Thursday, 24 December 2009

MEO in el Mostrador

This came out a few days ago in El Mostrador, but in the pre-holiday rush I did not have time to link to it. So here it is.

The basic point is that the Concertación seems to have lost its way, not in terms of policy -- because I think it continue to be reasonably good at managing Chile -- but in political terms. There is no real leadership, no real ideology, no narrative, no epic.

The campaign line now is essentially, vote for us so that the other guy doesn't get in. That almost never works.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Post electoral thoughts

Now that the dust has settled a little, a few thoughts on Sunday's election.

The fact that Carlos Huneeus got it reasonably right means that the Concertacion knew what to expect on Sunday. It is therefore unforgivable that they did not have a strategy in place to hit the ground running on Monday morning. A strategy that involved a serious shift in gears, in campaign organization, in message, in its relation with the political parties. It is inconceivable that the leaders of those parties, especially Camilo Escalona, who is directly responsible for the MEO candidacy, are not willing to resign. And to top it off, Latorre, head of the Christian Democrats, now says the campaign had nothing to do with the parties or their leaders.

Frei should have had the four party presidents' resignation letters on his desk on Sunday night. It should have been set up. He should have had a whole team ready to replace the old one. He should have had a lineup of young Concertación leaders standing behind him for his concession speech, not Camilo Escalona.

The Concertación had 24 hours to show it had got the message (what Lagos said after his first round tribulations in 1999), and to signal a shift. Those 24 hours are up.

Instead of being on top of the ball, what Frei has shown is that he cannot control the parties, which says something about his leadership. The parties have no interest in anything but themselves. The Concertacion has officially lost its way. It will lose on January 17, and deserves to. And then it will fall apart.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Election Special: Liveblogging IX

Two tough losses for the UDI. Joaquin Lavín, and Rodrigo Álvarez. The former is a former presidential candidate. The latter has been president of the House of Deputies, and a very smart and good guy. A good candidate for a possible Piñera cabinet.

Election Special: Liveblogging VIII

The Santiago suburb of Las Condes has been a right-wing hub for ages. It is where Joaquin Lavin made his career.

This time round, however, the Alianza was worried of losing its 'doblaje', which under the binominal system would give it two seats in the House of Deputies. The source of this concern was the candidacy of Rodrigo Garcia Pinochet -- yes, that Pinochet. His grandson, in fact, who ran as an independent.

In the end, RGP got about 10% of the vote, but even then could not put a dent in the Alianza's fortress. It held on to its doblaje, electing Ernest Silva and Cristian Monckeberg.

Even a former police general, running for the Concertacion, couldn't inspire the wealthy citizens of Las Condes to move away from the Alianza.

Election Special: Liveblogging VII

Now it's Piñera's turn. He's not saying much. He doesn't have to.

Election Special: Liveblogging VI

Frei is speaking. He started off by reaching out to Arrate and MEO.

Ominami is also speaking. He is not endorsing anyone, and continues to criticise Frei. That's not smart of him, and not good for Frei. It will make everyone's job harder.

MEO has to decide now where he wants to go. His problem is that if Frei wins, the Concertacion will be out to get him. If Frei loses, he stands a chance of becoming an important player in the reconstruction of the Concertacion. Frei therefore has to give him an incentive to get on board.

Election Special: Live Blogging V

The Ministry of the Interior has published the latest vote count:

Piñera: 44.2%
Frei: 30.5%
MEO: 19.4%
Arrate: 5.9%

This looks increasingly insurmountable for Frei. He would have to win all of Arrate and three quarters of MEO voters. Very tough.

In the parliamentary vote, the Concertación has a higher percentage vote than the Alianza, but thanks to the binominal electoral system, they will be about 50-50. Some major Concertación figures in the House of Deputies have been defeated. Not a good night for the Concertación.

And I congratulate my friend Ena von Baer, who has been elected as an independent UDI-friendly senator in the 15th district.

Election Special: Liveblogging IV

First official results from the Ministry of the Interior

Piñera 44.7%
Frei 32%
MEO 17.8%
Arrate 5.5%

It's only based on about 10% of the total vote, but if this keeps up, Piñera is in very good shape. Frei is also in pretty good shape, better than even he probably expected. MEO seems to be underperforming, and Arrate is within historic ranges, but lower than I thought he would be.

Early in the evening, but it looks like Frei will have his work cut out for him

Election Special: Liveblogging III

CNN Chile / Radio Bio Bio are suggesting the tendency is thus:
Piñera 43.9%
Frei 31.5%
MEO and Arrate 24.5%

UDP is projecting
Piñera 43.3%
Frei 26.9%
MEO 22.6%
Arrate 7.1%

Election Special: Liveblogging II

In Chile polls close if everyone has voted, so some polls around the country have started counting. Which is pretty odd, if you think about it, becuase they show the count on TV, which could influence others who have not yet voted.

Having said that, TVN is showing the count at a poll in Concepción. Piñera is in first place, which is no surprise. But it's a tough slog for the number 2 position.

It's only one poll, but still. Some people are going to have a loooong night.

Election Special: Liveblogging I

I have voted. Won't say for whom.

Some further observations on Election Day:

Over the last few years I have voted several times at the same polling station in Santiago, and this was the first time I had to wait in line. Draw whatever conclusions you wish.

José Miguel Izquierdo is a friend and colleague. He exemplifies the word mensch. But he is appearing on television as a 'cientista político', offering his 'analysis' of the electoral situation, which is rather disingenuous when he is a close advisor of Sebastián Piñera. That aside, he is talking about a National Unity government. What is that about? It's about the fight for the the middle, the undecided, the median voter.

The struggle to win over MEO's votes has begun.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Putting my money where my mouth is

I suppose I should make a prediction for tomorrow's election. Here goes.

Piñera: 41%
Frei: 30%
Enríquez-Ominami: 17%
Arrate: 10%

This is based entirely on gut feeling, conversations with colleagues and people involved in the campaigns. The margin of error is 2%, only because I say so.

Note that this leaves Piñera very far away -- almost impossibly far away -- from the finish line. Draw your own conclusions.

It also leaves Frei with a difference of over 10% with Piñera, which Conventional Wisdom has suggested is the kiss of death, an impossible breach. Let's see.


Well folks, it's the final countdown. Polls open in a few hours. Since it is highly likely that Piñera will come in first, I jotted down some thoughts on what guarantees of governability a Piñera government could offer. It was published in El Mostrador.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Ethics, coming from Perez de Arce

This is what one of Chile's most right-wing commentators, who used to be a columnist in El Mercurio, has to say about Sebastián Piñera.

Ejemplifiquemos con hecho recientes. Todo el tema que se ha debatido con esta compra de Lan que hizo menos de media hora después que conoció los estados financieros de Lan. Es una falta de ética, es una falta de delicadeza y entonces a mí no me gusta que el futuro Presidente de la República incurra en faltas de esa índole, porque el ejercicio del cargo puede prestarse a eso y mucho más. Cuando yo era compañero de lista de él, Sebastián Piñera tenía lo que se llama un topo en mi comando presidencial. Y digo que si una persona hace uso de esos elementos y es Presidente de la República, podría poner topos en partes muy inconvenientes. Y no me gustaría que el Presidente de la República, con todo el poder que tiene, tuviera esa capacidad de penetrar organizaciones.

