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Señor Piñera Goes to Santiago

Chile elects a conservative president.

7:00 PM, Jan 24, 2010 • By JOHN LONDREGAN
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Sebastián Piñera’s victory last week marks the first time in over half a century that Chileans have elected a conservative as their president. It also marks the successful conclusion of Chile’s transition to democracy.

Like adolescents embarrassed by their parents Chilean voters have for years complained about the increasingly corrupt and incompetent center-left coalition governing their country. But, like the adolescent that can’t bring himself to decamp from the family basement and actually head out on his own, Chile’s voters suffered a perennial failure of nerve at the moment of actually casting the ballot that would emancipate them from their familiar but venal government. On January 17, they packed the proverbial stereo, the magic cards, and the contents of their coat rack into the back seat of their aging Dodge Colt and finally struck out into the world on their own.

Twenty years ago the picture was very different. In 1988 the military government held a plebiscite on its continued rule and lost! What’s more, it admitted that it lost, and in the subsequent elections Chileans chose a left of center coalition called the Concertación that excluded the Communists, but ran the gamut from the Socialist party to the left-of-center Christian Democrats. In a case of “midnight judges” that makes John Adams seem like an amateur, the military left behind a government well stocked with independent judges, auditors, policemen, and others ready to pounce on signs of corruption in a civilian government they little trusted. During its early years, the Concertación coalition decided to leave the laissez-faire policies of the military government in place. Left to their own resources, Chileans did what free people do best: They worked hard and made mostly good choices. As if by magic per capita incomes rose briskly.

As Chileans grew their economy, the Concertación focused on winkling the independent judges and auditors out of their institutional shells, replacing them with Concertación cronies, and occasionally, and very much by accident, with other independent-minded auditors and judges. At each election the Concertación drifted to the left: from socially conservative Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin in 1990 to socially “progressive” Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei in 1994, to “decaf” socialist Ricardo Lagos in 2000, to “house blend” socialist Michelle Bachelet in 2006.

Over time, as the threat posed by independent auditors waned, corruption grew, economic freedom was attenuated, and the rate of economic growth slowed from an impressive pace to a mediocre one. To deflect attention, the Concertación invoked the former military government at every turn. Whether the discussion was about education or transportation or yet another scandal, the Concertación could be depended upon to retreat like an injured squid behind an inky cloud of denunciations of the former military government.
While all of this was happening, something else that few observers had expected was going on: Chile developed a vibrant and popular political right. In addition to the National Renovation party that came out of hibernation after the years of military government (the same coalition had organized themselves as the National party prior to the epoch of military rule), a new party, the Union of Independent Democrats (UDI), emerged onto the ballot. The UDI reached out to mainstream voters (which in Chile as in most of Latin America means poor people) with a message of economic freedom and social conservatism that put down deep roots. Today, the UDI is Chile’s largest party in Congress.

The last years of the Concertación were characterized by increasingly squalid policies and politics: Bridges collapsed, a public railway project was left to decay before it was ever finished, the education minister was impeached for refusing to account for her agency’s budget, and a multimillion-dollar transportation fiasco called the TranSantiago replaced a private market system of mass transit that ran in the black with a public one that entails longer commuting times and requires an ongoing subsidy. Government agencies were directing money to be used by campaign workers, crime rates rose, and on, and on.
As their popularity waned so did their commitment to democracy—in last month’s legislative elections the Concertación coordinated their candidate lists with the Communists, with the result that three of the latter were elected to the 120-member chamber of deputies. Seeing another corrupt government under threat, Argentina’s president Cristina Fernández gave Chileans working for the Argentine government leave to cross the Andes and vote. As the Concer­tación became ever more unpopular it sought to “reinvent” itself. But in the end enough voters decided that the best way to vote for change was to vote for change.

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