Tag Archives: Chile

The Piñera administration isn’t moving forward

President Sebastián Piñera’s approval ratings dropped from 44% in April 2018 to 27% in May 2019, whereas those who hold a negative opinion toward his administration grew from 38% to 63% in the same period (source: MORI-CERC). After 15 months in office, the Piñera administration has nothing substantial to show for it yet. The economy still has not taken off, the president made a judgment error by having a “family trip” as part of a state visit to China in April, and the right-wing Chile Vamos ruling coalition has begun to see some infighting over the latest cabinet reshuffle.

Piñera’s campaign slogan was “tiempos mejores” (better times), which summarizes what the electorate expects from him: more and better jobs. However, better times have yet to come, and people seem to have grown tired of waiting. Economic perceptions are not optimistic. Only 19% of Chileans now believe the national economy will improve in the next 12 months, compared to 26% in October 2018 (source: CEP). As a matter of fact, Felipe Larraín, Finance Minister, has repeatedly found himself downgrading the economic growth expectations in the last months while promising that the economy will eventually turn around. Finally, unemployment is still close to 7%, and unemployment still seems higher under Piñera’s first year in office than during Michellet Bachelet’s last year in the presidential palace, La Moneda.

Unemployment (March 2017 – April 2019)

Unemployment (March 2017 – April 2019)
Source: Own elaboration based on data from Chile’s Central Bank.

However, the shape of the economy is not the only reason for the Piñera government’s waning popularity. In late April, as part of a state visit to China, Piñera brought with him his two adult sons, Sebastián and Cristóbal. Both of them even sat in a business meeting with Chinese investors and entrepreneurs of the tech sector. Piñera and his closest ministers adamantly argued that this action did not break any legal rule and that it did not cost taxpayers any extra money. The opposition took this issue to the Comptroller General, whose ruling backed the president’s version. Nevertheless, the truth is that the Piñera brothers had privileged access to a state visit just for being related to the president. Nepotism is not new in the Piñera administration, though. Last year, he designated his brother as ambassador in Argentina and the young daughter of a friend of his (with no government experience) as a commercial attaché in the New York office with an annual salary of US$ 180,000. The president only backed down from the appointments after receiving intense backlash from the opposition. This time, critiques did not only come from the opposition but also from members of his own coalition. Deputy Ximena Ossandón (RN) and Senator Andrés Allamand (RN) labeled the president’s actions as a mistake for which Piñera should apologize in order to move on. Rather, La Moneda has been haunted by this issue for over a month, hampering the president’s ability to control the agenda.

Moreover, Chile Vamos has faced some internal troubles lately. In March 2019, Piñera’s personalistic leadership style was singled out as preventing potential candidates of his coalition from getting more media attention. Then, the “family trip” to China as part of the state visit took over the agenda. Now, it is the distribution of portfolios after the latest cabinet shake-up. Leaders of UDI, one of the parties of the ruling alliance, protested because the changes unsettled the “equilibrium of forces” within the cabinet, as there are now fewer UDI ministers. RN, the other major party in Chile Vamos, asked Sebastián Piñera not to give in to the UDI’s pressures and complaints since they were unjustified. Interestingly, the latest internal disputes attracted more attention than the cabinet reshuffle itself, which, as political scientist Patricio Navia states, was not substantial enough to weather the critiques towards the Piñera administration.

The silver lining is that the opposition, although it has lately shown signs of unity by blocking the president’s major bills in Congress (e.g., tax and pension reforms), has approval ratings as bad as the Piñera administration: 58% of Chileans have a negative view of opposition parties, and only 22% approve of their performance (source: MORI-CERC). Facing a weak opposition obviously has its advantages. The president may make some mistakes and get away with them. Whether those mistakes will cost him in the future is yet unknown. But more importantly, after 15 months in office, it is still not clear what grand legacy the Piñera administration wants to offer.

