Socialist Youth at the age of nineteen), but she was a relatively minor figure before her spectacular rise to power. She was certainly not one of the barons of the great Socialist Party elite. In addition, as a self-described agnostic and separated single mother, she was far removed from the traditionally male, socially conservative, and religiously staid profile of Chilean presidential candidates.
Bachelet’s career and personal trajectory also made her an attractive candidate. When Pinochet came to power on 11 September 1973, her father Alberto, a brigadier-general in the Chilean air force, resisted the military government and refused to go into exile. He was detained and suffered cardiac arrest as a result of torture in Santiago’s public prison. Following his death, Bachelet and her mother were arrested in January 1975 and detained and tortured at the infamous Villa Grimaldi camp.
After their release, sympathetic forces within the military arranged for their exile to Australia. The family later moved to the former East Germany, where Michelle Bachelet began studying for a medical degree. Bachelet returned to Chile in 1979 to resume her medical studies, and began her career as a public-health paediatrician working with disadvantaged families. Although she had dabbled in electoral politics (she ran unsuccessfully for mayor in the Santiago municipality of Las Condes in 1996), Bachelet devoted most of her time to work within the public-health sector and the Ministry of Health. She also served as a consultant to international health-related non-governmental organisations.
When President Lagos made her minister of health in 2000, she was a virtually unknown quantity. Her string of successes in that post led Lagos to appoint her as Latin America’s first woman minister of defence in 2002. Given Bachelet’s history as a former victim of the military, the irony of this appointment was not lost on Chileans. The pragmatism and seriousness with which she approached managing the Defence Ministry, and her cordial and productive relationships with the armed forces, provided a model of reconciliation that many Chileans were seeking at the time. Her performance made her an extraordinarily popular politician.
Drawing on these characteristics, the Concertación identified her as the candidate most likely to be able to fend off the charge that the coalition had developed into nothing more than an elitist “politics-as-usual” force for the status quo. Bachelet enjoyed widespread support among the leftist sector of the coalition (consisting of the Party for Democracy, or PPD, and the Socialist Party, or PS), but she was not without opponents from the Concertación’s more centrist element, the Christian Democratic Party (PDC). Her main challenger to be the Concertación’s sole presidential candidate was the PDC’s Soledad Alvear. Although the contest was heralded as historic in pitting two women against each other as leading candidates, Alvear ultimately dropped out of the race before the primary. Alvear’s image as a more entrenched party candidate may have hurt her when played off against Bachelet’s outsider image.
As the acclaimed leader of the Concertación, Bachelet began the race competing against the Independent Democratic Union’s Joaquín Lavín, who was the standard-bearer for the rightist Alianza coalition. Lavín, who gained national recognition for his success as mayor of Las Condes, one of Chile’s wealthiest municipalities, and later as mayor of Santiago, was the most popular figure on the right. He had lost the 2000 election by a hair’s-breadth against Ricardo Lagos of the Socialist Party. Given this strong performance (the right had approached nowhere near this level of support in previous elections), Lavín was presumed to be the Alianza’s strongest candidate to stand against the aging Concertación.
Despite initial optimism about his electability, continued infighting on the right and the popularity of the outgoing Lagos government led to a flagging of support for Lavín in the polls and a general crisis on the right. The perception that the right was headed for defeat if Lavín remained the Alianza’s candidate led billionaire businessman and long-time Renovación Nacional leader Sebastián Piñera to enter the race as an alternative Alianza candidate. Another coalition of parties made up of the Humanist, Communist and other far-left parties formed an alliance dubbed Juntos Podemos Más (Together We Can Do More) and chose Humanist Party notable Tomás Hirsch as its candidate. However, Hirsch’s minimal national support meant that the presidential race was essentially a three-way affair between Bachelet on the centre-left, and Lavín and Piñera on the right.
Bachelet led in the run-up to the December 2005 elections, consistently gaining about 40 per cent support in the polls, with Lavín and Piñera tied at around 20 per cent. Chile employs a two-round election system, with a runoff between the top two candidates if no candidate receives a majority. Bachelet hoped to avoid a second-round contest, as Aylwin and Frei had, but which Lagos had not managed to escape. When the votes were counted, Bachelet polled 45.9 per cent, to Piñera’s 25.4 per cent and Lavín’s 23.2 per cent.
