People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


Vol. XXXIV

No. 06

February 07, 2010

 Elections in Chile and Bolivia: Contrasting Results

 

Yohannan Chemarapally

 THE recent elections in Chile and Bolivia resulted in contrasting results. The people of Bolivia gave the avowedly left wing President Evo Morales a thumping mandate. In Chile, on the other hand, former loyalists of the military dictator, Augusto Pinochet, staged a comeback for the first time after the restoration of democracy. The election in Chile, however, was more tightly contested.  

In the first round held in December, Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire businessman won around 44 per cent of the vote with an independent socialist candidate, Marco Enriquez-Ominami getting 20 per cent of the vote. The candidate of the centre-left Concertacion coalition, Eduardo Frei who came second, got only 36 per cent. In the final round, 52 per cent of the vote went to Pinera, Chile’s third richest person. It was clear that many supporters of the independent left wing candidate voted against “politics as usual”, symbolised by the centre-left governments of the last two decades. There was also a high degree of abstention among voters illustrating the disenchantment of the electorate with the lack of real choices.

Though sections of the western media have tried to portray the victory of Pinera as a setback to the Left in Latin America, most analysts blame the electoral reverse in Chile on the lacklustre personality of its candidate, Eduardo Frei and the incumbency factor. Politics in the country seems to have become personality not ideology driven. The current President, Michelle Bachelet, has an approval rating of over 75 per cent but was barred from running again because of constitutional constraints. She is however eligible to stand again after four years. Frei, who belong to the Christian Democratic Party, had himself served as president in the nineties. Frei could not however translate Bachelet’s popularity to his benefit in the second round. 

There was nothing much to distinguish between the economic and political platform of the two candidates. The right wing candidate aided by his riches ran a slick campaign. The coalition of right wing parties he led was named the “Coalition of Change”, taking a leaf out of the strategy adopted by Barak Obama during his campaign for the US presidency. Pinera pledged not to make any changes in the economic policies initiated by the centre-left or reinstate any politician who had served under the brutal dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

Like his centre-left rival, Pinera also promised to continue with the progressive social programmes initiated by the current socialist president, including the widening of child care and state assistance for non-working mothers. After winning the elections, one of the first things that Pinera did was to praise Bachelet and seek her advice. As the right wing parties lack a legislative majority, Pinera may have to include Concertacion candidates in his cabinet. Otherwise it will be difficult for the new government to enact legislation. The president elect, who takes office in March, has already started talking about forming a government of “national unity”.   

Pinera’s elder brother, Jose, was one of the architects of the Pinochet’s neo-liberal economic policies and had served as labour minister. The centre-left governments which followed Pinochet also retained most of the neo-liberal economic programs of the dictatorship which led to the so called “Chilean miracle”. The country’s economy which had registered impressive growth figures throughout the nineties and early 2000 is facing negative growth rate for the last two years. The official unemployment rate is over 10.2 per cent. Pinera’s promise to create a million more jobs during his term seems to have swayed voters.

The contrasting triumph of Evo Morales and his party—the Movement for Socialism (MAS) in neighbouring Bolivia with more than two thirds of the votes is an unequivocal endorsement of the radical policies he had ushered in after taking office four years ago. The right wing which till last year was threatening to break up the country and was staging violent protests is in disarray. But the right wing candidate, Manfred Reyes Villa, a former governor, got the majority of votes in the key province of Santa Cruz which is threatening secession.

The MAS is now in total control of both the houses of parliament, having won two-thirds of the seats. The ruling party can now call for referendums for further amendments of the constitution and will be able to make key judicial appointments.

Morales will now have a much freer hand in implementing his ambitious land reforms program in his new five year term. Already 26 million hectares have been redistributed benefiting 98, 454 families. He ran for a second term after successfully getting the constitution amended in a referendum last year. The old constitution had restricted the term of the president to a single term in office.

The indigenous people who form the majority of the populace will be further empowered with the re-election of Morales. Since taking office, Morales had created quotas for the long discriminated indigenous people in the army and other government services. The government has set up a special school to train diplomats from indigenous backgrounds. Three new universities for indigenous people have also been set up. The Morales government has also achieved the noteworthy feat of eradicating illiteracy in the last five years with help from friendly governments like Cuba and Venezuela. The Morales government managed to reduce extreme poverty by 6 per cent while reducing foreign debt from $ 4.4 billion to $2.4billion.

The other even more notable achievements of Morales in the last five years have been the nationalisation of the country’s hydrocarbon sector. This move substantially improved the government’s revenues. Before nationalisation, gas was sold at $ 0.60 cents per million thermal units. Today it is sold at $5 per million thermal units. Many poor household have now got natural gas connections. In the three years since the nationalisation, Bolivia earned $6.413 billion. Much of the windfall profits have been used to improve the public infrastructure of the nine state governments and 327 municipalities.

Morales plans to bring around 40 per cent of the country’s economy under state control. Presently around 28 per cent is under the control of the government. The country has huge deposits of lithium but does not have the expertise or the capital to mine it. The metal is used for computer and camera batteries and is in tremendous demand worldwide. Morales said that he was ready to “guarantee” investments to exploit the country’s lithium deposits but warned that Bolivia needs “partners not patrons”.

President Hugo Chavez hailed the victory of Morales as a victory for all of Latin America. He described it as a victory for “popular constitutionalism” which has it roots in Venezuela. Venezuela was the first country that changed the constitution in the region so that it reflected the aspirations of the common man. The “Bolivarian Constitution” adopted in 1999 started a trend. Ecuador and Bolivia soon followed suit and put in place a popular constitution approved in referendums. Brazil and Argentina may also do the same in the near future. As Chavez pointed out, this development is viewed with hostility in Washington and privileged classes in Latin America. The President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya was ousted when he talked about the possibility of convening a constituent assembly. Washington, Chavez has warned on several occasions, is not averse to staging military coups in countries like Ecuador and Bolivia “to stem the rising tide” of popular governments in the region.

Morales took the oath of office for his second term on January 22. 30,000 people took to the streets of the capital La Paz to celebrate the occasion. “Comrades, democracy has been consolidated---the colonial state has died and the multicultural state has been born”, declared Morales. Among those present on the occasion were the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian Presidents, Hugo Chavez and Rafael Correa. Morales in his address to his countrymen said that he would focus on building an “inclusive Bolivia” consolidating on the tremendous achievements made during his first term in office. “When the unions and the social leaders truly represent the people and work for the country, as we are doing in Bolivia, revolution becomes democratic and based on conscience----the time has come out to seek equality, dignity and unity beginning from solidarity among all our peoples”, said Morales. The posts in his new cabinet are evenly divided between the two sexes.