The dead gimmick

The election yesterday of Chile’s first right-wing President since 1990 is being hailed as a monumental shift. As former President Ricardo Lagos so eloquently put it, the governing...

The election yesterday of Chile’s first right-wing President since 1990 is being hailed as a monumental shift. As former President Ricardo Lagos so eloquently put it, the governing Concertación coalition leaves after twenty years of unqualified success. But in spite of a great track record, and the advantages of a hugely popular President, they lost the election. The question on everyone’s lips is: how did this happen?

To me, it’s simple: the Concertación lost this election on December 10th, 2006, the day Augusto Pinochet died.

As some of you may know, I was living in Santiago at the time. In a rare foray into photojournalism, I hit the streets to capture the mood of those celebrating the man’s passing.

Their glee was almost contagious – and who could blame them? The scars of the dictatorship were all too fresh, and the regime’s heavy influence on Chilean society could still be felt. Until recently, politics was a no-no, something you simply did not discuss unless you were confident of the company you were keeping.

In spite of the schädenfreude, the rage was evident in the many signs I read. “The wounds are still open in this divided country, and the passing of one man will do little to heal them,” I wrote at the time. I thought I had witnessed an act of extreme political catharsis, justified and yet superficial, interesting but inconsequential.

I was wrong. Pinochet’s death paved the way for the right to come back to power the first chance it got. It’s still early, but it’s possible the old man dragged the Concertación to the grave with him.

To understand the Concertación, you have to go back twenty-two years, to its very formation. Much like Venezuela’s current Mesa de Unidad, the people in the Concertación didn’t really like each other. They had different goals and profound disagreements about the right strategies to fight the dictatorship.

What they had, though, was a formidable common foe. Pinochet was the glue that held them together, a constant reminder of what was at stake.

This cohesiveness gave them their initial political capital, and they built on it by delivering remarkable social and economic progress. While Pinochet gave them their start, a big part of their subsequent success can be attributed to Chile’s once astronomical growth rates.

However, the engine has been sputtering of late, and a large part of the Concertación’s current problems is likely due to Chile’s idling growth relative to the rest of the region. As the graph shows, the promise of Chile’s accession to the first world looks increasingly harder to fulfill.

Still, tempting as it sounds, that does not explain why they used to win elections and did not win yesterday. After all, the right has always been capable of delivering growth, and it was not lost on anyone that the Concertación’s policies were gounded on the reforms inherited from the military.  Economic policy is not the differentiating factor between the two alternatives.

What made the difference all these years was the Concertación’s successful foray into identity politics. What lost them the election yesterday was its refusal to recognize it wasn’t working anymore.

Political scientists will tell you elections are about the issues. Yet in Chile, there was always one issue that dominated above all. Voters were always being asked: are you one of “us”, or one of “them”?

The average Chilean voter doesn’t really know if the state should or shouldn’t build highways with the private sector. She doesn’t really have much of an idea as to what the appropriate tax rate is. She doesn’t really know what to make of school vouchers. What she does know is whether or not she likes "them" – them being the right.

From the moment they won the Referendum to unseat Pinochet in 1988, the Concertación defined themselves as “not them.” It didn’t matter that their coalition was made up of Christian Democrats who once supported the coup and the (literal) heirs of Salvador Allende. They were all victims of the General, and that was enough. It was us versus them, end of story.

Their yearly celebrations of unity to remember 1988 served as reminders of the reason they were together in the first place. The stream of moral authority that came with it was spent skillfully.

This superiority manifested itself in the concord they exhibited toward the right. Instead of caving to the desire for revenge within their ranks, they led a graceful push to keep the score-settling with the prior regime within the boundaries of institutions. This state of non-enmity toward their enemies only enhanced their aura of superiority.

This was an asset the coalition exploited to their advantage. Human rights abuses and the reminders of Chile’s past – a legal initiative here, a judicial process there – would invariably pop up come election time. It always worked, so you can’t blame them for returning to the proverbial well.

But a crucial group of people got tired of it.