Chile: Sebastián Piñera enters his second year in La Moneda

Piñera’s international agenda

In 2019, President Sebastián Piñera seems to have tightened his grip on the political agenda. During January and February, Piñera focused almost exclusively on the Venezuela issue. He made periodic remarks in the media on the sociopolitical crisis in Venezuela, condemning human right violations by the government of Nicolás Maduro.  In a reckless political gamble in February, Piñera traveled to Cúcuta in Colombia to deliver humanitarian aid for Venezuelans across the border. Once there, together with Colombia’s President Iván Duque, Piñera even took part in Venezuela Aid Live, a musical concert whose major highlight was the appearance of Juan Guaidó, acting President of Venezuela.

At home, Piñera’s anti-Maduro rhetoric and trip to Colombia took the left-of-center opposition by surprise, as only a handful of politicians raised their voice to criticize him. The reason for such a muted reaction might well be that February is a summer break for most politicians. However, their internal division and conflicting positions on the sociopolitical crisis in Venezuela possibly prevented them from launching a coordinated response to Piñera’s international agenda.

In addition to his Venezuela intervention, Piñera took advantage of South America’s right turn by pushing for the creation of Progress for South America (PROSUR), a regional initiative that seeks to replace the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the bloc created in 2008 by left-wing South American leaders but in decline since the death of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. PROSUR’s inaugural meeting was recently held in Santiago, Chile. The visit of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro captured the attention of the media and Chile’s leftist opposition. Piñera was criticized at home for being too close to right-wing populist leaders like Bolsonaro, as well as for his attempts to dismantle UNASUR.

Nevertheless, whether Piñera’s “international agenda” enhanced or weakened his popularity is an entirely different question. Piñera’s approval ratings had dropped to 38% in December, his lowest in 2018. Even though no reliable polls have yet been published in 2019, nothing indicates that Piñera’s approval has improved this year. Unemployment, probably the best indicator of Piñera’s progress in making good on his campaign promises, is still relatively high at 6.8% for the November-January trimester, topping the previous trimester and the same trimester from the previous year.

Preemptive identity control and a divided left-of-center opposition

A few days ago, La Moneda announced its intention to push for a bill to reduce the minimum age for being subject to identity checks by Carabineros, Chile’s police force and the Investigations Police (PDI) from 18 to 14. In 2016, the Michelle Bachelet administration passed the first bill allowing Carabineros and the PDI to request ID from anyone 18 years old or older, whether they were suspected of a crime or not. The left-leaning opposition has opposed Piñera’s initiative, arguing that it violates the rights of minors and would do nothing to reduce crime. Whatever the future of the bill, it helped bring some unity to a splintered political opposition. The bloc of left-of-center parties has rarely presented a united front except for its demand that the newly-appointed Minister of Culture Mauricio Rojas be fired (he resigned after 96 hours in his post), and its insistence that Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick be summoned to answer questions in Congress following the assassination in October 2018 of Camilo Catrillanca by members of police special forces.

 Such fragmentation in the left-leaning opposition may stem from their different pro and anti-establishment stances, as well as political style. However, inter-party polarization in the opposition seems to have increased over the few last months. In January, legislators from the Frente Amplio (FA, Broad Front), a political bloc mostly comprised of leftist and some far-left small parties, decided to break an pact with the rest of the opposition in which it had agreed to support the Christian Democrat (DC) candidate in elections for the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies. The election, in which every deputy has a single vote, was held on March 19th.Taking advantage of the  left opposition’s troubles, parties of the right-wing Chile Vamos, Piñera’s political coalition, backed the nomination of Deputy Jaime Bellolio (UDI), who won the first round with 73 votes, two more than the DC candidate, Deputy Iván Flores.  Nevertheless, since neither Bellolio nor Flores secured the required majority, a second round was held. Finally, after hours of intense negotiations within the opposition alliance, Flores won the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies with 81 votes, against Bellolio’s 68. 

The risk of defeat faced by the opposition parties alarmed many on the Left. Since the return of democracy in 1990, this was the first time a second vote had been necessary. Coalitions and parties had always held enough support and abided by the pacts made to secure the presidency of the lower house. This issue illustrates the widely commented splits and divisions between the opposition parties. 