For the record, the two go way back, and not in a good way, so it has been clear for a while that Perez de Arce would not support Piñera. But the way he sees Piñera's business practices, and general MO, from up close, seems to fit with the popular view.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Smell the Chilean roses

Homer Simpson likes to say, "It's funny because it's true".

Well, this isn't exactly funny, but it is rather nice, and it's also true. For those of you who know Chile:

Smell the roses… and everything else around you; smells that delight, that repulse, that intrigue, that confuse, that alarm, that soothe; smells that say home and smells that
spell trouble; smells known and unknown, smells that will become familiar as
this strange place becomes yours. The señora next door is frying onions at 9:00
am as she starts preparing a lunch (why so early if they eat at 2, you wonder);
warm yeasty smells waft from the bakery as people line up for hot rolls and
empanadas; the Nuts for Nuts guy stirs his peanuts into the hot and sugary red
syrup to make his maní confitado; a motorbike whizzes by leaving a
trail of gas fumes in his wake; roast coffee aromas waft from the Café Haití;
waves of stale smoke and beer are swept out of a bar before noon, an unwashed
hand is extended in front of the church; heavily perfumed men, women, and even
children leave their scent in an empty hallway, on a vacant telephone, in the
taxi they have just stepped out of; close your eyes and breathe deep—the market
is filled with the juiciest of fruits and the freshest of vegetables, the metallic scent of recently butchered meat and the coastal smell of the daily catch. The city is teeming with smells-odors-fragrances-aromas-bouquets-stinks and scents that together spell out Santiago, or Valparaíso, or La Serena, or Santa Cruz, the Andes, the Pacific, Atacama, Patagonia… smells that burn “Chile” into your olfactory memory.

More can be found here.


Well that didn't take long

When I heard that six people have been charged in the death/murder of former president Eduardo Frei, my first reaction was not 'Good, they got the bastards', or 'Good heavens, it really was murder'. My first reaction was to wonder how long it would take for the opposition to accuse the government of somehow orchestrating the legal proceedings for electoral benefit.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Questions for Piñera (and Frei)

Andrew Sullivan has posted his reasons for leaving the Right (or, as he phrases it, why the Right has left him) (Kudos to Pablo Policzer).

The list includes a number of issues that should be asked of presidential candidates everywhere, but particularly the Right, because the Right professes to adhere to these things but then ignores them. These include things like limited government and fiscal restraint. But as Sullivan implies, for the current American Right limited government does not include matters of the bedroom (as Pierre Trudeau would have put it) or torture.

So it would be interesting to ask Chilean presidential candidates, and especially Sebastián Piñera (and it would be really interesting to ask someone like Pablo Longuiera, who may well be minister of something) whether torture is ever justified; whether evolution is just a theory among many, including Creationism; whether they favour a progressive tax system; what role faith should have in government.

If only we would have had a decent televised debate. If only we had decent journalists.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Old Andean tactics, and envy

Peru's Alan Garcia is fanning the flames of.... well, not war exactly. But the old populist is back to his old tricks. No longer an economic populist, he has resorted to the old andean trick of diverting attention from internal problems by blaming the neighbour. Bolivia has done it quite a bit, Argentina used to do it, and Peru has a long history of it.

As the for the accusations of spying, I remain agnostic. There is simply no way of knowing what the true story is. The adolescent defense -- 'everybody does it' -- while not entirely appropriate in school, is entirely appropriate when it comes to spying. Of course everyone does it. We just don't talk about it. And when caught, we come to some sort of civilized and negotiated agreement on what to do about it.

Causing a public ruckus is not about solving the spying problem. It is about solving Garcia's problems at home, or in this case, pressuring the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The peruvian president's unceremonious departure from APEC was about trying to make a tempest in a teapot, and trying to do it in as large a teapot as possible. All this, of course, in advance of the case currently before the ICJ. In other words, this is about pressuring international public opinion.

As a sign of how seriously Chile takes the case before the ICJ, it has just reassigned the very talented Alberto van Klaveren full time to the matter, and appointed the brilliant Angel Flisfisch to replace him.

Yet it is hard to take Garcia seriously when he says things like this. Chileans are only jealous of peruvians for their food and -- although they would never admit it -- for their pisco sour. Not for their politics nor for their economic model. And certainly not for their president.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The last presidential debate

Last night all major Chilean networks broadcast the last televised debate before the election next month. I must confess I did not watch all of it. I had just eaten and didn't have the stomach for it. But what I did see was not pretty.

In sum, Enriquez-Ominami was more inarticulate than usual. Frei was more flustered than usual. Arrate was a bit more conciliatory towards Frei than usual. And Piñera looked calmer than usual. It was, undoubtedly, Piñera's night. The press is certainly presenting it that way, but that ought to be no surprise at this point.

What was surprising, however, was the agressiveness of the questions, and the reporters behind the questions. I suppose the format lent itself to aggresiveness, but the candidates were consistenly being cut off in mid-answer -- not when they were being long-winded, but just as they were trying to devote more than 15 seconds to a question. It looked as if the entire format was designed to make the journalists look smart and the candidates look bad. It worked.

I dont' think it was a good night for Chilean journalism, for Chilean politics, or the Chilean presidential elections of 2009.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Peña on Lagos and Piñera

Carlos Peña, my former boss and one of the most talented, of not the most talented, columnists in Chile, reacts in today's Mercurio to some comments former president Lagos made in El Pais. Lagos suggested something which should not come as a surprise: that those who surround Piñera are 'Pinochet's heirs'.

Peña reacts with extraordinary restraint, attributing to these politicians a sense of contrition for past acts that, at least in many cases, I honestly doubt exists. But Peña does make a point: that they react with such anger when they are reminded of their poor carreer choices, indicates that on some level they would rather forget them. An indirect recognition of error.

But very indirect.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Piñera's promises

Before I comment on yesterday's CEP poll, here's a little nugget on some comments that Sebastián Piñera made to an organization of retired officers, called Chile, My Fatherland.

The Alianza's presidential candidate promised to pressure the judicial system to stop prosecuting military personnel in relation to human rights abuses, essentially arguing that this cannot go on forever.

What is interesting is that, as far as I know, the story has only appeared in La Nación, but not in the MSM. As I have noted here before, the behaviour of the MSM during this electoral season has been incredibly biased, even for Chilean standards. Surely a promise of this sort, made behind closed doors, deserves scrutiny. Then everyone can draw their own conclusions.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Circus dogs

I have written about Carlos Larrain before. He is the president of Renovación Nacional, and as such one of the most prominent leaders of the coalition that supports Sebastián Piñera. He is one of the last remaining politicians that treats everyone as if they were labourers on his hacienda. He is a dinosaur. But he also has a big, ironic, mouth. This makes him a refreshingly frank politician.

Yet the combination of frankness and elitism can be tricky. So when he says that Concertación voters are like circus dogs, he is
  1. Saying that they vote without thinking.
  2. Saying that the Concertación is manipulating them.
  3. Saying that he has all but given up on attracting disaffected DC voters and concentrating on the undecideds.

As far as an electoral strategy, it's not much.

