Independent Candidate Challenges Chilean Political Establishment

For the first time since Chile's return to democracy, the country's ruling political coalition may lose the presidency. The centrist "Concertación" coalition is being challenged from both the left and the right, facing perhaps its toughest electoral battle yet. A relative newcomer to Chile’s political scene has shaken things up: Socialist Party Congressman Marco Enríquez-Ominami, a breakaway Concertación candidate.

July 21, 2009

For the first time since Chile's return to democracy, the country's ruling political coalition may lose the presidency. The centrist "Concertación" coalition is being challenged from both the left and the right, facing perhaps its toughest electoral battle yet. Previous elections have been mostly battled out between a consensus Concertación candidate and a right-wing opponent. But this year a relative newcomer to Chile’s political scene has shaken things up, gaining momentum in the race for the presidency. The political ascendance of 36-year-old Congressman Marco Enríquez-Ominami sets up a competitive three-way contest in the December 2009 election.

Candidates of the Concertación – formally known as the Agreement of Parties for Democracy – have won every presidential election since 1989. Among them is former President Eduardo Frei (1994-2000), a Christian Democrat, who is seeking a second term as the Concertación's chosen candidate. Sitting President Michelle Bachelet, of the Concertación-affiliated Socialist Party, has won record high approval ratings (74 percent) for her handling of Chile’s economic crisis. However, this has not dented deep public disillusionment with the Concertación, which has become increasingly disconnected from any popular base, stagnating into an ossified political institution incapable of responding to social forces.

“Not only is the system detached from civil society, but it possesses little capacity for renovation and high degrees of endogamy,” explain scholars David Altman and Juan Pablo Luna in a recent report on Chilean politics. “One observes a political system co-opted by the elites and with low levels of citizen participation and activation.”

Billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera, who is the perennial candidate of the right-wing National Renewal Party (part of the "Alliance for Chile" coalition), has benefited from public frustration with the Concertación, jumping ahead of Frei in national polls. But the political vacuum has also facilitated the emergence of independent Socialist-turned-Green candidate Enríquez-Ominami, often identified simply as “Marco.”

Marco’s political education began early. He was born three months before the overthrow of Salvador Allende, and his father – Miguel Enríquez, leader of the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) – was killed resisting the Pinochet dictatorship in 1974. Marco’s mother, sociologist Manuela Gumucio, was exiled to France, where Marco undertook his primary education. He returned to Chile for secondary school, and then received a degree in philosophy, embarking on a career of filmmaking before entering politics. In 2005, he was elected to Congress. His stepfather, Carlos Ominami, is also a member of Congress, and was a Socialist Party vice president until he left the party to campaign for Marco.

Marco’s June resignation from the Socialist Party reflected his frustration with the Concertación’s institutional inertia. In his renunciation, he declared: “More than 20 years since the return to democracy, nothing justifies sustaining the agreements signed in a very different political, social and economic context… nothing except the maintenance of certain privileges of a small group of leaders explains the collusion and privatization of politics.” Both Chile’s Green and Humanist parties subsequently endorsed him.

Some of his supporters have appropriated campaign imagery from the Obama campaign.

Through his blog and social networking websites, Marco has reached out to a burgeoning base of young supporters, long neglected by the political establishment. His campaign has centered on the theme of "change," which – along with his high energy, youthful vigor, and captivating personal story – has earned him the moniker "Chile’s Obama," bringing an exciting charge to the country's ordinarily sober elections. In the magazine Poder, researcher Partricio Navia observes that, like Obama, “Marco can construct a speech with imagery and history, a kind of national dream, with historical continuity and charged with significant symbols and dates.”

But the Obama analogy goes only so far. While Enríquez-Ominami has tapped into many Chileans’ aspirations, his policy solutions have been short on content. Navia notes, “Unlike the U.S. president, Marco seems today incapable of discussing the challenges of public policies that face the country in a detailed manner.” (Of course, Obama faced similar criticisms during the campaign.)

Marco’s platform has been a general call for a “change in the political regime.” He has proposed replacing Pinochet’s authoritarian and still-in-force constitution (as has Frei), the creation of the position of Prime Minister, provisions for presidential recall and referenda on public policies, and devolving power away from the national government, including the direct election of regional governors.

Environmental concerns have also featured prominently in his campaign, including support for renewable energy and criticism of mining and dam projects such as the controversial HidroAysén, a massive hydroelectric project in Chile’s Patagonia.

His opposition to these megaprojects dovetails with his efforts to seek support from indigenous peoples, most notably the Mapuche, who number around a million in Chile. Marco released a video in which he – speaking in the indigenous language, Mapudungun – recognizes the Mapuche new year, We Tripantu, and proposes to “construct a country with diversity as a motor and whose history and roots are its principle treasure.” The nod to indigenous peoples by a Chilean politician is unusual and refreshing.

However, even if Marco could prevail in drafting a more inclusive and democratic constitution that deepens indigenous rights, Chile’s free market orientation would likely impede improved conditions for indigenous peoples, among those most marginalized in a country with one of the world’s highest rates of inequality. Alfredo Seguel, a Mapuche activist and publisher of Informativo Mapuexpress, perceives a number of Marco’s social propositions as highly interesting but warns, “Some of the proposals put forward by Enriquez-Ominami on economic and environmental issues are very weak, including some that have a strong air of neoliberalism.”

Indeed, when it comes to the economy, Enríquez-Ominami has not indicated much of a penchant for change. His choice of Paul Fontaine, managing director of the energy consulting firm South World, as his principal economic advisor generated skepticism among Chile’s left. And while Marco has at times promoted a more regulatory state on economic issues – e.g. higher taxes on the rich and greater social spending – his economic policies seem to be guided by a pragmatism along the lines of Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

In a proposal decried by progressives, Marco has supported the partial sell-off of state-owned enterprises, including five percent of the state copper mining firm, the centerpiece of Chile’s economy that not even Pinochet endeavored to privatize. An editorial by left-wing magazine Punto Final accuses Marco of being a "neo-Concertación" candidate, arguing, “What Enríquez-Ominami’s [economic] program does is apply a new layer of paint on top of the old."

Marco must gather 36,000 petition signatures by early September to get on the ballot. Assuming he achieves this, which is likely, the most probable electoral outcome in December is that no party secures 50 percent of the vote in the first round, forcing a second-round contest between the top two finishers. Polls indicate that the Alliance for Chile’s Piñera would then face either the Concertación’s Frei or Marco.

If it is the Concertación that goes against Piñera, it can probably count on a last-minute endorsement from Marco, and vice-versa. Considering the new energy Marco has brought to politics, and the fact that the right-wing Alliance has never won a presidential election, the smart second-round bets are on whoever is matched up against Piñera. Polarization in Chilean politics has often made voters of the political middle ground the kingmakers of national contests.

Frei, as the candidate of the incumbent party, has faced difficulty deflecting Piñera's criticisms against the Concertación as being the party representing "business as usual." Marco has clearly capitalized on this popular dissatisfaction with the Concertación, boosting his image as the "change" candidate. The question is whether this relative "outsider" can muster the political organization to successfully compete against both of Chile's most entrenched political factions.

Even if Marco Enríquez-Ominami does not become the next president of Chile, the exuberance his candidacy has generated among previously untapped segments of the electorate sends a clear message to the political establishment: If they fail to develop a more inclusive, responsive political system, they will one day be replaced by an anti-establishment candidate who promises as much.

Jason Tockman is a NACLA Research Associate.

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