The result of Chile's second round vote today was not a surprise: Sebastian Piñera won, narrowly but clearly (a little over 3% margin). The surprise is that he was leading very early in the campaign, winning convincingly the first round to the point that his margin of victory today was rather short. The biggest surprise though is how a prosperous Chile, ruled by a successful coalition for 20 years, decided to send home, thank you very much for your trouble, those people that allowed them to join the OECD. We can suppose that at the end of the campaign enough Chileans felt ingrateful and guilty enough and thus returned to the losing "Concertacion" to make sure the defeat would not be humiliating.
First there was the 20 years itch, or whichever way you want to describe voter fatigue, or even ennui. Voters can be amazingly fickle, from the ungrateful Chileans today to the downright stupid ones in Venezuela who keep voting in the most corrupt and incompetent administration of Venezuela's history. Unfairly in Chile they decided that it was time for the other guys.
But the other guys were helped a lot by the mistakes of the "concertacion", a perennial alliance of once formidable adversaries: the socialist and christian democrat parties of the pre-Allende years. Their alliance allowed, as Punto Fijo did in Venezuela, Chile to get away from the bloody Pinochet dictatorship into the most successful economy and democracy of South America, or even Latin America for that matter. There was a price to pay for that: the opposition took quite a time to appear because it could only come from the right as the Communists and other left of left groups where discredited after Allende. Thus, once the main Pinochet supporters became too old, a new and modern Liberal Right emerged and after 20 years managed to win. Christian Democrats and Socialists had become too much alike and novelty was to be sought elsewhere.
The other error was the reelection bug that bit former president Frei, the second one of the concertacion period. For reasons for which I do not know all the gory details, primaries inside the concertacion were avoided creating a break with a new ambitious newcomer, Enriquez-Ominami, who run as a third party candidate. He got a fifth of the vote in the first round and obviously in spite of his very late return to the fold, it seems that enough of his followers either stayed home or went ahead and voted for Piñera.
Thus ended what will be seen as the most successful coalition government in Latin American history so far.
This is neither good nor bad for Chile: none of the candidates was going to rock the boat, and even less on the successful consensus economic policies. The amazing stability of the Chilean democracy is so set that it was one of the reasons why the OECD welcomed Chile. The image above which I watched live on TV is the amazing visit that defeated candidate Frei (right) made to Piñera (left) headquarters. Where else do you see a presidential candidate make a concession speech AND visit the winner afterward, that same night!? When you see such a democratic behavior and such a graceful concession you know that Chile has a few good years ahead of itself. This is the real good of the whole process!
The election though will have some effect on Latin America. As I already discussed, the election of Piñera would be the momentous political event of 2010 as it will affect the re-composition of South America leadership. Piñera has already stated that there is no democracy in Venezuela. I am certain that Frei thinks likewise but the compromises he has had to do to try to prevail in the second round would have limited his role to counter Chavez (1). Uribe who was alone at UNASUR suddenly will find a friend there, and very likely make a second one as Peru will be more likely to support them. At the OAS Panama and Costa Rica will certainly be more vocal than what they already are. Thus the evasive policies of these organizations in front of the tantrums of Chavez might not reach an end but will certainly make Chavez life more difficult, the more so that his checkbook has run sort of dry. Let's wait for the return of Honduras, and we will see.
But there is another effect, a stealth one.
If you look through Google news in Spanish the reports on Piñera election are rather neutral in their headlines. Seek the news in English and you will see in almost all titles the words "tycoon" or "billionaire" used in the title next to Piñera, almost as if this one had used his billions to buy himself the presidential chair. Besides the fact that it is insulting for Chilean democracy, it also reveals the frame of mind that has set inside the US and European press rooms: socialists presidents should now be the norm in South America, because, well, you know... thus the eternal praise of Lula as the wished for ruler, further supported now that Chavez can be described as an accidental buffoon.
It is only time that it becomes again respectable for the right to be a democratic opposition, such as it is in Western Europe where once a social consensus is reached, social democrats and liberal democrats can take turn in office for the greater good of their people. Pretending that Lula is the only option and that you need a tycoon to twist the will of the people is not only a disservice but plainly stupid with dangerous implications for the future of democracy as it denies the right for Latin Americans for an opposition that is not approved by the press rooms of Western prosperous democracies.
On this respect the political maturity of Chile seems light years ahead of most of Latin America country. In fact if in Venezuela the opposition is so weak it is due in large part that it is too afraid to be seen on the right of Chavez. And this comes since 1958 where everybody pretended to be left of center, even the natural right who called itself social-crisitiano. They might have practiced on occasion neo-liberal policies, but they always called themselves leftist. Heck, the International Socialist has Venezuela with three, 3, socialist parties, a record of sorts!!!
PS: I was forgetting!!! The vote in Chile IS MANUAL, you know, pencil and paper; and all ballots are, gasp, counted by hand!!!!!!! And yet, barely one hour after the voting stations closed (ON TIME!!! IMAGINE THAT!!!!) the first bulletin was announced, and Frei acknowledged defeat. Never mind, as I described above, that he went all smiles to kiss Piñera....
Who was it that keeps saying that Venezuela as the best electoral system in the world? Could that person please inform us of the complete results of the 2007 vote, please..... Could that person also explain to us how will Chavez concede defeat gracefully, EVER?
1) For the record, even though my political feelings would have led me to the concertacion, today my preferences are made strictly on who is worst for Chavez. Thus I am pleased by Piñera victory though I feel very sorry for the concertacion who did not deserve its defeat.