Thursday, 29 October 2009


Just one last thing about the UDP poll, and then I swear I'll shut up:

I thought it might be instructive to compare the main headlines this morning. Even though the UDP poll got massive coverage on radio and television yesterday, today's headlines are:

El Mercurio: Fiscalía investiga crimen de joven mapuche como ajusticiamiento por indígenas que lo acusaron de ser testigo protegido

La Tercera: Inversiones de empresas peruanas en Chile suman $2.500 millones

La Nación: Encuesta UDP: Piñera pierde en segunda vuelta

I'm just saying.

The time to start renovating is now

I was thinking overnight on the UDP poll and its consecuences. Two more points:

First, is that since there are so few newly registered voters, the profile of registered voters, in terms of their general political orientation stays pretty much the same, that is, pro-Concertación. The only thing that changes is that they are now four years older, which the UDP clearly shows, favours Frei.

However, should Frei actually pull this off in January, renovation is an absolute must. Not only is it politically advisable in theory, but the major change between this election and the next one is that the new electoral law will come into effect, which automatically registers voters while making voting volutary. All those young voters who up to now have been to lazy to register, will at least have the option. Had this happened this year, Frei would have been dead in the water.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Frei's Early Christmas Present: A Tie

My former colleagues at the Universidad Diego Portales have released their annual public opinion poll, which this year has the added bonus of being a kind of pre-CEP, a kind of Golden Globes of the Chilean polling world.

And it's a whopper. Not only does it take the wind out of Marco Enriquez-Ominami's sails, saying that Frei would come in second in December's election, it also gives Frei a slight advantage over Piñera in the second round, 36.3% to 35.5%. This is, of course, within the margin of error.

The really interesting bits of the poll are in the details. They clearly show that among registered voters, Piñera's base of support is to be found, as they say in Chile, 'de Plaza Italia para arriba'. That is, Santiago-centered and middle to upper class. Frei's support, on the other hand, is stronger in the south of the country, and increases as income level drops.

One can read this in different ways. Some will argue that there are more middle to low-income voters than middle to high-income voters, giving Frei his slight advantage. Others will say that higher income voters are more likely to vote, but since in Chile voting is obligatory for registered voters, that seems irrelevant.

What strikes me, though, is how little ground Piñera has gained in all this time. With all the money in the world, with an exhausted Concertación, who has put forward a relatively weak candidate, Piñera is pretty much where he always was, and has the support of those he has always attracted. Even the UDI's extensive field work in popular sectors does not seem to be paying the dividends he might have wished for.

Assuming the poll is correct, and having worked with these people I have every reason to suppose that it is, this this is 40-love advantage Frei. And he has the serve.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009


Here's a little something I wrote on the MEO phenomenon -- although day by day, it seems like less of a phenomenon and more like a safety net for the Concertación.


Sunday, 18 October 2009

Bits and Roberts

Thanks Balloon Boy!
Thanks to 'Balloon Boy', the taping of a TVN24 programme on Obama got delayed, which resulted in my getting a call to pinch hit. You can watch the whole thing here, although I don't feel I was at my best, having been called in at the last minute, I did not have any time to prepare. You see the other two with their 'cheat sheets' right in front of them. I was winging it like a chicken from Buffalo.

Livin la Vida Obama
Speaking of Obama, this week PBS showed a Latino Concert that the Prez hosted at the White House. It was strking how laid back the Latinos were, how Justice Sotomayor has become an icon and source of pride for many Latinos in America, and how relaxed both Mr and Mrs Obama were. I could also not help but notice that the Chilean ambassador to the US, José Goñi, was prominently seated next to Sotomayor.

Grow Up

Marco Enríquez-Ominami has certainly shaken things up. In the last couple of weeks, I have spoken to people involved in each of the three major presidential campaigns, and each one is convinced they stand a good chance of winning. What this tells us is that nobody knows what's going to happen. At least not yet. We wait for CEP.

But if MEO wants to take the next step, he really does have to grow up. He will have to devise a strategy which will allow him to go from thing-shaker to possible president. Today, he is a possible president becuase of what he represents, not because of what he stands for. Some will say that's just how Michelle Bachelet won four years ago, but everyone knew that she stood for policy continuity in general.

Today's Mercurio has a list of MEO's weak points. Most, like the fact that he has tried drugs, are probably irrelevant. But two are not, and must be changed.

The first is his closeness to the radical left. If one examines his actualy policy proposals, inasmuch as they exist, he does not have a radical agenda. But it sounds like he thinks it's cool to support Evo and Hugo. Being young, and having lived outside of Chile for much of the dictatorship, he seems to lack the usual hangups about capitalism, etc. But he also lacks a reasonable weariness of those who flaunt democracy in the name of revolution. Perhaps it's a way of feeling close to his father, or perhaps it's little more than romanticism of the Che T-shirt kind, but it's time to leave all that aside, take down the dorm-room posters, and run for president of Chile.

Second, and more damaging, is his relationship with the Concertación. Clearly Arrate has made peace with Frei, although both continue their campaigns. There are no signs, however, that MEO's people are talking to Frei's. MEO has attracted, and will continue to attract, many of the bright, young, and up-and-coming of the Concertación. In fact, he has attracted them precisely because they were not really coming up within the Concertación. But if he wants to win, and if he wants to govern, he will need more than a bunch of 30 year olds with Masters degrees in public policy from some private Chilean university. Bachelet tried that already. Then she brought in the old guard.

It's still a long shot, but just as Eduardo Frei came up through the middle and beat the heavyweights, Enríquez-Ominami just might pull this off. But not if he doesn't grow up.

And for heaven's sake, don't remind everyone that you're a little kid with a slogan like 'Marco crece'!

Monday, 12 October 2009

Nobel Prize for Political Science

Just as Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize for not being George W. Bush, Elinor Ostrom has received the Nobel Prize for Economics for not being an economist. It would, indeed, have been a bit embarrasing to reward any economist after the mess they created in the last few years, except maybe for Krugman, who already got one.

The Nobel people have taken the first step towards something that they should have done some time ago: a Nobel Prize in Political Science.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Time is running out

La Tercera has published a poll in the aftermath of the last presidential debate.

Just like last time the CEP was collecting data for its important poll, La Tercera tries to model public opinion in favour of their desired outcome. The poll is of dubious quality, the strategy is of dubious ethical standards, but it works. And time is running out. With Bachelet's approval rating where they are (78% according to last week's Adimark poll), with the economy on the mend, with the level of public spending where it is, and with an unattractive candidate on the opposition, this was, once again, the Concertación election to lose.

Yet it has mishandled its candidate selection process, mishandled MEO, mishandled its communication strategy, mishandled the debates and the postdebate media cycle. If they keep this up, it's curtains. Time is running out.

Sabatini makes a point

Greg Weeks has been consistent (and consistently entertaining) in his coverage of the crisis in Honduras. Actually, it's probably too late to keep calling it a crisis. It is an ongoing shame on the OAS, Latin America, and the US.

One reason that it's a shame is that much of the debate has centred around the kind of double standards that Chris Sabatini outlines here.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009



Kudos to my alma mater for combining art and academia.

Frei's New Constitution: Not Granola

The polls don't show it, but I still believe the odds are in Frei's favour to win the presidential election, although certainly in the run-off. If that materializes, then we need to have a serious discussion on Frei's serious constitutional proposals.

