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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Chile's politics takes to the street

Students perform during a protest in front of government house during a rally in Santiago last year.
By Carolina Barros
For The Herald

Change, change, change. That word is repeated over and again in Chile as the label of the moment and the flavour of the month. And we’re not exactly talking here about the visibly changing face of a prosperous Santiago, where the frenzy of giant cranes vertical and horizontal, retro-excavators and scaffolding echoes the effervescence of post-1989 Berlin after the Wall came down.

But the transformation is also coming from within, with more force than an army of yellow bulldozers and stirring up all Chileans across the board.

“The country’s changing but not its party politics — that remains frozen in time from 1990 with the feudal lords of Congress the same as two decades ago,” points out Andrés Velasco, a presidential hopeful from the centre-left Concertación alliance for the elections scheduled for late next year, in conversation with the Herald.

This Chilean perception of a stagnant political class matches a Giro País opinion poll from early this year, quoted by Velasco. In it soccer players emerge as the most respected professionals at 44 percent, followed by television actors (39 percent) and with businessmen (11 percent), trade unionists (10 percent) and the clergy (8 percent) all lagging badly behind. But none of the latter three are as direly unpopular as politicians with just four percent.

Changes

Luis Larrain points to other changes. “Up to 1990 60 percent of the population was lower-class, now it is the middle class who have reached that percentage,” we are informed by this economist, head of the Instituto Libertad y Desarrollo think tank which has given the Sebastián Piñera administration most of its ideological cadres and technocrats.

“In the last 10 years the number of university students has doubled and in 70 percent of cases they are first generation,” he continues, “with around 40 percent of the 18-25 age bracket in university today”.

What comes next hardly needs explaining — this upward social mobility (aka change) now insists on quality. How? By protesting and demanding.

“Never,” says Velasco, economy minister throughout the 2006-10 Michelle Bachelet presidency, “have social movements been so strong and self-supporting and alien to any party.”

“This breaks up the magic formula which told us that institutional stability in tandem with economic development was the solution,” points out Larrain, adding that the economy grew three percent in the first quarter year and that unemployment is 6.5 percent.

“Young people do not think that the elites of either the Concertación opposition or the ruling coalition benefit people,” highlights the think tank leader. In Larrain’s view, the student mobilizations shaking the country since last year reveal a sharply different scenario, in which the Piñera empire’s new clothes stand exposed but also the Concertación.”

For this reason, he continues skeptically, it is not matter of shifting politics a bit more to the right or to the left in order to get on the right side of whoever’s running the country — the discredit of the elites is general and crosses all party boundaries.

But why can’t the Concertación harness the demands of the new middle class and the students in favour of the left?

This question is answered by Senator Juan Antonio Coloma from the more rightwing UDI partner of the ruling coalition.

“It would be an act of desperation for such groups to join the Communist Party because what they gained on the left, they would lose on the right to us,” he tells the Herald. “This is an important moment,” he adds, “because we’re a solidly united 40 percent facing a rival group which is larger but more divided.”

Demands

To the progressive presidential candidate Marco Enríquez Ominami, a “pioneer” of this change in accordance with his 2009 campaign platform, the demands of the “immense majority” follow three main criteria: consumer rights (recalling the abuses of the La Polar retail supermarkets’ credits), sustainability (conservationist policies to be applied, for example, to the HidroAysén dams) and justice in the distribution of goods and services, for example, education.

“Everyday majorities are not always electoral majorities,” he tells the Herald, “the challenge is to make them electoral and the big political question is whether people want to change everything or not.”

He cautiously warns: “In Spain the indignados shook the world but (Mariano) Rajoy won the elections.”

“Chile is moving along very different lines to traditional politics,” Andrés Velasco recalls laconically. With the next presidential elections now 18 months away, will this period suffice for the political class to retune into a Chile with which they are so out of sync today?

According to Marta Lagos, director of Latinobarómetro, “Chile is undergoing change yet not in its (political) values but in its social expression. It’s taken us 20 years to shake off the fears of authoritarianism. Until a short time ago we were a repressed, self-censoring society but the student marches have shown and continue to show that it has lost the fear to express itself.”

“In the last years of the previous century and the first years of this, 70 percent of Chileans did not say what they thought,” she continues.

Nevertheless, a survey last year showed that self-restraint when expressing oneself had halved to 35 percent.

“It was in 2002 when Chile clicked,” recalls Lagos. “It was on one of the coldest days of that winter when 6,000 volunteers showed up to pose naked for the camera of United States photographer Spencer Tunik. The veil had dropped for Chile.”

And how does this pan out in voting patterns? “Not much,” replies the pundit and sociologist Lagos.

“Changes in electoral trends are always slow”, she insists, “so there will not be any major shifts in trend. Perhaps an anti-party swing will flourish in this October’s municipal voting but this is going to change in the presidential elections when the coat-tails of presidential voting must rely on grass-roots local support.”

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