As Latin America Moves Right, Can Chile's Left Hold Power?

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Gobierno de Chile, via Wikimedia Commons

By Glenn Ojeda Vega

From Argentina to Venezuela, the popularity of Latin America's political left is reaching its lowest levels in over a decade. Voters have opted for change and have rejected the left-leaning status quo that has dominated Latin American politics in recent years.

In the case of Chile, the ascension of a right-wing business leader to the presidency came during the previous presidential term (2010-2014) with the election of Sebastian Piñera, making him the country’s first right-wing president since the end of the oppressive Pinochet dictatorship. Interestingly, however, the left-leaning Michelle Bachelet of the New Majority coalition was reelected president in 2013. Now, as Chile prepares for its next presidential election later this year, the country has entered into a national debate. While the election will likely come down to a right-wing insider versus a left-wing outsider, a major question remains: will voters prefer to rebel against the political establishment or against the progressive ideals whose promises have failed to deliver in recent years? Given the political winds currently sweeping the region, and the world more broadly, the election of a left-wing progressive is unlikely.

Between 1988 and 1990, the right-wing military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet came to an end in Chile, mainly due to the formation of a center-left opposition known as the Coalition of Parties for Democracy (Concertación). During the two decades that followed, the Concertación dominated Chilean politics with the election of four successive presidents. However, things changed in 2010 with the election of Sebastián Piñera, a multimillionaire businessman and member of the center-right Coalition for Change. This defeat was a major blow to the Concertación, which then broadened its membership to include the Chilean Communist Party and the Citizen Left, renaming itself the New Majority.

Despite the 2013 reelection of President Michelle Bachelet, the New Majority is currently experiencing serious pushback due to corruption scandals surrounding the current administration, which already led to a major electoral defeat during the 2016 municipal elections. The New Majority is desperate to remain in power, but the upcoming election perhaps represents an insurmountable challenge. This year’s election will be dominated by two political figures, former right-wing president Piñera and journalist-turned-senator Alejandro Guillier.

Piñera embodies the figure of a popular and successful businessman from the social elite who defends a conservative vision of Chilean society. During his previous presidency, he was an avid defender of legislation favoring big business as well as the privatization of government-held companies as measures to jumpstart the national economy. In recent months, Piñera has taken a stance in favor of stronger migration controls to fight against crime and drug trafficking – policies similar to his European and North American counterparts. Though Piñera has been involved in scandals surrounding the mismanagement of his financial assets, both before and during his presidency, the former president is currently tied for the first place in the polls with more than 25 percent of support from likely voters for the first electoral round.

Meanwhile, Senator Guillier is a political outsider seeking to reawaken and transform the New Majority coalition. Guillier has been busy campaigning and has greatly outperformed some major political players, including former president Ricardo Lagos, who governed Chile between 2000 and 2006 under the Coalition of Parties for Democracy. In spite of being the New Majority's leading prospect, Guillier has spoken out against the conventional party system in Chile. He has managed to position himself as a common-sense outsider within the political arena while avoiding the populist demagoguery that hurt leaders such as Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina.

However, during his first official campaign speech on January 7, Senator Guillier presented a platform that might be too overtly progressive for the current times in Latin America, particularly given the failure of other leftist projects throughout the southern continent. The platform brought forth by Senator Guillier is one that focuses on progressive projects, including: advancing the rights of native and LGBTQ communities; regional empowerment and decentralization; migration reform favoring the inclusion of new communities; economic diversification through value added manufacturing; and transitioning to clean energy through scientific innovation. According to recent polling, Senator Guillier has more than 25 percent of support from likely voters for the first electoral round, which puts him at a tie with former president Piñera. Nevertheless, when asked who they think will be their next president, more than 40 percent of Chileans responded Sebastián Piñera.

A central issue to follow during this election will be how the regional and global political scene affects the discourse and policies adopted by the leading candidates. The ongoing presidencies of Mauricio Macri in Argentina, Pedro Kuczynski in Peru, and even Michel Temer in Brazil represent South America’s most significant swing towards the political right of the twenty-first century. Thus, it is likely that Chile will follow the trend and elect a right-wing insider later this year.

Glenn Ojeda Vega is a Latin America Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is also an emerging markets consultant in Latin America. Glenn earned his BS in Foreign Service from Georgetown University in 2014.