The MSM in Chile still deals with constitutional issues as some sort of left-wing fetish, akin to granola or Birkenstocks. But as anyone who has studied Chile just a little bit knows, there are some areas that need fixing. For me, the main point is not the electoral system per se, but representation as a whole: for minorities, for aboriginal groups, for anyone who is basically not part of the elite. This is the hardest thing to fix, because elite groups don't give up power easily. In this sense, the Oceanos Azules proposal is pretty remarkable, considering that the people who drew it up are -- let's face it -- pretty much part of the elite themselves.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Why the brouhaha?

If anyone is still wondering why the bigwigs of Chile Transparente reacted so switftly, this week's Qué Pasa offers a pretty convincing clue. As Deep Throat said, follow the money.

Friday, 2 October 2009


I don't know if it is my imagination, by the current presidential campaign seems to be nastier than previous ones. Since the issues are non-existent, whatever debate there is seems to quickly descend into personal attacks. Nothing shows this more clearly than the manufactured outrage surrounding Eduardo Frei's reference to a Transparency International report which names Piñera as a protagonist in some alleged insider trading involving LAN stocks. The media-led frenzy overshadowed any rational analysis of the debate itself, not to mention Piñera's behaviour which led to the accusations. In the long run this is going to frustrate the hell out of the Concertación, and their message will become increasingly desperate and nasty.

But it will be worse on the right. There are already some rumblings from the UDI on Piñera's performance. But are they really complaining about the debate, or is the problem more profound? If you look at Piñera's actual policy statements and positions, inasmuch as they exist, he does not sound all that different from Frei. His promises sound like more of the same, only more so. More jobs created, more police on the streets, more social protection. More, more, more. I guess that's how billionaires become billionaires. They always want more.

For the UDI and others on the right, this is probably insufficient. Where is the social agenda? Where are the rollbacks on social spending? Where is the end to legal troubles for former military officers? Besides a promise of tax cuts (which seems unlikely in a country with a ridicuously low tax burden), these things have not been mentioned becuase they're not there.

So the right is getting frustrated, not because they are afraid Piñera might lose (and well he might), but because they are afraid Piñera might win.

And then watch them get nasty.

Thursday, 24 September 2009


Last night the four remaining presidential candidates held the first debate of the 2009 campaign.
The debate made clear one of the peculiarities of this campaign. All the candidates are fairly well known to voters. Piñera has been around the block several times, Frei has been either president or senator for fifteen years, Arrate has been minister of all sorts of things, and Enríquez-Ominami has had almost as much media exposure as Michael Jackson and Princess Di combined.
More than getting to know the candidates, then the debate was going to be about policy (yeah, right), or waiting for some sort of fireworks between the candidates. There was very little policy, and almsot not fireworks, except for a brief flare up when Frei questioned Piñera's business ethics, citing a Transparency International report that criticizes some of Piñera's recent activities. Piñera hit back with a sophisticated 'So's yo momma'.
With little movement, then, who won? Normally a boring debate with no knock-out blows would favour the front-runner, which in this case would be Piñera.
Yet I cannot help but think that Piñera is a terrible candidate. His gestures look odd on television, and as the evening wore on he looked increasingly dishelved. What he lacked in sartorial organization, though, he made up for in communicational organization. The guy knows how to stay on message. In fact, he stuck to pretty much the same talking points he has been delivering for about ten years.
Frei on the other hand was the most presidential in appearance, but has an odd and slightly incoherent communicational style. Some think this is a hinderance. I suspect the average voter kind of likes it. He talks like a Chilean. Badly.
The media today presented Arrate as the surprise success. They should not have been surprised. Arrate has always been smart, calm and coherent. Plus he has the luxury of not having to worry about the real consequences of his proposals or criticisms, so on many issues he was right on. Good message, well delivered. Have a nice retirement.
The disappointment was MEO. I couldn't understand a word he said. His brain works faster than mouth. And next to the others, especially Arrate, MEO looked and sounded like a child. I suspect that in a tougher debate format, or in the US, another candidate would have told him that he will make a great president when he grows up.
Lloyd Bentsen, where are you when we need you?

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Contemplating Duckness

In the last few weeks a feeling has set in that the Bachelet government is now, really and truly, winding down. I am not sure if it has reached lame duckhood (duckness?), but there is certainly a duckesque veil falling, like a closing curtain, on the fourth Concertación government.

Inevitably, with the onset of duckinization comes reflection, and the public opinion polls, which consistently give Michelle Bachelet stratospheric approval ratings, inspire analysis on what she did right, much more so than where she may have gone wrong, or at least fallen short.

In today's Mercurio Carlos Peña raises (as usual) an interesting and oxymoronic quality to the Bachelet government. Bachelet's natural inclination towards greater democratization was translated into gobierno ciudadano, and in order to offer some signals of gobierno ciudadano, Bachelet had to reduce the influence of the political parties. Yet in order to govern, to get things done, political parties remain important, so Bachelet required party elites to excercise a great deal of discipline, thereby strengthening, not weakening, the centralising, and ostensibly non-democratic, nature of the parties themselves. How ironic.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009


There is a joke that the definition of chutzpah is the child who, accused for murdering his parents, pleads for mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan.

Another definition is MEO's assertion that he is Bachelet's natural heir.

On the one hand he is not wrong. There is, or was, in the early part of the Bachelet government, an element of populism. Gobierno ciudadano was, among other things, clearly a way of bypassing her rocky relationship with the political parties.

Yet despite this rocky relationship, Bachelet never struck out on her own, and never would have dreamed of doing so. MEO's problem is not his analysis -- that the Concertación and its parties suffer from a number of (perhaps fatal) maladies -- it is in his solution. To throw the baby out with the bathwater is a Chavista proposal. Bachelet hoped to push for inclusion from within. It didn't work out, not because her approach was flawed, but because she got sidetracked by the Pinguinos and Transantiago.

Gobierno ciudadano never looked so good.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

So's your momma

Part of the problem that the Concertación has with Marco Enríquez Ominami is that, as this story in La Tercera shows, when it tries to hit Piñera, instead of MEO getting on the bandwagon, he bounces the critique back at the Concertación. While MEO might attract disaffected Concertacionistas who would otherwise have gone to Piñera, thereby hurting Piñera, it is increasingly clear that his real beef is with the governing coalition. This can be traced not only to how he was treated by Escalona, but goes back to Lagos' presidential campaign.

In short, MEO is at this point becoming a real headache for the Concertación. But should he not make it to the second round in January, or worse still, should Frei win the election, MEO's chances for a rapprochement are looking slim. Will MEO bring his people back into the fold? Will the Concertación take them? Will there still be a Concertación left to join? The real political quesiton of the MEO campaign, then, is how will the political cookies crumble.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Tough on Clinton, Tougher on Obama

Tina Brown's piece uses extraordinary language to analyze the relationship between Hillary Clinton and President Obama. She calls Clinton a "foreign policy wife"! It seems that Washington insiders are all abuzz about the article, principally because it argues that Clinton is not the inner circle major player she may have hoped to be.

Far from being damaging to Clinton, though, I think the piece is terrifically tough on Obama, who is made out to be a sexist exploiter. Clinton is described as loyal, hard working and intelligent.

But so is a Golden Retriever.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

El asilo contra la opresión

The recent break in blogging is due in large measure to the fact that I was involved in the XXI World Congress of Political Science here in Santiago. Over two thousand political scientists, including Sartori, Morlino, Schmitter, Whitehead, Karl and Stepan, showed up. Plus Lagos, Jospin and President Bachelet.

