Friday, 24 October 2008

Which election is being fought?

This Sunday’s poll may be seen as just municipal elections, as the kick-off of an electoral season, which will, within a period of fourteen months, see elections at the local, congressional and presidential levels. The way the campaign has played itself out, the latter is a more accurate description of what is going on. Why?

First, because some of the developments of the local elections have consequences for next year’s poll. There is the obvious: the extrapolation pundits and politicians will make from each party’s performance on Sunday. But everyone knows that Chilean municipal elections can be read in many ways. Who won? The coalition that gained the most mayors, the most municipalities, that won the highest percentage of the popular vote? There will be something for everyone, and everyone will claim victory. But the real prize will be Santiago. After the debacle of the failed public transport reform, if Santiago goes back to the Concertación it will be seen as an important victory.

In addition, although the municipal campaign has Chile’s major cities plastered with signs, most of the attention has already shifted to the presidential race. Former president Ricardo Lagos announced to great fanfare (and a full page interview in the Sunday paper) that he was not a candidate, only to appear the following week campaigning for regional candidates, criticising the current administration, and saying that if he was asked really, really nicely, he would be available. Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza has been spending more time in Santiago than in Washington lately, having his picture taken with local candidates and trying to avoid a war of words with Lagos. Christian Democratic presidential contenders are lining up; watch for former president Frei to reappear if the polls do not give Lagos or Insulza a good chance of beating Sebastian Piñera. And while Sebastian Piñera continues to be by far the front-runner, never underestimate the ability of the right to shoot itself in the presidential foot. In the last few days the UDI has taken some tentative steps to putting forward its own candidate, Senator Evelyn Matthei. Besides being the daughter of a former member of the Military Junta, Matthei has a history of bitter rivalry with Piñera. Matthei’s candidacy is likely simply political posturing aimed at strengthening the UDI’s position within the Alianza (with the approaching congressional elections much inter-party negotiating will be required for selecting candidates), but it is not helpful. One reason Piñera is so far ahead in the polls (about fifteen points) is that he has been a sole candidate running against a field of three or four, who have spent the last months criticising each other instead of Piñera.

Indeed, the bickering amongst the Concertación’s presidential contenders has been pointed to by many as being yet another signal of the fragmentation and exhaustion of the coalition that has governed for eighteen years. But a race between four or five seriously qualified candidates is hardly a sign of exhaustion. The same has occurred in the Concertación in every election since the return to democracy.

What is worrying, however, is that the race is between the same four or five seriously qualified candidates, including two former presidents. The lack of new blood – and new ideas – is a sign that the Concertación is in urgent need of renewal. Unless Piñera gets distracted by a serious challenge from his right flank – which may yet happen – the odds are that the Concertación will have plenty of time in opposition to contemplate that renewal.