It’s difficult to explain what’s happening to the Chilean right. It has been in government practically without opposition since March 2018 and has still collapsed. And now, Las Condes’ Mayor Joaquín Lavín could get another shot – just not with the same right-wing party he helped found.
Sebastián Piñera was elected president with 54% of the vote after capitalizing on the rapid attrition of the Nueva Mayoría coalition. Led by Michelle Bachelet, the group was divided after less than a year in power, with the Christian Democrats becoming “disaffected” from government even earlier. So the right wing had everything to settle for a long time in government palace La Moneda.
But nobody could foresee that society would rise to protest injustice and inequality accumulated over decades and criticize the abuses. The unlawful behavior of some politicians, companies and institutions, including the Catholic Church and sexual abuse, unleashed citizens’ fury.
In this scenario, Piñera paid the bills for all businesspersons while the two main coalitions – the former Nueva Mayoría and the current Chile Vamos – had to assume the sins of some who financed their campaigns illegally. Being one of the richest men in Chile, and with detailed reports of how Piñera became so – robbing the Bank of Talca with pen and paper – such behavior boomeranged, even though it seemed “forgiven” during the elections.
October 18 Changed Everything
But after the social uprising on October 18, the idea that the right would “remain in power for 30 years,” or that Piñera’s second term would become the “best government in history” evaporated, just like these phrases. The rift between the governors and the governed became too deep. Let’s just remember that Piñera’s public support dropped to 6% in December, the lowest figure among all Latin American leaders since political surveys started.
But the pandemic would create hope for the president. He knew that it was his last opportunity. However, as we analyzed over the previous weeks, he could not capitalize on it because of his misreading of reality. He believed Chile was some global exception, so dealing with the coronavirus would bring good results for him. But he also showed clumsiness several times, for example when he had his photo taken on Baquedano square during lockdown. Now, popular protests and mobilizations are returning despite the quarantine and curfew.
While the poll numbers went up a bit, they dropped again and the government alliance is totally broken, without the possibility of rebuilding relations. The president is seen alone, overwhelmed, projecting the bewilderment of having recently changed his cabinet without any results. The governing parties RN, UDI, and Evópoli fought among themselves, questioning ministers and engaging in high-profile cross-criticism.
The double ideological defeat in the Lower House – which will be compounded in the Senate this week – on the bill to allow 10% withdrawals from citizens’ privately managed pension funds and the subsequent breakdown among the three parties – including the resignation of Evópoli’s leader – has left the impression that the right will have to rebuild itself with a lot of pain. It will have to accept that the dogmas it believed in for decades are not eternal.
However, and although it seems like a paradox, Joaquín Lavín, the mayor of Las Condes, one of the richest districts in Chile, and ahead in all the polls, took the opportunity and dealt a blow to UDI, the party he helped found when Pinochet was still in power. Lavín gave a coup de grâce to the pro-Pinochet party when he went out to “destroy” the project with which the government tried to stop the opposition’s pension initiative just a few hours after the first historic vote in the Lower House. Without a doubt, the gesture encouraged the five UDI dissidents that will also vote in favor of the withdrawal to help citizens weather the crisis.
Lavín was fully aware that, sooner or later, he would collide head-on with the party he helped found. To be a presidential candidate and capture a broader base of support, the mayor needed to deliver a coup that would allow him to break with UDI, or at least show his independence. UDI is widely rejected in various sectors, but particularly in the middle class that is uncomfortable with its history of closeness to the dictatorship and is more liberal in moral matters. That group would never vote for a candidate linked to UDI, despite sympathizing with Lavín.
Already in the municipal elections – the only ones he has won, unlike previous runs for the presidency and the Senate – voters were willing to cross the ideological line and voted for him. But under no circumstances would they vote for him as president while he remained a member of a pro-dictatorship party. That would constitute a kind of “betrayal” of history.
With this, Lavín took the step he needed to explore how much of other sectors’ electorate he could capture and to withdraw emotionally from UDI. However, his party colleagues seem to have resented the coup. We will see in the coming weeks how much sway the mayor has with citizens in the political center, even the center-left. But the litmus test will be if he can balance being a part of UDI while being perceived as more independent, without paying too high a price.
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.