On Chilean Presidential Politics and Ongoing Ties to the Pinochet Era

As Brandi mentioned yesterday, the dust has settled in the Chilean presidential primaries. On the one hand, the Concertación elected Socialist Party candidate and former president (2006-2010) Michelle Bachelet to run for re-election for the coalition. On the other hand, the right-wing Alianza coalition selected the Independent Democratic Union’s (UDI) Pablo Longueira to represent it in the election. In addition to Longueira, Bachelet will face challenges from two candiates to the left, Marcel Claude and Miguel Enríquez-Ominami. With well over two years of student protests that call for educational reform and that enjoy a substantial amount of support among many Chileans, a right-wing coalition confronting the need to overcome unpopularity of current president Sebastián Piñera, and two challenges from the left to an ex-president who left office with very high approval ratings, the elections set for November will be interesting for any number of reasons.

What is perhaps most interesting, though, is the way ties to the Pinochet era continue to shape presidential electoral politics. When Piñera was elected in 2010, some saw it as the right finally breaking with the right-wing Pinochet dictatorship. Indeed, some analysts suggested Frei’s loss was in part because the center-left Concertación coalition that had governed since Pinochet’s exit in 1990 continued to campaign against the Pinochet era, while Piñera insisted on looking forward – a politically tactful move, given the right’s long-standing ties to the regime. It seemed at the time that Piñera’s victory was going to finally force the Concertación to broaden its appeal beyond anti-Pinochet rhetoric (though such rhetoric was understandably and justifiably not going to completely disappear).

And yet, here we are in 2013, with two major candidates still tied directly to the Pinochet dictatorship: on the one hand, the Concertación re-nominates Michelle Bachelet, who as a youth resisted the military regime and whose father the Pinochet dictatorship murdered. Meanwhile, the Alianza, left in the lurch after heavy favorite Laurence Golborne had to remove himself from the race, nominates Longueira, who worked as an assessor in the Pinochet government and who, according to Pinochet’s daughter Lucía Pinochet Hiriart, received support from Pinochet when Longueira first began his political career. And so, in spite of some analysts’ conclusions about the significance of the 2010 election in marking a new phase of post-Pinochet politics, both major candidates have direct, albeit very different, ties to the regime.

Nor is it just the personal connections that demonstrate how Pinochet-era politics continue to resonate nearly a quarter-century after he left office. While educational reforms will be a major topic for presidents to contend with as students continue to take to the streets, reforming the educational system is just part of the broader institutional challenge. Educational reforms have been slow in coming in no small part because the Constitution of 1980 that Pinochet issued is designed in such a way as to make reform very difficult, allowing governmental inertia to dominate (as well as including a Pinochet-era anti-terrorist law that the Chilean government has used against indigenous groups, both under Piñera and, before him, under Bachelet.) The ongoing rule of a dictatorial constitution has increasingly become a sticking point, and figures to be a key issue in the campaign: Bachelet herself has said that Chile needs a new Constitution. Though it has been 23 years since the Concertación first won election as Pinochet was forced to leave office, and though this September will mark 40 years since the coup that overthrew democratically-elected socialist Salvador Allende and ushered in Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship, and even nearly 7 years since Pinochet died, the influence, legacies, and outcomes of his regime on both the left and the right continue to shape politics well after he has left the political stage.

No doubt, there will come a time where the regime, although important to history and national memory, will not be so present in national presidential campaigns in such a direct and obvious way, be it through the candidates’ own backgrounds or through the reforms and visions they have for Chile. But what is clear is that, in spite of those who thought 2010 might force a re-calibration of politics that tried to appeal to a generation that did not live under Pinochet’s repression, the dictatorship still casts a long shadow over Chilean politics. There will be a time where that is the case, but in both the major coalition candidates and the issue of constitutional reform, it is clear that 2013 is not yet that time.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
This entry was posted in Augusto Pinochet, Chile, Democracy in the Americas, Educational Reforms, Elections in Latin America, Governance in Latin America, Latin American Politics, Legal Issues in Latin America, The "Left" in Latin America, The "Right" in Latin America. Bookmark the permalink.