Who Is Joaquin Lavín, the Unlikely Frontrunner?

No one expected the mayor of tony Las Condes district, who already ran for president twice over 10 years ago, would emerge as the right’s most prominent figure. Yet, his ability of changing and adapting his message, combined with the opening of the political space for a center alternative, made him the current favorite for the 2021 presidential election.

If somebody had predicted in October 2016 that the newly re-elected (1992-1999/2016-) mayor of wealthy Las Condes district, Joaquin Lavin, would be leading early polls for a presidential election, nobody would have believed it. Nonetheless, the last surveys from polling firms Cadem and Criteria have Lavín of Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party as clear frontrunner.

In just one month, he has increased substantially his advantages over his closest rivals, the far-right José Antonio Kast of Partido Republicano (Republican Party) and the left’s Beatriz Sánchez of Frente Amplio (Broad Front, FA).

Lavín’s new and increasing popularity is hardly an achievement of the right-wing parties that make up the Chile Vamos governing coalition nor a show of popularity of the conservative agenda. Lavín’s ascent comes because his ideas are rather unpopular in the right-wing.

For some in that political sector, his flashy past policies like artificial beaches, planes that can make rain, lifeguard towers and juvenile patrols to guard liquor stores actually deliver a poor image for the sector.

Shaking Off Dirt

Lavín is a strange animal in Chile’s political landscape, especially in its conservative habitat. He hails from the hardcore of the 1970s/80s right-wing, when he was appointed by the dictatorship as Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Administrative Sciences of the University of Concepción. 

Graduated from elite Universidad Católica, he is a Chicago Boy (disciples of Friedmanite neoliberalism, imposed under Pinochet). Lavín is also a member of Opus Dei – and he is the most talented right-wing politician in getting rid of the baggage of the past.

Lavín has been one of the first politicians to reclaim the fundamental importance of serving the people – supposedly normal in a democracy but not in the corrupt morass of Chilean politics – combining “ideas” with “action.” For him, it’s important that politicians have good intentions, but it is wrong that they do not present them or state bureaucracy bars their implementation.

His politics don’t function so much through speeches, forums, seminars and philosophical ideas, but rather through emotions, gestures, morning shows, social networks and “common sense” in its most simplistic version. 

Learned lessons

Despite the evolution that spans his political career of 30 years, between the Lavín of the past and the present are as many ruptures as continuities.

Some traits have remained of the Lavín who lost by a nose to Ricardo Lagos in 1999 and against Piñera in 2005, and that of 2019. During his past presidential runs (and with his successful run for mayor), his strategy to achieve power was centered on three pillars, which also stand today.

First, the centrality of action and effectiveness: his speech aims to suggest solutions, not nourish debate. Second, the development of a permanent campaign with a high-impact media agenda, through TV in the past and Twitter now. Third, distance from political parties, which isolates him from bickering and the bad image of the system.

But distance only works so much. When the right was involved in a scandal of influence peddling in the early 2000s, he was forced to intervene and request the resignation of the right-wing parties’ leaders. This episode got him too close to the party system, a mistake he will try hard to not repeat.  

Read more about Lavín’s competition:

“Bolsonarism” in Chile – “His extremism will open avenues elsewhere in the region”

New Strategies

Contrary to what his critics think, the most interesting feature of Lavín’s leadership is not his chameleonism. Chilean politics is full of defectors and they have not achieved much. His singular ability is a great capability to connect transversely through emotions. This time, with his new flags: social integration and political moderation. 

This new version of Lavín surprised everyone last year, when he proposed building social housing in the heart of his wealthy neighborhood. The idea was not only a blow to his conservative colleagues, not used to paradigm changes, but also meant crossing a political frontier, into communist territory of all. Lavín copied the social housing idea from Daniel Jadue, the communist mayor of Recoleta district.

Today’s Lavín considers that in Chile “moderate positions triumph, while the most extreme are doomed to failure,” signaling the strategy the mayor will follow during the next presidential race. This time, his ideology will be the moderate center, and his membership in the coarse UDI party merely a biographical detail without much relevance.

It remains to be seen if Lavín dares to tread further and attract other sectors from center-right to center-left. 

That gives him the opportunity to position himself as a centrist and non-ideological alternative for an electorate that in the past has voted for the center-left but now feels comfortable with a center-right alternative to the FA and the radicalism that some right-wing figures have displayed the last years.  

In those waters, Lavín can’t be underestimated – he has navigated them for years.

More on the presidential elections:

Five candidates to become Chile´s next president

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