Although Bachelet won the first-round election, the outcome was worrying for Concertación leaders on a number of counts. Primarily, Bachelet had not achieved the much hoped for decisive first-round victory: the contest would go into a second round. Even more ominous for Bachelet, the sum of the vote for the two rightist candidates exceeded hers. Lastly, the sum of the vote received by the constituent parties of the Concertación in the concurrent legislative elections also exceeded that received by Bachelet, suggesting that even some Concertación supporters did not back her. Nonetheless, in the second round, Bachelet managed to gain a convincing victory, cruising to a 53.7 per cent to 46.3 per cent win over Piñera. Most analysts tie Bachelet’s ultimate victory to her having picked up the 5 per cent of the vote received by Tomás Hirsch of Juntos Podemos Más in the first round, and to her actually culling votes from the right—mostly from women and poorer voters who were attracted by Lavín’s brand of right-wing populism but averse to Piñera’s more traditionally classist conservative stance.
Winning Is Not Governing
By balancing the old with the new and continuity with change, the Concertación picked the perfect candidate to win an election at a particular historical moment and critical juncture in the development of the coalition. However, whether Bachelet brought with her the appropriate skills and backing to govern is another question. Indeed, much of what made her popular as a candidate undermined her ability to rule.
The presidential sash was passed to Bachelet in a history-making ceremony on 11 March 2006. Bachelet campaigned on a promise to change fundamentally the way of doing politics in Chile, pledging to lead a people’s government and introduce a new style of decision-making. This promise was a direct attack on the elitist policymaking process which had characterised Chile since the return to democracy. Bachelet committed herself to several reforms.
First, during her campaign, Bachelet outlined a thirty-six-point plan for her first hundred days in office. Most of these proposals were aimed at bettering the lives of Chilean citizens by expanding social benefits, improving education, providing enhanced access to credit, and upgrading infrastructure. Second, Bachelet promised a new kind of what she called “citizen politics” that would take into account the voice of stakeholders and end the concentration of power. Bachelet pledged to listen to citizens and involve them in new forms of decision-making, including the use of focus groups and citizen commissions. Finally, Bachelet pledged to remake politics through the introduction of gender parity in government. The most visible part of this initiative was her pledge to appoint a cabinet of which half would be women.
By the mid-term of Bachelet’s administration in March 2008, many of these promises had fallen by the wayside. Bachelet succeeded in ushering only a few of her thirty-six initiatives through Congress, and the legislative successes she did achieve occurred very early in her term. The new pattern of citizen involvement in policymaking was abandoned, as evidenced both by the failure of many of the study commissions appointed by Bachelet and by the very visible cabinet changes that brought the old guard of the Concertación back into the government. Finally, Bachelet was forced to abandoned gender parity as a goal, averring that for her gender parity was never “mathematical”, but rather “a concept”.
In addition to these difficulties of political principle and aspiration, Bachelet’s administration had more concrete problems with government management and policymaking. The first crisis struck almost immediately. In April 2006, Bachelet faced massive student protests which shook her administration. This was ironic, given her clear pledge to be a people’s president. The protests began when high-school students launched a small-scale demonstration over limitations on the free student bus pass and a price increase for the nationally administered college aptitude test. As the ranks of the protesters grew, the students expanded their demands, calling on the government to address the dismal state of public education and the deep inequalities in the educational system bequeathed by the Pinochet government.
The arrest of six hundred students and allegations of heavy-handedness by the police caused a second set of protests to swell to over seven hundred thousand demonstrators as high-school students were joined by parents, university students, and trade unionists. Bachelet made an initial offer of $60 million in emergency education spending, which was rejected by the students. The government and students came to a final agreement that included an additional $200 million in the annual education budget (a 2.78 per cent increase), the maintenance of free bus passes, and free college entrance exams for all but the richest 20 per cent of students. Bachelet was criticised, in somewhat contradictory fashion, as being weak and indecisive, yet still heavy handed. More seriously, failure to foresee the seriousness of the problems in the educational sector belied her claims to an intimate understanding of the issues important to Chileans. Her level of support among the public dropped sharply in the opinion polls.
The widespread transportation crisis which followed similarly brought into question Bachelet’s ability to address the needs of real people. Despite tinkering with the chaotic privatised bus system inherited from the Pinochet government, no Concertación administration had engaged in comprehensive transport reform. The Lagos administration, noting the urgent need for improvements, passed legislation to create an integrated bus and metro plan known as “Transantiago”. Five years in the making, the multimillion dollar Transantiago plan was launched on 10 February 2007. So, although Lagos’s government designed the plan, the Bachelet government was responsible for its implementation.
