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What Happened in Chile?


Sebastián Piñera obtained half a million more votes than in the first round, despite the fact that the total number of voters in the second round declined by 34,161 compared to that in December.  Eduardo Frei added 1.3 million votes to his December results (2,043,514), but he still lost by 222,742 votes.

The null and blank votes in the second round declined to 242,000, from 284,369 in the first round, but abstention rose from 11% to 12%, that is to say, 945,000 registered voters didn’t vote.  In the end, Piñera defeated Frei by 3.23% (51.61% versus 48.38%).

Where did Piñera get the 506.524 new votes that gave him a narrow victory?  From the 36.3% who voted for Marco Enríquez-Ominami (ME-O), from those 1.4 million voters.  Both candidates captured some of the 42,000 null/blank votes in the first round which in the second round became valid votes.

Where did Frei obtain his 1.3 million new votes?  Arrate gave Frei his 430,824 disciplined voters of the first round, and the rest, 855,970, necessarily came from 61.3% of the ME-O voters.

With each election, fewer citizens vote.  The number of valid votes declined last Sunday by 106,445, compared to the Yes or No plebiscite of 1988.  21 years ago, 7,251,930 voted, and this year only 7,145,485 did.

8,110,265 voters are registered to vote in Chile’s electoral register, even though the number of eligible voters has soared to 12.18 million.  31% of eligible voters are not registered to vote and are younger than 40.  That’s 3.8 million citizens.  Since 1988, the number of registered voters has grown by only 9%.

Piñera will have to govern by “consensus” with the Concertación, just as the Concertación did so during 20 years of consolidation of the neoliberal model bequeathed by the Pinochet dictatorship.  The Concertación has 19 senators, facing 16 far-rightists and 3 independents in the Senate.  In the 120-member Chamber of Deputies there is a tie.

Symptoms of Fascism 

Piñera made a conciliatory speech on TV on the night of his victory, promising a national unity government and thanking his supporters, the government, the Concertación, his family, God, and other factors.  However, the serenity of the president elect apparently is not shared by all of his adherents.

At the same time as Piñera’s speech, a caravan of cars passed by my house, shouting through a megaphone: “Allende is upset!  Piñera is the president!”  The caravan reeked of the smell of fascism.  “What does this slogan mean?  A joke?” I asked those around me.  “I hate fascists,” said one of my sons who were born in exile in Venezuela.  Then I remembered the first conciliatory words that I heard uttered on TV by the putschists, the sock puppets of Piñera’s people, in September 1973: “There will be neither winners nor losers.”  And a few days thereafter they began to disappear and/or assassinate more than 3,000, while taking 30,000 to torture camps.

The popular vote punished the style adopted by the Concertación in the end over the 20 years during which the coalition upheld the dictator’s legacy albeit with the consent of the United States (which made and unmade him): the free market, transfer of wealth to foreign capital, reinforcements of conglomerates, and modest social welfare policies that received more emphasis under Michelle Bachellet.

Clientelism and populism raised the “popularity” of President Bachellet to about 80%, but none of that was reflected in the vote on Sunday.  Why?  She only went down in history individually as the most successful head of state.

The Far Right seldom governed Chile “by the popular will” in the last century.  In 1920 Arturo Alessandri emerged, a dissident and populist rightist who established the contract of labor (which stipulated the 8-hour day, set up labor inspectors, and so on), laid down the law mandating rest breaks for workers, and convoked a constituent assembly which in 1925 replaced the Constitution of 1832 by a new one, which in turn was replaced in 1973 by the fundamental charter that is still in force today, reformed and, therefore, “legitimated.”

Between 1925 and 1932 came a period of political disorder, dictatorship, coups, and the little known and ephemeral Socialist Republic of 1932.  It was an epoch of uncertainty and “saber rattling,” punctuated by classic massacres of workers.

General Carlos Ibáñez governed as dictator from 1927 till he was ousted by a popular mobilization in 1931, but 21 years later he won the elections of 1952, the very elections in which Salvador Allende ran as candidate for the first time.  Having been a dictator, Ibáñez became a populist president, and that cycle of two decades appears today to repeat itself.

The Right re-conquered power in the elections of 1932, with the same Alessandri who had won in 1920, though as a changed man, as if he were another person.  Then the Right exited the scene in 1938 with the eruption of the Popular Front, headed by the Radical Party, with socialists and communists, which introduced important progresses during the transformation of an agrarian country to an extractive-industrial one.  The Radical Party held power for 14 years, winning elections, till its last president, Gabriel González, betrayed his communist allies and began to persecute them.

The Right did not win an election after the 1958 elections, which were won by Jorge Alessandri (backed by the right-wing Radicals), a son of Arturo and captain of industry like Piñera.  In those elections, Salvador Allende put forward his candidacy for the second time and lost by barely 30,000 votes.

In 1964,  Alessandri Junior handed over the country to the “freedom revolution” of Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei Montalva, father of the loser on Sunday.  In 1970, after four attempts, Allende conquered power with a new version of the Popular Front of 1938, the Unidad Popular, whose government was overthrown by a bloody coup backed by those who have just elected Piñera (and also by some of those who lost).

The dictatorship lasted 17 years; the Concertación governed for 20 years.  The Right again has all the power, this time “through the peaceful path.”  Economic power (the president elect has his own group of big corporations), mediatic power (two of his associates are owners of newspapers and half the country opposed to him has neither means nor venues to express itself), executive power, sympathy of the armed forces, the Church, and the judiciary (and the so-called “de facto powers”).  However, the Right does not control the legislature, and for that reason, the clever Piñera talks about “national unity” even while his partisans clamor for revenge.

Chile was governed by the landowners until 1920.  Between 1958 and 1964 it came to be run by the managers, the corporate executives who are now called CEOs, with the slogan of “belt-tightening” (which means people going hungry).  Now begins the cycle of big conglomerates, with a two-faced populist discourse like that of Bachelet, without any allusion to belt-tightening.  On the contrary. Piñera promises more education (he hasn’t said “public” education, though — probably he means state funds for private universities), better health (he mentioned state-funded vouchers allowing people to go to private clinics like Las Condes, in which he is an investor), and a million jobs.  How will he pull them off?  We’ll have to see.  Besides, on Sunday night he reiterated the central theme of his discourse: he’ll put an end to delinquency and drug trafficking and show . . . more concern for the disabled.

The Concertación is finished, and Chile enters a new era in the company of Latin American nations under reactionary governments.  On Monday, the share prices of LAN, Piñera’s airline, which has routes all over the continent, went up 12%.

Ernesto Carmona is a Chilean journalist and writer.  The original article “Qué pasó en Chile?” was published by La Agencia Latinoamericana de Información on 19 January 2009.  Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi (@yoshiefuruhashi | yoshie.furuhashi [at]

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