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.