What struck me about the congress was the difference with Latin American Studies Association congresses. The panels were all full of people, the papers were actually decent, and the number and quality of plenary sessions was far superior to anything LASA does, and far superior to what I had expected. Of course there are duds, but overall, it confirms that LASA, at least as far as political science participation, is in serious trouble.

Another impressive memory will be of a reception at the Moneda, where Michelle Bachelet held her own against a large group of political scientists, discussing chilean politics and history, in English. Other aspects of that visit will be mentioned elsewhere, but for me, that was really something. (The canapés were good too).

Finally, the Moneda visit as well as the closing ceremonies, where outgoing IPSA president choked up as she quoted the final words of the Chilean national anthem:

Sweet fatherland, accept the vows
With which Chile swore at your altars:
Either you'll be the tomb of the free
Or the refuge against oppression

Both those things highlighted just how important recent Chilean history has been for many colleagues, how central it has been to their work, their outlook, and their lives. Even if they have not worked directly on Chile, there is something about what took place here that continues to haunt the political science community, and it seems like it will be a generation before that changes.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Making Sense of Sarah

Too much ink has been spilled on Sarah Palin. But since this is electronic, and therefore no ink is being spilled, here's a bit more:

One of the things that comes through in this Slate piece on Palin is that since she emerged on the national scene, everyone has been trying to make sense of her, in every sense of the term. Not only have the media, voters, and incredulous international observers been trying to make sense of her non-existent syntax, but of her, as a person and as a political phenomenon.

One of the questions that the emergence of the Marco Enríquez Ominiami candidacy in Chile raises is whether he actually represents a phenomenon. No matter how far off the mark Carlos Huneeus' public opinion polls are, he is right when he says that Ominami is not a phenomenon. He would be a phenomenon if there were evidence of massive public appeal (not 10 to 15%), of a movement developing around him, or if he truly came from nowhere to emerge as a viable presidential candidate. As a sitting deputy, married to a glamourous TV personality, as the son of a public icon, step-son of a senator, cousin of well known members of the Chilean elite, Enriquez Ominami did not come from nowhere.

Plus, he is smart, media savvy and coherent, at least in Spanish. Probably in French as well.

Palin, by contrast, was a phenomenon. She really did come from nowhere, and even though she was a governor, she was governor of a state that's in the middle of nowhere, and within that state she lived in a nowhere town. She was not the daughter of anyone (I suppose she was someone's daughter), and she was utterly unschooled in anything, including, apparently, English. As the recent Vanity Fair article shows, any claim that she was smarter or saner in private than her public persona would have us believe is simply untrue.

That she reached the heights she did, the following she built, the media attention she attracted, is amazing, and it makes her a phenomenon. It requires further study. Who, or what, catapulted her to the top? Her looks? Too sexist. Her political positions? Too radical, or undefined. Her party? Too divided. Her handling of the media? Maybe, when they weren't laughing at her.

It is a fascinating case study for contemporary American politics. That some members of her party still think she would be a good future candidate does not augur well for the Republicans or for American politics.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Raúl Kafka

From the "I wish Kafka was alive to see this" file:

The coup in Honduras has been a farce from the beginning, but as Moises Naim points out, when Raúl Castro calls for a boycott of a country because of a non-democratic takeover, there's not much left to do but put out the popcorn, turn on CNN en Español, and enjoy the show.

Sunday, 5 July 2009


Scattered thoughts on Honduras:

1. It is probably obvious that as a result of the events of the last hours and days that the Organization of American States is utterly incapable of accomplishing anything, even of enforcing its own Democratic Charter. It is a talking shop, like the United Nations, but without the humanitarian aid. He's a great politician, but I'm afraid José Miguel Insulza has failed this test.

2. No one expects the the OAS to be able to excercise power, since it doesn't really have any. But Honduras also raises questions about the United States ability to impose excercise regional leadership. This is the result of years of neglect, but of something deeper.... it shows that when the going gets tough, the main instrument for American foreign policy in the region -- trade and other economic carrots -- don't work. No one wishes to return to the bad old days of covert activities, but some good old fashioned realpolitik wouldn't hurt right now.

3. In the power vacuum left by the USA, the UN, the OAS, and just about everyone else, look who has stepped in: In the last few minutes, after his failed attempt to land in Tegucigalpa, Zelaya has held a press conference flanked by the great democrats Rafael Correa, funder of Colombian terrorism; and Mrs K, who along with her wrinkles has had her ability to tell the truth (inflation, human influenza) surgically removed.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Exit Stage (far) Right

Having been immersed in the small, insignificant details of academic administration, I didn't know that Sarah Palin had resigned until I read the paper this morning (how very last century, to find something out in the newspaper the day after it happens!!!). The first question was, of course, whether she was retiring from the governorship of Alaska to concentrate on national politics. I then went about doing a fairly long surf of my various online news sources and blogs, and the consensus seems to be that she is exiting, stage (far) right.

It is not a coincidence that Vanity Fair has a devastating piece on Palin's behaviour during last year's presidential campaign, which has fuelled renewed criticism in general of Palin's political position, her family's odd allegiances, and her general M.O.

Still, the normal thing to do in the face of this sort of criticism is to declare, LBJ-style, that she would not seek, nor accept, to run for another term. Instead, she is resigning, as if she were responding to some sort of scandal (one possiblity is that a scandal is about to break). It's very odd, and she is probably letting down a lot of the fringe Republicans who were hoping she represents the future of the Republican Party.

Which leads to the final point. The Vanity Fair piece makes clear that the Republicans started imploding during the campaign, a process which has only intensified since they lost. The problem with the Republican Party is not Sarah Palin or other illiterates like her. The problem is that many in the party think the future lies with them. Until they figure that out, they're nowhere. Even more nowhere than Wasilla.

Weeks on Sullivan

One of the blogs I regularly peruse is Andrew Sullivan's. I got hooked during the American presidential campaign, when he relentlessly went after Sarah Palin (more on which in a moment). In fact, he still does. I don't agree with a lot of Sullivan's stuff, but it is rare to find such a literate and passionate observer of (mostly) American politics. It probably has to do with the fact that he is, or once was, British.

I was thrilled, then, to see that Sullivan, or a guest blogger, has caught on to Greg Weeks' blog, which, as Sullivan says, has done a bang up job of following events in Honduras.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

The coup in Honduras

How depressing. The conventional wisdom was the coups in Latin America were a thing of the past. Aníbal Perez-Liñan explained why. And yet, here we are again.

Coups are never justified, because institutions matter. But what if the president doesn't respect the institutions? What if a president simply refuses to give up power? What if the last few months of a presidency are devoted to setting the stage for remaining in power?

This is the situation in Honduras. And yet, it all sounds so familiar. The accusations, the paranoia. The right in Chile said that Allende was setting the stage for for a Communist dictatorship. That is was Allende, not Pinochet, that broke with the country's institutions. The truth is hidden in the mists of time and ideology, and in Chile although democracy and rule of law were regained, the truth is still out there, somewhere.

In the end, it's the institutions that matter. So when the institutions -- the courts, the military, the electoral tribunal, Congress -- all rule against a president's ambition to remain in power, it is a pretty good sign that something is wrong. This is what has happened in Honduras.

