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News > Latin America

Chile at the Crossroads: An Election Haunted by the Ghost of the Pinochet Dictatorship

  • Left to right: Outgoing President Michele Bachelet (L), late dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet (C), former president and current contender Sebastian Piñera.

    Left to right: Outgoing President Michele Bachelet (L), late dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet (C), former president and current contender Sebastian Piñera. | Photo: Chile government, public domain

Published 19 November 2017

With right-wing candidate and billionaire oligarch Sebastian Piñera in the lead, Chile's elections reflect the complicated nature of post-dictatorship Chile.

Sunday's election in Chile is, in many respects, a contest pitting those who uphold a continuation of the fascist-rooted right-centrist status quo and those who hope to deepen and advance the post-Pinochet reforms aiming to restore some degree of social justice to the developed Latin American country.

Who's Who in Chile's General Elections

Right-wing billionaire and former President Sebastian Piñera – a former airline magnate and media oligarch, backed by Chile's business world – is the frontrunner for now, leading the right-wing Chile Vamos (Let's Go Chile) campaign. Piñera is up against an incumbent New Majority ruling coalition that has hoped to elect outgoing President Michelle Bachelet's successor, the center-left independent senator and former journalist Alejandro Guillier.

Bachelet, who was prevented from running in this round under constitutional rules barring presidents from serving consecutive terms, ruled the country from 2006 to 2010 and then was re-elected to replace Piñera in 2014.

Chile is still struggling to lift the heavy weight of the 1973-1990 dictatorship of late General Augusto Pinochet from its shoulders. Following the reintroduction of democracy in the country, the Pinochet constitution remained in force while the former dictator himself remained the head of the country's armed forces.

The country may be a nominal democracy enjoying relatively free elections where even communists and socialists are on the ballot, but in myriad ways it remains constricted by an essentially fascist constitution – albeit one that has been dented by the progressive legislation of Chile's consecutive center-left governments, barring Piñera.

An extreme social conservative and professedly devout Roman Catholic, Piñera is opposed to reproductive health rights such as abortion access, as well as the granting of rights to same-sex couples. His economic policy is similarly right-wing and focuses on slashing government expenditures and cutting taxes for the wealthy, as well as investing in infrastructure, in a bid to attract foreign investments. Posturing as a figure hoping to preserve Chilean middle-class prosperity, Piñera has rallied under the slogan “Stand up and let’s get the Chilean economy going!” – and is often greeted by supporters with the response, “Viva Pinochet!”

Guillier has faced a tough fight rallying a divided left, many of whom saw Bachelet's years of reforms aimed at tackling inequality as not going far enough in addressing the overwhelmingly liberal economy in the country. Despite increasing corporate taxes and empowering unions through a new labor code that granted workers more protections, the New Majority coalition has faced opposition from the right, from centrists within the party, and from the far-left groups like Broad Front who feel the reforms don't go far enough.

Likewise, the pension system and hybrid-welfare system requiring citizen co-payments to private vendors is seen as inefficient and a poor substitute for truly public social welfare programs. In the past several years, Chile's government has been deluged by protests against the privately-managed pension system as well as the private sector's grip on education.

Against the Tide of Pinochet: Chile’s Elections and the Left

These conditions have opened the way to the left-wing challenge of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) coalition led by Beatriz Sanchez. A former journalist and newcomer on Chile's political scene, Sanchez who has subjected the governing New Majority leadership to withering criticism and called for a strong redistributionist campaign of social spending and taxing the rich. Sanchez has also called for the annulment of the country's Amnesty Law that pardoned hundreds of soldiers who committed human rights violations under the rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Five other candidates spanning the ultra-right to the far left are also crowding the ballots, ensuring the impossibility of a first-round win for any candidate. Piñera, for the moment, appears to be benefiting for the moment from the Chilean left's divisions.

If Piñera wins this round and fails to score the needed half of Chile's vote, the second round of elections will take place on Dec. 17, providing one more opportunity for the left to triumph. However, this will be contingent on the divided left's ability to unite and rally their supporters in the face of flagging enthusiasm.

If, as some analysts suggest, Piñera manages to win the second round, we will witness a continuation of the political seesaw that Latin America's fifth-biggest economic power has experienced for over ten years. These rosy predictions may be blunted by a less than stellar electoral performance in the first round, which may demoralize his base and allow the left to finally unite.

More significantly, however, a Piñera victory would also add Chile back to the growing list of South American countries leading a right-wing revival in Latin America following the victories of conservative and hard-left groups in Argentina, Brazil and Peru – among whom you'll find more than a few politicians who see the Pinochet era as the template for the type of “pro-business” regimes they hope to usher in.

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