Eyes on the future

Politicians and parties are already anticipating the 2021 presidential election. Piñera and Chile Vamos, whose problems appear to be far less serious than those of the opposition, are dealing with the challenge of how to manage several aspirants to La Moneda in 2022. In fact, Piñera has been the target of mild critiques from his own coalition because of his personalistic leadership style, one that does not promote the visibility of other potential presidential candidates from within the ruling alliance.[1]

On the other hand, in the left-of-center opposition no single viable candidate has emerged. They barely secured the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies where they, at least nominally, hold a majority of seats. This is just one example of the many coordination problems they have faced in the first 12 months since PIñera’s inauguration. The 2020 local elections are the first major challenge the left of center has to face. A resounding defeat may well seal the fate of the coalition and assure the right-wing Chile Vamos’s occupancy of La Moneda for another term. If Michelle Bachelet decides to make a third bid—an unlikely scenario but not one that can be easily dismissed—we would be in a completely different political scenario.

[1] In Chile, presidents are not allowed to seek consecutive reelection.

Chile – The Piñera administration faces its most serious challenge yet

At the beginning of last week, one of President Sebastián Piñera’s major preoccupations was the underperforming economy. Even though Finance Minister Felipe Larraín assured that Chile’s economy would grow by twice as much in 2018 as it had in 2017, the truth is that unemployment figures are far from ideal (7.1% for the period July-September 2018). Furthermore, a surprising and intense hailstorm that took place ten days ago prompted the Minister of Agriculture Antonio Walter to suggest that a significant share of further jobs were in jeopardy as a result. Despite this causing some concern on the basis that Piñera ran on an electoral platform of economic prosperity, it was not a serious threat to La Moneda’s overall popular support.

On the other hand, the fragmented left-of-centre opposition was still struggling to find a shared goal around which to organize and deal with its own drawbacks. Deputies Gabriel Boric and Maite Orsini, both members of the leftist Frente Amplio (FA, Broad Front) conglomerate, were widely criticised for secretly meeting in Paris with Ricardo Palma Salamanca, a former revolutionary who was convicted for the assassination of UDI party founder and Senator Jaime Guzmán in 1992 (Palma Salamanca escaped from jail in 1996 and days ago was granted asylum in France). Meanwhile, the Partido Socialista (PS), Partido Por la Democracia (PPD) and Partido Radical (PR), all of which were former members of the left-of-centre government coalition Concertación (1990-2010) and then Nueva Mayoría (2013-2018), toyed with the idea of forming one “mega-party” built on social-democratic ideas in a motion that is still on the table.

How things changed

Those were the issues that dominated the political agenda until last week. Nevertheless, the political landscape made an unexpected turn on November 15th when Camilo Catrillanca, a 24-year-old Mapuche community member, was killed in the Araucanía region by members of the Carabineros’ Grupo de Operaciones Especiales (GOPE, Police Special Operation Group), popularly known as “Comando Jungla” (Jungle Command). This special force unit was formed upon Piñera’s decision to deal with violent acts in Araucanía. Its members received specialist training in Colombia and the United States to deal with organised terrorist groups. This initiative was received with disapproval, especially from the Left and human rights organisations, as it appeared to increase the militarisation of the so-called conflict between the Chilean state and the Mapuche people.  More importantly, the account of the death of Camilo Catrillanca was surrounded in controversy over inconsistencies about how the GOPE reacted to the theft of a vehicle during the afternoon of November 15th. Minister of Interior Andrés Chadwick and Luis Mayol, Intendant of the Araucanía region[i], quickly backed the police special force’s version of events, which indicated that Catrillanca was killed during a crossfire. Chadwick even suggested that Catrillanca had police records, although he had not been convicted of any crimes, which was seen as an attempt to support the initial police version of the incident.

While President Piñera was abroad to attend the APEC summit and visit New Zealand, the incident took a serious toll on his administration when it became public that the special police forces had not carried their personal cameras during the procedure. Even worse, the ongoing investigation shows that one of the “Comando Jungla” members had in fact carried his camera but deleted its memory card afterwards, which cast further doubt on the versions initially supported by Minister Chadwick and Intendant Mayol. Different actors have asked for Chadwick and Mayol’s resignations. The Left, which have craved for unity in recent months, rapidly agreed to interpellate Minister Chadwick, a procedure by which a minister is asked to come forward at the Chamber of Deputies to answer questions. Moreover, Luis Mayol offered his resignation on Tuesday night upon the Christian Democrats’ announcement that they will seek to initiate a constitutional accusation against Mayol for the death of Camilo Carrillanca.

