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Main candidates all represent neoliberal policies
The stakes in Chile's vote

December 9, 2005 | Page 8

YOU KNOW there is something wrong in a country when all the presidential candidates agree that the economic model is in crisis. Such is the case in Chile, where on December 11, Chileans will go the polls to elect their fourth president since the end of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's brutal U.S.-backed dictatorship.

Plagued with a poverty level of almost 20 percent, unemployment near 10 percent, and one of the most uneven distributions of wealth in the world, Chile's politicians can no longer ignore the facts. But when you look at the choices that the candidates are offering, you can also be sure that the necessary changes will not be coming from the presidential palace anytime soon.

This year, the ballot will contain four names--as a personal dispute has split the right-wing Alianza Por Chile into the Renovación Nacional (RN) and the Unión Democratica Independente (UDI).

The RN's candidate is business magnate Sebastián Piñera, the president of the airline LAN Chile and owner of television channel Chilevisión. Representing the UDI is Joaquín Lavín, a member of the infamous Chicago Boys who helped introduce Chile's free-market economic policy, which is described as "capitalism with the gloves off." In the first presidential debate, Lavín made his priorities clear when he explained that the excessive concentration of wealth worries him because it causes high prices that then hurt consumers.

Facing the two candidates of the right is Concertación de Partidos por la Democracía candidate Michelle Bachelet, the defense secretary to current Concertación President Ricardo Lagos.

While hypothetically representing the center-left, Bachelet is actually not too different from Lavín and Piñera. According to Universidad de Santiago history professor Carmen Gloria, Lavín, Piñera and Bachelet all follow the same Washington-backed policies of "neoliberalism," with its stress on reducing public spending, deregulating businesses and opening the country up to foreign exploitation.

For those Chileans looking for a left alternative, there is Tomás Hirsch of Juntos Podemos Más.

In the first presidential debate, Hirsch characterized Chile's system in responding to a question about inner-city youth: "One has to understand the causes, and the fundamental cause is the economic model of Chile, an economic model that has been fantastic for 5 percent--a model that has passed over social needs, the demands for health, education, dignified work, adequate salaries. That, of course, is going to generate violence."

Hirsch has associated his campaign with struggle, whether marching in Mar del Plata against U.S. imperialism or joining a protest of informal transportation workers in demanding real jobs with real pay.

The current polls put Bachelet in the lead with about 47 percent, followed by Piñera at 26 percent, Lavín at 21 percent and Hirsch at 4 percent. If no one wins a majority, there will be a runoff election on January 15, 2006, between Bachelet and the leading candidate of the right, with Bachelet favored to win.

Some people think that the real story of this election is the seemingly high possibility of having a female president. While Bachelet's candidacy has led to more discussion about the systematic discrimination of women, in reality, her presidency will do little for the thousands of women working as maids to the upper classes for $300 a month.

I think the real story of the election is people's loss of faith in the political process. Some 86 percent of the voting-age population went to the polls in 1989 following Pinochet's eviction from office. That number has fallen, so that in 2001, turnout was under 70 percent, and 10 percent of those ballots were blanks or "no" votes.

When all is said and done, a little over 30 percent of Chile's voting-age population will choose the next president. In all likelihood, the only political party that will get a higher absolute vote total this year is Juntos Podemos Más.

The historical context is important in understanding Chile's political situation. In the twelve months after the military coup led by Pinochet in 1973, 30,000 people were killed, and thousands more fled the country. The victims of Pinochet's policies were chosen systematically, and the entire leadership of the left was butchered to send a message to the next generation. During his nearly two-decade-long reign, another 3,000 people--those who were willing to speak out against Pinochet's vicious regime--were "disappeared."

The end of the Pinochet era--marked by a 55 percent vote against him in a 1990 plebiscite--may have been the start of a new era, but the campaign against Pinochet was led by the same Ricardo Lagos who is currently maintaining the status quo as Chile's president.

Nevertheless, forms of resistance are growing. On September 11, 2005--the 22nd anniversary of the Pinochet coup--a commemoration march brought 4,000 people into the street. There has also been growing dissent against so-called free-trade agreements--deals signed with the U.S. and China that greatly benefit large corporations, while exposing small businesses to unbeatable competition.

But it is not easy to overcome 30 years of unfiltered neoliberalism--and if this year's presidential election shows us anything, it is that real change is not going to be won through the ballot box.

Tom Scherer, Santiago, Chile

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