Next stop, Nicaragua.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The visual radio

Yes, the University of Chile has a radio station, but also does print interviews, which it publishes online. Here's my latest.

It pretty much repeats some of the thoughts I have expressed previously in this space, but in Spanish, for those of you who may be hispanically inclined.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

A funny thing happened on the way to Washington

Chileans are a curious bunch. They dump on each other, and especially the government, at a scientifically constant rate (except in election years, when the rate increases). But when the president travels, and if she is well received, and if the foreign dignitary heaps praise on Chile, it's as if they got a gold star from the teacher.

As a general rule, things are never as bad as Chileans think they are when they are in Chile, and never as good as they say they are when they travel abroad.

Nevertheless, on Michelle Bachelet's current trip to Washington, it is clear that Chile's stock is rising together with the value of the peso. After years of trying to get the message through, it seems Washington has signed on to the idea that it needs strategic friends in Latin America. Venezuela's reach has now extended beyond Ecuador and Bolivia, and is inching its way towards the US via Central America. Chile, which has particuarly good realtions with Ecuador, and whose relationship with Bolivia is better than it has been in years (thanks in part to an incredibly immature spat between García and Morales), is in a good position to serve not only as an economic gateway to Latin America, but a political one as well.

As a result, Chileans seem to be occupying key positions throughout the Latin American political cosmos -- Valenzuela, Insulza -- and in international fora, including such useless ones like the UN Human Rights Commission.

It is ironic that in the closing days of a government so focused on domestic social policy, Chile may be achieving the highest level of international influence it has had since, at least, Allende.

This is not a coincidence. It is due in large measure to Chile's economic track record and Bachelet's international persona. Not a bad way to head into an election.

But, let's keep things in perspective, shall we? It's a small country with a small economy, far away from everything. It's Iceland with better bank regulation.

Friday, 19 June 2009

They don't get it

The fallout from the CEP poll this week continues.

A few thoughts:

If one compares only the CEP polls, and do not mix in the drip drip of other, usually less reliable, polls, a few interesting things pop out. The last CEP poll was in November, when the Concertación had not fully established who its candidate would be. It is natural that once they did so, Concertación support would coalesce slightly and would attract some more votes from Piñera. This seems to have happened, although I would not overstate the case. Enriquez-Ominami still sucks some support away (although I suspect he does so equally, or maybe even more so, from Piñera).

Another thing that is noteworthy is the degree of optimism that Chileans show in the economy, given that presumably we're in the middle of a crisis and unemployment is on the rise. This could be due to one, or a combination of, three factors. First, that the government has actually done a good job, through its social spending and other policies, of softening the blow of the crisis. Second, that the government's narrative of social proteciton makes people feel protected (even when the data, such as unemployment, show that they actually aren't). Third, as my colleague Patricio Navia has suggested, it could be that after a period of high inflation, what really matters in terms of the public mood (and public support for the president) is that inflation has gone down, and Chileans can return to what they like to do most: shop.

Greg Weeks wonders why Chileans, who generally seem apolitical in terms of their affiliation or support for specific parties, keep supporting the Concertación. My view is that it has a bit to do with the fact that the Concertación has done a decent job. But it has more to do with the inability of the right to propose a viable alternative. After having lost four presidential elections in a row, the right has not asked itself the tough questions. It maintains an ideological commitment to economic policies which, if not deligitimised, are at least not in fashion in the rest of the world. It seems more out of step, not less. And its campaign strategy remains Allamand's desalojo. It argues that democracy means alternation, equating the Concertación 20 years in power with the dictatorship.

They don't get that a) it's not the same if people actually vote you in four times in a row, and b) people vote for something, not against it. Again, Navia summs it up best: you don't change supermarkets becuase it's time to do so. You change if the prices or products are better, or if it's location is more convenient. So far, the Alianza has failed to make the case that it offers a better deal. They are right that the lack of alternation is bad for Chilean demoracy. But its their own fault.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

C Day

I don't mean to gloat.

Ok, maybe just a little.

The results of the Centro de Estudios Públicos poll were published today, available here.

They pretty much align with what I predicted yesterday. And, as I said, there's something for everyone.

I was wrong on one point, however. I thought that a 30% result for Frei would not be viewed positively. But expectations were so low, and Piñera's drop so precipitous, that the Concertación is celebrating. Because if you take Frei's share of the undecideds and his share of Enriquez-Ominami's vote, ceteris paribus, he should go over the top.

It's just too early in the electoral season, though, for ceteris paribus.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

CEP minus one

Slight interruption in our regularly scheduled programming, as I was attending a conference in Rio de Janeiro. It was good to see colleagues from around the world, and Rio was outstanding.

Back in smoggy Santiago, all the talk is about the CEP poll which comes out tomorrow. Despite the fact that public opinion polls are published every day, the CEP is considered to be the most reliable, and is the standard against which political campaigns rise or fall.

So, for those of you who will not be able to sleep all night waiting for the results, here's my prediction:

Piñera 35-39%
Frei 25-29%
Enriquez-Ominami 13-19%
Undecideds +/- 20%

You can all laugh at me tomorrow. But if I am right, it's a decent result for Ominami, a bad result for Frei, but not a good result for Piñera. I suspect that all the in-fighting in the Alianza in recent days is due to their own internal numbers, which show that Piñera has hit a ceiling.

So CEP will be a bit like the 2008 municipal elections: something for everyone.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Red Set

Rafa Gumucio has an entertaining piece in today's Mercurio about Chile's 'red Set'.
He makes three interesting points. First, that like any ghetto, it was founded in the quest for safety, protection and mutual support. Accusations that the red set is a leftist, elitist, exclusionary clique, sound an awful lot like things one sometimes hears about Jewish or Chinese communties around the world.
Second, I like the image of the multi-cinema having encroached on his father's Castillo Velasco community. I know that community, and indeed, it more than encroaches. It looms over, overshadows, and warns its residents that no matter how unheated your rooms and how hard your exposed brick walls are, no matter how loud you play the Internationale on your Ipod, the outside world, and capitalism, is at your doorstep. You can run but you can't hide. In the end, you lost.
Third, the image of the last vestiges of left setiness having succumbed, under the Bachelet government, to the comforts of power and corruption. Gumucio suggets this is not all that bad -- it is the final step towards acceptance and reconciliation. But it's also the end of an era.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Brown Resignation Watch I

Almost exactly twelve years ago I was living in London when Tony Blair won his first General Election and toppled the Conservatives. The reaction was not unlike the Obama victory – it seemed as if a dictator had fallen.

After the initial party, there were a few years of weird fluff: The Millennium Dome, The Spice Girls, Cool Britain, New Labour. But they were also good years from Britain, with a youthful, optimistic leader and a surging economy.

It was all good until 9/11. Then Tony – for the best reasons, I am convinced – sided with Dubbya, the country went to war, bombs went off in Central London. Tony could not hang on, and the long suffering Mr Brown claimed what he believed was rightfully his. But like Paul Martin in Canada, he discovered that a hero of a Finance Minister does not a Prime Minister make. Poor Gordon. To wait so long for this.

Well, it all seems to be coming to a crashing thud now. It is hard to see how Mr Brown can hang on.

In any event, it was nice to have that chat back in March, Gordon. Best of luck to you.



