Twenty-three years after the fall of Augusto Pinochet, on the surface at least, Chile’s democratic institutions appear strong. However, less than five months out from presidential elections, many Chileans feel more disillusioned with the political process now than at any point since the return to democracy.
In the lead up to the November 17 vote, the country will hold historic primary elections on Sunday. Accompanying them, over the last two weeks, were televised debates—the first to include candidates from the two major political coalitions.
Both the primaries and debates are being touted as a marked change from the vieja politica—“old school” politics which, for 23 years, has seen remarkably little policy difference between politicians who held positions under the dictatorship and those who took up arms against it, or in some cases were victims of its repression.
For those within the established political system and mainstream media, the changes herald a new era of inclusive politics and represent a response to the demands for profound change from social movements sweeping the country.
La Tercera—one of the country’s two largest newspapers—published an opinion piece on June 21 titled, “Primaries, an Important Political Step for Chile.”
Written by Juan Emilio Cheyre—commander-in-chief of the Chilean Army from 2002 to 2006, academic and member of Servicio Electoral (Electoral Service—Servel) board of directors—the article concluded:
“The primaries are important in and of themselves. However, we [Sevel] believe that, in addition, they represent a great step forward in areas as relevant as: trust, public confidence, transparency, depoliticization, autonomy and participation[…] All of these are factors have a direct impact on strengthening our democracy, a task to which, as a country, we have been called upon to undertake.”
But to read the polls, the nation’s political class has never been more distant from the general public since Chile famously voted “No” to military rule in 1989.
The most recent monthly survey from Adimark, Chile’s leading public opinion research company, was a significant shot in the arm for President Sebastián Piñera. His approval rating rose 6 percentage points to 40 percent—its highest level since student protesters burst onto the national stage two years ago.
But it is not just the president who has been struggling to engage popular support. The opposition Concertación’s approval rating dropped 3 percentage points to 23 percent, combined with a 64 percent disapproval rating.
For their part, the upper and lower houses of parliament achieved what, in the words of the Adimark report, “seemed almost impossible:” an increase in public dissatisfaction and decline in support. The marginally less respected of the two houses, the Chamber of Deputies, hit a 16 percent approval rate, combined with a 74 percent level of disapproval.
To put that in perspective, in April 2010, it had a 43 percent approval rating and a 37 percent disapproval rating.
So how do these new “participatory” advances in the electoral system sit with a Chilean public that feels increasingly distant from the nation’s political institutions and major parties?
Sergio Rojas, political science professor at the Universidad de Santiago de Chile (University of Santiago, Chile—Usach) said that the current lack of public confidence in the political system is the result of building frustration over a “way of governing” that dates back many years.
“These [low approval ratings] are something new for Chile,” he said. “In the first few years after the return to democracy, the political institutions were strongly respected.”
Rojas said that a culture of political agreements reached behind closed doors, a “way of governing which lacked transparency and did not engage citizens,” has left the Chilean public feeling “disenfranchised.”
But for Rojas, the idea that Chile’s politicians have let their constituents down is incomplete. He argues that equally important is the role economic interests, political institutions—many of which, including the controversial binomial system were established by the military regime—and mass media have played in shutting the general public out of the national debate.
Running concurrently to the Concertaciòn and Alianza debates were the “alternative” debates that encompassed four of seven presidential candidates from outside the two major political blocs.
As opposed to the major debates—broadcast on the state-owned TVN and highly-viewed Canal 13, with the support of CNN Chile—the alternative debates were broadcast on La Red, Chile’s fifth most-watched television station.
Among the candidates was Marco Enríquez-Ominami, who—as an independent—received 20 percent of vote in the last presidential election, and has spent the four years since building a political party to take to this election.
Not a part of any coalition, the “alternative” candidates will not hold a primary vote and did not receive the pomp and ceremony that accompanied the Alianza and Concertación debates.
In response, the campaign team of Marcel Claude—presidential candidate for the Partido Humanista (Humanist Party—PH), intellectual advisor to student protesters at the height of the “Chilean Winter” and fierce critic of the political establishment—wrote an open letter to the executive directors of TVN and Canal 13.
“The current political duopoly is not only a result of the binomial electoral system, it is also a product of the complicity of large media conglomerates, which exclude alternative visions of society,” the letter reads.
Once the dust has settled on the June 30 primary vote and two candidates emerge to represent Chile’s major political alliances, the media will face more serious questions. How many candidates will be represented in the presidential debates and will the so-called “alternative” options be given a platform to speak to the Chilean public?
And regardless of who emerges victorious in November, Chile’s next president will have no easy task in engaging a general public which, for the most part, no longer believes in the legitimacy of its political institutions.