La Moneda’s mistakes

The Piñera administration’s political errors can be summarised as follows. First, the formation of an elite militarised special unit seemed largely inappropriate to deal with a public problem that has more to do with socio-political issues rather than with terrorism, as some in the Right have argued. Second, the way in which the police special forces were introduced five months ago, in a ceremony led by Piñera himself and in which all the weaponry at the Comando’s disposal was presented, was clearly an exaggerated show of force. Finally, there was no need for Minister Chadwick and Intendant Mayol to almost immediately back the police special forces’ version of the incident. Carabineros de Chile, the national police force, is currently going through its deepest crisis yet in the post Pinochet period. Dozens of top-ranking Carabineros officials, including a former general, are under investigation for a US$ 40 million fraud. Yet, more importantly, the Carabineros of the Araucanía region face another more worrying probe about “Operation Hurricane,” a scandal that saw several police officers accused of falsifying and tampering with evidence, which led to some Mapuche community members being sent to jail. Therefore, Chadwick’s and Mayol’s hurried remarks about the incident itself, and the backing of the Carabineros’ version of it, were unnecessary and unwarranted.

Notwithstanding Minister of Interior Andrés Chadwick explaining himself during a special session summoned by the Human Rights and Public Security legislative commissions on Monday 19th and Intendant Mayol’s resignation on Tuesday 20th, the damage to the Piñera administration’s image and credibility was already done. It remains to be seen whether (and how) President Piñera might turn things around and if the opposition may finally become a united front. A different and more fundamental question asks whether the public trust and effective political control of police in the Araucanía region can be regained any time soon.

[i]The intendant is the equivalent of a regional governor, who is directly appointed by the president.

Manuel Alcantara, Jean Blondel and Jean-Louis Thiébault – The influence of the presidential system on the character of Latin American democracy

This is a guest post by Manuel Alcantara, Jean Blondel and Jean-Louis Thiébault. It is based on their recent book, Presidents and Democracy in Latin America, London and New York: Routledge, 2017.

The aim of this book is to study the effect of the presidential form of government on democracy in Latin America. The adoption of the presidential system, specifically the personality type of those who have occupied the presidential office, the leadership style of those presidents, and the type of government they have led, helps to explain the consolidation of democracy there.

In this study, six countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru) were chosen. They were chosen because they have successfully completed the process of democratic consolidation. Within each of the six countries, two presidents were chosen, reflecting broad trends in the political and electoral life of these countries. The goal was to select presidents belonging to one of the key political ‘families’ of the country, grouped under the banner of a political party, or who were representative of two particular approaches to the same problem in the same political family. These presidents were in office in the 1990s or the first decade of the 21st century. Some were liberal or conservative, left-wing or right-wing populists, socialists or social democrats, leaders of a political party or ‘outsiders,’ members of parliament or technocrats. They are:

  • Carlos Menem (July 1989-December 1999) and Nestor Kirchner (May 2003-December 2007) for Argentina.
  • Fernando Henrique Cardoso (January 1995-December 2002) and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (January 2003-December 2010) for Brazil.
  • Patricio Aylwin (March 1990-March 1994) and Ricardo Lagos (March 2000-March 2006) for Chile.
  • Cesar Gaviria (September 1994-September 2004) and Alvaro Uribe (August 2002-August 2010) for Colombia.
  • Ernesto Zedillo (December 1994-November 2000) and Felipe Calderon (December 2006-December 2012) for Mexico.
  • Alan García (July 1985-July 1990 and July 2006 to July 2011) and Alberto Fujimori (July 1990-November 2000) for Peru.

In practice, these presidents were all center-right or center-left leaders. They were not members of the military, dictators, or revolutionaries. Right-wing populist presidents (Menem, Fujimori and Uribe) were chosen based on the idea that populists can be either on the right or on the left. However, García and Kirchner were chosen as moderate populists, claiming to be an Aprist and a Peronist respectively; both represent different periods. These choices make it possible to analyze processes in a consolidated democracy, but not in military regimes or in dominant party systems.