Tempted as we are to magnify the results, the truth is that a small but significant chunk of the Chilean electorate who voted for Bachelet over Piñera in 2006, voted for Piñera this time. With a virtually unchanged voter roll, Eduardo Frei got 363,000 votes fewer than Michelle Bachelet did in 2006. Piñera increased his votes from 2006 by 346,000 votes.

I’ve been hearing from a few of them. For example Patricio Navia, a respected political scientist, says he voted for Piñera "to punish the Concertación for believing they owned my vote.” Another friend says he voted Piñera because he wants to live in a country “without ghosts or hatred.” Yet another one said that he didn’t want his grandchildren to live in a society “traumatized ad infinitum, where my grandchildren inherit the hatred of those that came before.”

In other words, a crucial chunk of the Concertación’s voters wanted to turn the page. Only Pinochet’s death made that possible.

Pinochet was the gimmick that held the Concertación together. As the years went by, he stopped being a significant political or military player. But he would pop up in the news once in a while, reminding Chileans of all they had suffered, of the impunity and the constraints that he had bequeathed them.

Like a gambler on a winning streak clinging to an amulet, the Concertación did not understand that the time for this gimmick had passed. They kept playing the same old card, hoping the fights of the past would continue to resonate. That speech by Lagos, as brilliant as it was, tells you a lot of why they lost: it’s all past, no future. For a while, it seemed that Eduardo Frei’s entire campaign was about avenging the death of his father at the hands of military goons.

Yet just as one side lost the election, another side won it. In Sebastián Piñera, Chile’s conservatives had the perfect candidate. Comfortably lodged in the interstitial spectrum that lies to the right of the Chile’s Lula-loving lefties and to the left of its Pino-stalgic loonies, it was hard for the Concertación to frame him. Although he is an ally of the Pinochet elites, he publicly voted against the General in 1988, and he did not support the regime’s 1980 Constitution.

Faced with these challenges, his opponents tried a different version of the fear card. Long after it was clear the voters were not interested, the Concertación insisted on playing Cassandra, warning of the evils of trusting the reins of the nation to, gasp, a businessman. There simply was no evidence that this mattered to swing voters, but the talking heads kept blasting away at it, hoping it would stick.

The problem with this message was that the governing coalition spent twenty years promoting business. Piñera is a product of the Chile the Concertación built in the 90s, and he embodies the values they have worked so hard to institutionalize.

Much in the same way that his well-regarded airline is a symbol of Chile’s insertion in the world, to a crucial segment of voters Piñera represents something they can aspire to. A self-made billionaire, he exudes confidence, and to some he is the embodiment of the Chilean dream adopted in the last 25 years.

The right was effective in highlighting the contradictions between the Concertación’s feverish embrace of right-wing policies and its zeal for center-left rhetoric. Piñera was the perfect vessel for that message.

In spite of all this, the real significance Sunday’s election holds for Venezuela is not in Piñera’s pitch-perfect campaign. It’s in the assessment of the Concertación experience where we can find valuable lessons.

In the face of daunting odds, Chile’s democrats managed to unite against a common cause and rally the country. Chileans, in turn, rewarded them with twenty years of power, during which they changed their country and left it undoubtedly better off.

If there is a lesson there for Venezuela’s opposition, it may well be that we are under-using the horrors of the Chávez regime as a tool to unify the country. But even if we were to accomplish that, we must also realize it is not enough, and that unless we deliver on our promises, we will have accomplished nothing.

Thinking back to that summer afternoon in December when the dictator died in his bed, I keep remembering a woman celebrating in the streets with her top off. I wonder how she feels now, seeing her enemies back in the Palacio de la Moneda, watching people celebrate in the streets with their well-kept busts of the old man.

Maybe she’s seething at home, wondering how this could have happened. afraid of what is to come, angry, like many, at the over-confident politicians who took Chileans for granted. Or maybe, perhaps, like a majority of the country, she’s OK with it. Perhaps the release that came from dancing in the streets in her bra means she, too, was ready to move on.