The launch of Transantiago was a complete fiasco. The global positioning system which was supposed to guide scheduling and the intervals between buses failed. Passengers were left stranded at bus stops, and commuters crowded on to the more dependable metro system. Commuters complained that the choice of routes and stops was illogical and that the new bus routes were actually less convenient and took longer than the old ones. Dramatic images of crowds of stranded commuters and packed metro carriages appeared in the media. Bachelet’s popularity suffered dramatically and support for her in opinion polls eroded further when she admitted that she had ignored her gut feeling to delay the plan even though she had known there were problems with it. Her admission reinforced the perception of government indecisiveness.
Besides these major crises, a series of other issues have seriously handicapped the Bachelet government. As of January 2008, Bachelet had undertaken three major cabinet changes (in July 2006, March 2007, and January 2008). Only two years into her term, Bachelet has already had three interior ministers (the most important ministry), the same number as Eduardo Frei during his entire six-year term. Former president Aylwin had a single interior minister during his four-year term while Lagos had two during his six years in office. Two years into Bachelet’s term, only seven of the original twenty ministers she appointed remained in office, by far the highest level of cabinet turnover under any Concertación president.
There have also been open disputes and divisions among senior ministers, so much so that Bachelet publicly rebuked members of her own administration, demanding that they focus on their portfolios and cease engaging in public sniping. Doubts concerning the president’s decisiveness were strengthened by official hesitancy over whether Chile should support Guatemala or Venezuela for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, over government policy regarding the extradition and legal status of Peru’s fugitive ex-president Alberto Fujimori, and over the use of surplus copper revenues to fund loans to poorer hemispheric neighbours.
Finally, Bachelet’s troubles extended beyond the management of her own government to wider issues of coalition maintenance and relations between the executive and legislature. Upon taking office, the Bachelet government had finally achieved the elusive goal of a majority in both houses of Congress, a luxury none of Chile’s other post-authoritarian presidents had enjoyed (primarily because of a measure in the Pinochet-imposed constitution that established a bloc of appointed Senators sympathetic to the right, but which was eliminated by constitutional reforms in 2005). However, lack of government co-ordination among the members of the coalition led to a revolt among Christian Democratic members in the House and the Senate, in effect putting an end to the Concertación’s new and keenly desired majority in Congress.
What are we to make of the troubles plaguing Latin America’s economic and political model state? Certainly, the problems facing Chile are less severe than those in other countries in the region. Still, left unresolved the shorter-term problems of the Bachelet government have the potential to become both enduring and more serious. This is because the government’s difficulties are not solely a function of the president’s management style, but rather grow from the very characteristics she evinced as a candidate and the deeper structural problems of Chile’s post-transitional model.
Ironically, much of what made Bachelet an attractive and electable candidate actually hindered her efforts to govern. Bachelet’s electability rested on her reputation as a “new face”, her lack of traditional party ties, and her consensual and inclusive management style. However, as president, this very newness and lack of insider party links deprived her of the political networks and connections that other presidents have had, and complicated her efforts to construct a stable and effective governing coalition and coherent policy platform. Her consensual management style, while attractive on the campaign trail, translated into a perception that she was incapable of taking firm decisions and charting a governing path of her own.
Recent difficulties are also indicative of deeper problems that will face the Concertación in the future. Bachelet was elected to invigorate an aging coalition. However, besides having inherited substantial baggage in the guise of a badly planned transportation reform and unmet social demands, she also inherited a transitional model that she intended to change. Bachelet desired a consultative, consensual, people’s democracy that would leave the old model of elitist politics behind. But there was an inherent contradiction that prevented her from introducing this new model. Chile’s successful transition was rooted in an elitist decision-making pattern based on deals struck between party politicians.
The pacted nature and the sensitivity of the democratic transition made it necessary for presidents to manage political outcomes—within the coalition, and between the coalition and its opponents—carefully, with little room for citizen participation. Bachelet was attempting to break an institutionalised, entrenched, elitist pattern of politics resistant to change. Had she managed to do so, however, she would have upset the very formula that was the key to the Concertación’s success.
The appointment of her most recent cabinet (in early 2008) signals the death-knell of any substantive change, given that it is largely made up of precisely the politically oriented party insiders who were central to the development of the elitist political model. The problem is that demands for a new citizen-based political model for change persist even if the Concertación is reluctant or unable to introduce it. In essence, the coalition is at the very place politically where it was when it selected Bachelet, yet with one key difference: there is no new, telegenic, fresh and exciting newcomer like her waiting in the wings to campaign with a transformational message. The major challenge now for the Concertación is to find a way to change a successful, albeit elitist, formula for transition into a successful formula for a more participatory and responsive democracy.