From the 1930s to the 1980s, these Latin American countries had a long period of instability. Argentina wavered between three types of political regimes: military dictatorship, a populist-corporatist regime, and restrictive democracy. From 1930 to the reestablishment of liberal democracy in 1983, there were six major military coups (1930, 1943, 1955, 1962, 1966 and 1976). There were eighteen presidents, and all those elected were overthrown except one, Peron, who died less than a year after his election. Governments in Peru have been more unstable than in any other South American country. Between 1945 and 1992, Peru’s government was civilian and constitutional almost 60 percent of the time, and a military regime 40 percent of the time. There were nearly two decades of military rule in Brazil and Chile. A military coup overthrew President Goulart in 1964 and began the longest period of authoritarian rule in Brazil’s history. With the collapse of democracy in September 1973, Chile was abruptly transformed from an open and participatory political system into a repressive and authoritarian one. General Pinochet was selected as the junta’s president by virtue of his position as leader of the oldest military branch. Unlike many of its continental neighbors, Colombia has avoided military rule, but there was intense violence between members of the two major parties in the late 1940s and 1950s, known as « la violenca » (the violence). A coalition government resulted from party negotiations. From 1958 to 1974, all governments in Colombia consisted of a bipartisan coalition. The main factors commonly associated with good prospects for democracy have long persisted in Mexico without producing full democracy.

Presidential regimes in Latin America are now a success, despite the pessimistic comments directed at this form of government. There are indeed manifest reasons why the Latin American presidential government should be considered a success. Latin American countries have overcome the fundamental dangers to which they were exposed. Although difficulties continue in a number of countries, presidential government in the region is no longer interrupted as it so frequently was in the past. Democratic development also mean that the number of countries regularly holding free and fair elections has increased. Executive governments are often elected by voters mobilized by clientelistic ties or by a candidate’s personality, rather than programmatic, appeal, all in the context of weak parties that are, moreover, rejected by citizens. The presidential elections of Zedillo in 1994 and Calderon in 2006 were intricate and controversial. Both involved critical moments of acute social tension and political instability that produced distinctive results.

Latin American governments have been influenced by the adoption of the presidential system. They set up institutions drawn largely from the US constitutional model. But Latin American presidents represent another type of executive. In the United States, there is a president, but there is no government. Latin America has a large number of presidential regimes characterised by a high degree of consistency and similarity. They constitute a type of intermediary regime, comprising many elements of presidential regimes, but with some of the features of parliamentary systems with coalition governments so as to ensure a majority in congress. For almost twenty years, Brazil has been considered an extraordinary case of « coalition presidentialism ». This explains why the president’s leadership is important and has an impact on the nature of government. The Brazilian party system is highly fragmented. Dealing with loosely disciplined parties is thus a major problem for presidents because it makes the formation of stable congressional majorities much harder to achieve due to the excessive number of party factions. But there were also the broad multi-party coalition governments seen in Chile. Presidents of these countries have demonstrated leadership skills, arising from a good political performance and cohesive majority coalitions that support them: Aylwin and Lagos in Chile, Cardoso in Brazil. It is impossible to explain the stability of these coalitions without referring to the various mechanisms of coalition management and to presidential leadership. Most importantly, these three presidents facilitated the transition to democracy following the failure of authoritarian regimes in Chile and Brazil. They did not have the same authority as Lula, but they showed great skills of conciliation and moderation during the difficult transition period, namely the restoration and the consolidation of the democratic regime in Chile and Brazil.

This explains why the presidential leadership is important and has an impact on the nature of government. The key feature of the popular election of the president has been the inherent tendency of Latin American countries to emphasize the role of personalities in political life. Latin American political regimes have been markedly affected by patronage and clientelism; with the extension of the right to vote, elections were deeply influenced by these practices. The impact of personalities on the political life of Latin American countries has continued to this day, but it is less substantial. There is a decline in the extent to which Latin American presidentialism is personalized compared to the extent it had been previously. In the past personalization undoubtedly rendered presidential rule more chaotic and less rule-based. The fact that, on the whole, presidencies have tended to follow previously adopted rules during the last decades of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first century has surely resulted in the personalization of presidents being been less marked than in the past. Whereas presidents often enjoy high levels of popularity, these levels vary from president to president as well as over time in the case of each president. One president exhibited exceptional leadership boosted by his personal dominance: Lula. His performance was strengthened by the fact that he had an interesting experience as founder and president of the Workers’ Party. He is often regarded as one of the most popular politicians in the history of Brazil, boasting approval ratings over 80 percent and, at the time of his mandate, one of the most popular in the world.