Why are bureaucrats all the same? I meet public administration students every day. They are just like any other student -- maybe a bit more politically aware, maybe a bit more committed to public service -- but just like any other student. Some are even rather smart.

But something happens to them, either in the course of their studies or when they join the public service. Then, when some frustrated citizen complains about the height of his neighbour's garage, they come up with nuggets like

"The garage is slightly higher than it should be, only becuase of the way he built it."

Thanks. Brilliant. And you're only slightly dumber than you should be, but only because your brain is disfunctional.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Death embrace to Ominamiville

In his latest post, UNC professor Greg Weeks says that the Concertación has to make the case against the idea that a Piñera government would not change things. If this is true, and it probably is, then the Concertación is in bigger trouble than I thought, because they spent most of the last twenty years trying to prove to the Chicago boys and others that they would not change things all that much.

Now the shoe is on the other foot (right foot? left foot?). Piñera, ex-DC, ex-middle-class, tries to show that he would not make significant changes to the economic model. President Bachelet's emphasis on social protection will make it a bit harder for Piñera to maintain that line. If he does, then he may have problems with his own Chicago Boys. But if that's the case, the Concertación may be pushed more to the left, alienating some on the middle. I am not entirely sure who's trapping who.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Thanks but no thanks

Considering what I have spent the last four days doing -- and the next few days as well -- this piece brought on an inner guffaw.

Sunday, 31 May 2009


I hate to say I told you so, but I did. As well as the Economist, the WSJ has taken notice. What I didn't say last year, was that Velasco has also developed his political skills. He has not completely abandoned his professorial demeanour, but he is a much smoother schmoozer than he was at the start of this government, and a clear candidate for 2013 -- although some have even put him forward as a possible replacement for Frei should the latter's campaign not take off in the coming months. That would be a mistake, but if he has not already done so, Velasco should do some serious soul-searching. Will he return to Harvard next year, or lay the foundations for 2013? The José Miguel Insulza experience should teach him that he cannot do both.

The enlightened ones

Foot-in-mouth disease is not exclusively a Carlos Larraín problem. Chileans may take some comfort in the fact that our American friends have their own version(s).


Peña on Larraín

My former boss and Mercurio columnist Carlos Peña has written his regular Sunday column on the Carlos Larraín business. It pretty much follows the line I wrote a few days ago, but as could be expected, he does it far more elegantly than I ever could.

Friday, 29 May 2009

The First 100 Days

As I approach my first 100 days in my new job, much of which has been sent signing memos, I have come across this website, which charts a colleague's first 100 days.

Apparently he also signs a lot of stuff.


Wednesday, 27 May 2009


The president of Renovación Nacional has criticised President Bachelet for identifying with the suffering of Anne Frank. In a letter to El Mercurio, Carlos Larrain wrote that:

"Ana Frank era una niña y fue perseguida sólo por haber nacido judía, tremendo pecado. Michelle Bachelet era mayor de edad y ya manifestaba opciones políticas antes de 1974. Su prisión fue abusiva, pero sobrevivió y prosperó."

This is outragous. He is essentially saying that Michelle Bachelet (and, by extension, all those who were tortured and killed under the military dictatorship) deserved what she got becuase, unlike Anne Frank, she was able but unwilling to change the thing that brought on all that suffering. If only she would have recognized the error of her ways, she could have avoided all that nastiness. That's Inquisition talk. He's not stuck in 1973, he's stuck in 1473.

And then he goes on to argue that Bachelet did well by being exiled.

Larrain's letter to El Mercurio shows that he -- and probably a good part of the political right in Chile -- have not moved on one inch since 1973. They believe that human rights abuses are justified. They believe the military saved Chile, and everything else is secondary. Rule of law, democracy, human rights. If you follow this to its logical conclusion, the president of a major political party in Chile, the party with a presidential candidate who is currently leading in public opinion polls, does not believe in democracy.

How sad for him and for Chile.


Saturday, 23 May 2009

Enriquez-Ominami vs Frei

Marco Enriquez-Ominami has a point. I have said for several weeks now that the only way Enriquez Ominami can hurt the Concertación is if they react badly, attack him, and build him up as a viable threat. Eduardo Frei has been relatively calm, but the rest of the team is not. Today’s reports of infighting within the Frei camp plays into Ominami’s plan. Somebody has to put an end to it, and it has to be Frei. If he does not, or cannot, he’s in real trouble.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Brooks and Obama, sitting in a tree

David Brooks' evaluation of today's dueling speeches. The New York Times' right wing columnist comes down on Obama's side. Money quote:

"it is absurd to say this administration doesn’t take terrorism seriously"

Yet another sign that the Republicans are falling apart.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Going out on a high

A good speech. After this, the campaign starts. But is it the campaign for Frei 2009 or Bachelet 2013?

Rule to live by

Richard Russo is a novelist who writes about university politics. Some time ago he gave a commencement speech and offered four rules to live by. I like the first one.

Rule # 1: Search out the kind of work that you would gladly do for free and then get somebody to pay you for it. Don't expect this to happen overnight. It took me nearly twenty years to get people to pay me a living wage for my writing, which makes me, even at this juncture, one of the fortunate few. Your work should be something that satisfies, excites and rewards you, something that gives your life meaning and direction, that stays fresh and new and challenging, a task you'll never quite master, that will never be completed. It should be the kind of work that constantly humbles you, that never allows you to become smug—in short, work that sustains you instead of just paying your bills. While you search for this work, you'll need a job. For me that job was teaching, and it's a fine thing to be good at your job, as long as you don't confuse it with your work, which it's hard not to do.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

We have ourselves a horserace, sort of

On the face of it the 2009 presidential campaign looks very familiar. In one corner, former president Eduardo Frei; in the other, former presidential runner-up, Sebastian Piñera. Both men have been in the arena forever, representing political coalitions that have been in place since the return to democracy twenty years ago.

Yet scratch beneath the surface and some novelties appear. The opposition Alianza – redubbed the Coalition for Change – has welcomed to its campaign Senator Fernando Flores, previously of the Concertación (and way before that, a minister in the Allende government). Piñera made much of the recruitment, claiming that the senator’s presence was a sign of the broad tent he was building. Gone, says Piñera (who comes from a Christian Democratic family himself) are the old, post-authoritarian cleavages of left and right. Yet Flores, who was never given the status and recognition in the Concertación that he was convinced he deserved, quickly started giving one TV interview after another where his comments seemed almost designed to embarrass the Piñera campaign. More than a Chilean version of Arlen Specter, Flores seems like a Chilean Cheney.

Yet it is within the Concertación itself that things are reaching soap opera levels of entertainment, because Flores is not the only high profile dissident. Of the current roster of five presidential candidates, four are current or former members of the Concertación. Jorge Arrate, formerly of the Socialist Party, has been chosen to represent the so-called extra-parliamentary left. Adolfo Zaldívar, formerly of the Christian Democratic Party, has gone his own way. Eduardo Frei won the presidential primary against the Radical senator José Antonio Gomez. But the phenomenon of the last few days has been Marco Enríquez-Ominami, a blue-blooded Concertación golden boy: a deputy, married to a television personality, son of an iconic slain leader, stepson of a senator and former minister.

