Something strange occurs in the Chilean opposition. Only rarely the world over has a ruling party hit rock bottom – with previous approval of 6% for the president representing the worst result on the continent – and the opposition could not capitalize on anything. I’m not saying that figuratively.
All parties of the former Nueva Mayoría plus their leaders remain under water in all public opinion polls. They couldn’t even create a common stance during the months of social unrest. During these mobilizations, protesters did not promote the left, nor did they display flags or canvases of any parties. The opposition did not measure up at an historic moment.
In practice, it looks like the opposition had received such a heavy blow the day Sebastián Piñera was elected with 54% that it could not get up anymore. All its leaders disappeared during the entire Chilean summer of 2019. Without new leaders, unlike governing party Renovación Nacional (RN) which incorporated new faces such as Blumel, Sichel, Codina, Cartes, and divided even over the least relevant projects, the opposition is a dispersed and heterogeneous mass. It now falls into several groups or political sensitivities.
What’s it like in the Opposition?
Frente Amplio coalition – at one point the hope of changing Chilean policy – is broken, and the ghosts of the old leaders, Lagos and Bachelet, is permanently returning. The former Concertación coalition, the former Nueva Mayoría coalition, Progressive Convergence, the Frentistas, the Communists, the Christian Democrats (DC) – who go it alone one day, the next day with the rest, the next with RN – make for a sad showing. Not even enough pragmatism can be found to unify these parties under one label.
These groups sometimes united only on one issue during last two years. The option to change the Constitution became a ray of hope to build a common project. Yet, it became clear that this was not enough. The lack of a national program or proposal was so evident that even full support for the “Approve” option seemed to falter by March – unlike in the ruling coalition which remains split over stasis and change – when the government said we were entering coronavirus phase 4.
But perhaps the best representation of the opposition’s confusion and lack of vision was when the lower house presidency went to a hardline conservative who had opposed legalizing divorce and supported the Jungle Commando, which killed Camilo Catrillanca. This disaster happened even though the opposition holds an absolute majority for the first time since the return of democracy. Frente Amplio leaders, however, abstained from voting for Christian Democrat Gabriel Silber.
Confusion and Ambiguity
And although we can agree that La Moneda ignored the opposition during the first stage of the crisis, when the government abused optimism, disparaged other countries, and deluded itself into Chilean exceptionalism as best bet in the global concert fighting the virus, the truth is that the opposition could have been more active and collaborative. But it took an ambiguous position, evolving into permanent criticism and with few alternative proposals. The only counterbalance to the government in these first two months came from the Medical College and the mayors, many of which are even members of the governing party…
Last week, Piñera called for reaching a national accord within two months. This call surprised even his supporters. Initially, Piñera was expected to make the announcement during the state of the nation speech on June 1, which was postponed. In my column two weeks ago, I wrote a pact was necessary to face the looming post-pandemic social and economic crises. Such a pact is even more important as the social uprising of October has only been postponed, which Health Minister Jaime Mañalich already acknowledged. However, political parties, except RN and Christian Democrats, found the national accord suspicious and put up opposition.
Piñera is taking an enormous risk. The pool does not hold enough water to float an agreement, despite its necessity. The underlying problem is that the president is trying for a two-year pact, since he needs to end his term in a scenario that is not catastrophic for his image. But that is not what the opposition would want. Opposition party leaders, except the communists, apparently already met with the three least conservative ministers. It emerged that they would support plans to ease the social emergency, but they won’t support measures to “save” Piñera and the right in the remaining two years.
However, this will also be a litmus test for the “oppositions.” In a way, Piñera cornered them. They cannot refuse to support the national accord, but they must also play their cards well because “entering” concrete solutions can carry gigantic costs. In my view, the situation affords the opposition an opportunity to project ideas of how to lead a country in crisis. And it could explain the proposals it has for the social and economic model Chile needs. This could well represent the last opportunity to get up after the technical KO it received on election night in 2017.
The recriminations of the lower house disaster do not matter anymore. Frente Amplio and DC accused each other back and forth. Some whispered Silber is mired in personal problems, others said these problems don’t exist because Silber’s ex-wife denied abuse accusations. Also, it emerged an adviser to Silber’s rival, René Alinco, of left-wing PPD, sent the incriminating mail. Adding to the fight, others accused communist representative Karol Cariola of “supporting,” i.e. inciting, the October uprising. This only shows how inconsequential and lacking in ideas, unity, and leadership the “opposition” has been. And no one can be spared, from the Communist Party to the Christian Democrats.
Undeniably, Piñera has governed almost without counterweight these two years. Because the approval ratings remain low, albeit having risen during the pandemic, they have nothing to do with the opposition. Rather, permanent unforced errors, excess of optimism and arrogance, abuse of clichés, daily screw-ups of the president and his wife – like the invading aliens or the loss of privileges she lamented in a leaked audio at the height of the protests – only fueled an already explosive social movement. And these errors allow us to explain the catastrophic fall of Piñera’s campaign slogan of “Better Times.” Piñera is responsible for Piñera’s problems. The opposition is a simple spectator.
After the Pandemic
Nothing illuminates the deterioration of the opposition parties more than the way they set out to “amend” the error in the lower house leadership election a few hours after the embarrassment. Someone thought the easiest thing was to censor the electoral table, et voilà, they get a majority. Simple, fixed the problem. An anti-democratic formula the leaders proposed, banding together, and overthrowing an election.
I think the “opposition” missed the opportunity that Piñera handed them. They have not been able to raise an attractive and serious offer for the country. They have not even been able to maintain what united them for over 20 years: pragmatism. In the absence of ideas and projects, they survived only thanks to history and the figure of Augusto Pinochet. Today nothing can unite them. After Covid-19 and when the country will resume its daily life, we will see a worn-out Chile, tired and with an economic crisis of proportions. In addition, the demands over equality and privileges – which the helicopters used to escape Santiago’s quarantine illustrated well – will surely return. That time will need solid proposals, and especially confidence, none of which the opposition can provide.
The opposition will have to assume a breaking point and soon, which may even mean uniting implicitly, contributing ideas and technical capabilities for a new horizon. Otherwise, a position of government oversight – as Covid-19 numbers and decisions, including the confinement of 28 municipalities, are looking suspicious – becomes doubtful. The current approach of leaving the stage and let mayors take the initiative the worst in any case. If that doesn’t change, they best prepare for a years-long full-quarantine winter.
But the big unknown is what will happen at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel with governing coalition Chile Vamos. The right-wing coalition was technically bankrupt just over a month ago. So, after this timeout and as we are getting closer to the October plebiscite on the Constitution – if the date is maintained – we’re back with large but weakened political blocks. A populist contender will appear in a matter of time.
Before the burial comes the requiem. Will the “opposition” get one last chance to build a national project? Or will it continue as it has since 2017? Confused, at a distance, the opposition is looking at a rival who has been down several times but who always recovers, because, precisely, nobody is fighting him.
Germán Silva Cuadra is an expert in corporate communications and a regular commentator on Chilean politics. His latest book is ‘No te reconozco Chile. Cómo entender al país que noqueó a la elite.’ Germán tweets under @gsilvacuadra.