A Fragmented Center-Left: Challenges for Chile’s Political Opposition

A time of changes

For some observers, Chile’s political landscape might not have changed that much in recent years. Since 2006, Michelle Bachelet and Sebastián Piñera have taken turns to rule the country. However, the 2017 general election brought a series of changes that have important political implications beyond who sits in La Moneda, i.e., Congress’s partisan composition.

The 2017 elections were the first under the new proportional representation voting system (although the former binomial system, a PR in theory, actually prevented small parties from having legislative representation). This long-awaited reform made the elections more competitive and, above all, transformed the composition of Congress. In fact, many emblematic politicians that had occupied legislative seats since 1990 lost re-election last year. Furthermore, the share of legislative seats now held by members of non-traditional parties, those outside of the two traditional electoral coalitions, grew almost five times, from 3% to 17%.

That is, the Nueva Mayoría, the center-left coalition that in 2013 replaced the Concertación(1990-2013), and Chile Vamos, the right-wing alliance led by Piñera, are not alone in Congress for the first time since democracy was restored.This is because Frente Amplio (FA) won a considerable share of the electoral vote and legislative seats. Frente Amplio is a diverse political alliance that is comprised of several — mostly left-wing — small parties, some media personalities, far-left groups and former student leaders. The major differences between Frente Amplio and Nueva Mayoría are not purely ideological, but rather they hinge on their pro or anti-establishment orientation and political style. All these changes, along with worn-down relations within Nueva Mayoría and the defeat of its presidential candidate in the run off, have created a challenging scenario for the center-left opposition.

Opposition at the crossroads

Forming the opposition is not new for the Left, although the part they played during Piñera’s first term (2010-2014) was not a successful one. On the one hand, Concertación had then found itself struggling to maintain its unity and to redefine itself as a key political actor. On the other, this meant that at times they found it difficult to constrainPiñera and his cabinet. One way for the opposition to keep the executive at bay is to resort to interpelaciones(interpellations), a procedure by which ministers are forced to appear before Congress to answer questions, which might entail an important political cost for the ruling coalition. Nevertheless, the number of interpelacioneswas rather small when the left-wing parties were in the opposition (2010-2014). In fact, Piñera’s ministers were interpelados only three times by the Concertación during that period, which is considerably lower than the 14 times Bachelet’s ministers were questioned in Congress — seven secretaries in each of her two administrations — when the center-right parties were in the opposition.

Currently, there is a serious shortage of political leaders behind whom opposition parties and legislators might rally. It is telling that a few weeks ago Michelle Bachelet decided to step up and confront Piñera, who seeks to undo several of her policies. Bachelet met with her previous ministers and they individually criticized Piñera. Interestingly, Bachelet did not team up with the opposition parties or their leaders. As a sign of division in the left in itself, this is not really new. During both Bachelet administrations, relations with parties in her coalition were not entirely constructive. Moreover, she did not groom any important party member as her potential successor which among other factors contributed to handing the presidency over to Piñera twice in less than ten years.

As if this was not enough, the Democracia Cristiana(DC), a pivotal actor along with the Socialist party when the Concertación was in office, finds itself beleaguered by internal splits and power struggles. The DC is facing perhaps its most serious electoral and internal crisis yet, as many of its members debate whether to stay, collaborate with Piñera or move further to the left. Several well-known DC politicians have resigned and some have even decided to work for the Piñera administration.

Piñera and the future of his right-wing coalition

Piñera has attempted to take advantage of the fragmented opposition by resorting to the proverbial “divide and conquer” strategy. Atthe end of March, he asked the opposition to work together on a childhood policy proposal. As expected, divisions quickly arose among the opposition between those that accepted the offer and those that adamantly criticized it, exposing their different political styles and interests even further.

Piñera’s coalition has also witnessed divisions over policy proposals such as homoparental adoption, abortion, and lately between the president and his own party, Renovación Nacional (RN), about partisan appointments. Yet, these differences do not represent a serious threat to the ruling alliance’s stability. While Piñera continues moving his agenda forward — although not without problems— the opposition is still trying to find a footing in this new political scenario. In the short term, the center-left seems doomed to fail considering the fragmentation across and within its parties. The left-of-center opposition need to overcome their differences soon, otherwise not only do they risk losing the local elections in 2020, but also the presidency again in 2021. If the latter materializes, it would be the first time in almost 100 hundred years that the Right would remain in La Moneda for two consecutive constitutional terms.

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