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.

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