There are two ways to look at this. The first is that the Concertación – and especially the Socialist Party under its current president, Camilo Escalona – are in a state of chaos and terminal decline, hemorrhaging high profile leaders and concentrating more on internecine fights than on governing the country. The emergence of Enríquez-Ominami speaks of a generational divide which is very real. The old guard has not made way for new leadership, so that only six months ago the main presidential contenders were two ex-presidents and the Secretary General of the Organization of American States. Not precisely change we can believe in.

On the other hand, the 10-15% Enríquez-Ominami currently polls is enough to keep him in the headlines, but his natural constituency, the young, is the most apathetic voting block in Chile, and many are not registered to vote. Enríquez-Ominami’s support will do little more than ensure a second round in the presidential race, which in itself can only favour Frei, as the Piñera campaign knows that its best chance at victory is an outright win in the first round.

As negative, therefore, as all this press seems to be for the Concertación, there are three reasons why Piñera who should be worried. First, any news cycle devoted to Enríquez-Ominami is one not focused on Piñera. Second, the current president enjoys record levels of approval, more than any other president since 1990. Chileans approve of the government’s handling of the economy, which in a recession is pretty remarkable. And third, there are no signs that all of this is putting much of a dent in support for Frei, a candidate who last year, in the middle of all the political gossip and media hubbub surrounding the will-he-won’t-he candidacies of Lagos and Insulza, kept his head down, did the grunt work, and ended up winning his coalition’s presidential nomination. Given that experience, and the recent polls indicating that in a second round Frei and Piñera would each obtain about 44%, Frei seems to be in fairly good shape.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Public Opinion in Chile

My friend and former colleague Rodrigo Cordero has just published an edited volume on public opinion in Chile. Published by the Universidad Diego Portales press, it is available at fine bookstores in Chile, and here.

Saturday, 11 April 2009


There is nothing like a good crisis to get the adrenaline flowing and to focus the mind. So whereas previous meetings may have been little more than talking shops, last weekend’s Progressive Governance Summit seemed like a dress rehearsal for the G-20. Of course, the self-filtering nature of the event all but guaranteed that there would be broad agreement on both the analytical and prescriptive sides.

There was some. President Bachelet set the tone when summarizing the summit’s – and the progressive movement’s – priorities: using the present crisis to underscore the need to strengthen social policies, to build a new international financial architecture, to strengthen elements of the existing architecture such as the IMF and regional development banks, and to link recovery spending with environmentally-friendly and forward looking policies and programmes, so as to encourage a so-called “green recovery”.

In their statements, most leaders agreed that these were worthy objectives, and agreed that the G-20 would be the place to try to move forward on them, and on Thursday it appeared that some of those agreements indeed did manage to survive the trip to London. Yet there are some areas of discord which could end up being very annoying pebbles in the progressive shoe.

The first is the clear difference in progressive outlook. Whereas Vice President Biden emphasized the importance of markets, most of the others concentrated on regulation and other restrictions. The Americans are also lukewarm on talk of reorganizing the world’s financial system because for it to have any meaning at all, such moves would require an adjustment not only of the institutions themselves, but of the power structures behind them. Lula’s recent comments show that he is already pushing for greater BRIC presence in the international system, although the rhetoric he is using is unlikely to help the cause.

This is the toughest sticking point, because surely the United States will not give up its position without a fight. With its economic standing being threatened by China and others, and its military overextension, much of the political weight the USA still hold is wielded through IFIs and other international organizations. If the Lula thesis takes hold, the past mistakes of American (and to some extent, British) financial management disqualify it from holding on to its dominance of the international financial system.

It would be a shame if concrete measures to deal with the current crisis were not agreed because of political posturing or power politics. Yet at the Progessive Governance Summit these were the two axes of the discussion, which in turn lay bare the problem with ‘progressivism’ as a whole. While many viewed the summit as a clubby get-together of like-minded leaders, in reality there was quite a bit of disparity in political, ideological and economic styles. Mrs. Kirchner’s peronist populism has little in common with Lula’s peripheral ambition, which in turn bears little resemblance to Biden’s non-committal friendliness. Overseeing it all was Bachelet, who did a good job of chairing the meeting while wallowing in the reflected glory of Prime Minister Brown’s compliments and Jens Stoltenberg’s flattering tribute to Andres Velasco. “True courage”, he said “is not spending in rough times, but saving in the good times”.

Would all the leaders present agree with that? It’s not certain, because Chile’s past fiscal conservatism is the product of the market model these ‘We-were-right-they-were-wrong’ leaders were intent on criticizing, and perhaps replacing. That fundamental confusion lies at the heart of the progressive movement. Is it saving capitalism from itself, or socialism from itself, or both, or neither?

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Chile’s Top Model

Of the many new things which Michelle Bachelet’s election seemed to augur, a new economic model was not most prominent. Yes, she did promise to deepen the country’s social protection system, but that is not much more than a continuation of the leap President Lagos took in expanding public health care. Yet looking back over the Bachelet years, one is struck by how much ink is dedicated to debates over appropriate levels of saving, how and where to spend, and Finance Minister Velasco’s efforts to fight back his boss’ rather more statist inclinations. Having withstood great political pressure from left and right, from above and from below, to spend the copper bonanza, Velasco stood his ground and, at least in this space, earned repeated plaudits. In recent weeks both the FT and the Economist have come around, dedicating articles to Chile’s wise fiscal and economic management in times of crisis, which is interesting not because Chile’s unique form of “neoliberal-social-democracy” is once again the focus of some attention, but because of its implications in Chile and abroad.

The plaudits may be less a function of what Chile has done right, than what the others have done wrong. The positive aspects of Chile’s model highlighted by the foreign press – fiscal responsibility, free trade, education vouchers and the mix of private pensions system with a state-guaranteed minimum pension – are policies touted by the developed world but not actually implemented by much of it. As for the rest of Latin America, one compares Chile to the Colombianization of Mexico, some kind of economic and/or political crisis inching closer in Argentina, and the increasing authoritarianism of Chavez. Compared to the profligacy of much of the North or the mismanagement of much of the South, Chile’s model looks pretty good.

But a closer look shows it’s not that simple. Chile spends just over 4% of GDP on public education, slightly more than Greece and Russia, slightly less than Germany and Spain. Yet the public education system has been in trouble for some time. Whereas the public expenditure of developed countries on health ranges from 5 and 8 percent of GDP, Chile spends about 3%, slightly more than Mozambique and Ethiopia. In terms of the relationship between public spending and the quality of service provided, then, Chile seems to be punching below its weight in education and above its weight in healthcare.

The debate over the Chilean model, then, is not, and should not be, about the money; it’s about universality. The story the aforementioned figures do not tell is that they do not apply to the Chilean upper middle class and higher, whose private education and health care are first rate. The debate over the state in Chile is not about making the state bigger, but about giving it a role in leveling the playing field. Some of the more significant, yet gradual, steps taken by the Bachelet government – such as in pensions – have been in this direction. In late March Bachelet will play host to half a dozen social-democratic leaders and other dignitaries from around the world, including Gordon Brown, in a summit that is bound to underscore the contributions that an active state can make – indeed, could have made – to avoiding or reducing the effects of today’s economic situation. With polls showing that well over 50% of voters also place a good deal of trust in the state, Bachelet’s own poll numbers on the rise, and an international environment that seems to have moved closer to its kind of “neoliberal-social-democracy”, the Concertación seems well placed to ride this crisis all the way to a record fifth victory in December.