A new type of personalised populism emerged with the appearance of formulas promoting demobilization and anti-political behavior. Fujimori in Peru, Menem in Argentina, and Uribe in Colombia. These three presidents have adopted a more or less authoritarian manner, being hostile to or even repressing the opposition. They used exceptional means, such as a state of emergency or government by decree, to implement their economic and social policies, as well as the fight against armed rebellions and drug trafficking. However, these exceptional means did not enable them to achieve the expected results. Their presidency was characterized by an authoritarianism and corruption. The populism of Carlos S. Menem in Argentina was strengthened by the political machine of the historic Justicialita Party. Carlos Menem governed within the framework of « peronism » and enjoyed remarkable popular support. Menem’s economic policy involved profound structural reforms, including the privatisation of public enterprises, economic deregulation and the opening up of the economy to foreign trade and investment. This policy created the conditions for monetary stability and remained in force after Menem left office in 1999 and until the crisis of December 2001. However, the policies of the Menem era led to a deepening of social inequality and a rise in unemployment. However he was considered a true peronist. He was the main player in the political regime, with a negative view of parliament and the judiciary. Menem’s leadership has been labelled neopopulist and delegative due to the continuous use of unilateral measures and emergency legislation. It was of a different nature to the populism of Fujimori in Peru. Fujimori sought to distance his government from politics, disdaining the social and/or political mobilization that could have been mounted through some movement or party. Fujimori outlined a strategy in which criticism of the traditional parties was a part of his discourse. He decided to confront the political class instead of building bridges with it. Instead, he expressly renounced such mobilizations, and depoliticized all the other political bodies. Uribe presented himself as the saviour of a Colombia that seemed to be on the brink of destruction. He portrayed himself as a messiah who would redeem Colombia of all its evils and built a strategy around certain core components. He adopted a radical discourse against armed groups and proposed resolving the internal conflict through war and the subjugation of guerrillas. He withdrew from the Liberal Party, to which he had belonged throughout his political life. He spoke out against the parties and the political class despite having belonged to both and adhering to their norms and rules throughout his political career.

Some presidents demonstrated weaker leadership skills (Kirchner in Argentine, Gaviria in Colombia, Zedillo and Calderon in Mexico). They came to power without holding important positions in the governments headed by their predecessors. They have become second-rate candidates, indirectly because of events that have upset or disrupted the appointment of the first office holder. They have never been able to exercise strong authority, muddling through in the face of significant obstacles and divisions.

The fact that the presidential system had become ‘established’ in Latin America by the second half of the 20th century does not mean that these countries have not suffered serious problems. In the 1990s, democracy spread across the region, even if Colombia, Brazil and Mexico experienced marked political violence, the state being unable to maintain order and public security. What is clear is that, in the context of Colombia, Mexico and Brazil in particular, one very serious problem was identified: violence, and this problem affected the regular development of the presidential system in these three countries. The amount of violence that has affected Colombia has been huge, to the extent that it is surprising that the regular conduct of the electoral process has not been prevented from taking place. The policies of the two Colombian presidents, Gaviria and Uribe, were fundamentally different, the first having pursued the ‘war effort’ against the rebels, whereas the second attempted (unsuccessfully) to find a peaceful solution: his successor was able to make substantial progress in that direction, however. In Colombia it has thus been possible, rather surprisingly, to maintain the main electoral rules of the liberal democratic process, although, at least in a substantial part of the country, confrontation has taken in effect the form of a civil war.

In recent decades, presidential elections have taken place regularly in Latin America. Certainly, some presidents have been more popular than others. Some have been unable to conclude their terms. Others have gradually learned to adjust to the particularities of the institutional system. Overall, though, the presidential form of government has gradually begun to function smoothly. The fact that presidents have tended to follow democratic rules has resulted from the presence of patterns of parliamentary presidentialism. In spite of serious problems (political violence, corruption), the emergence of these tools (coalitional presidentialism, the (de-) institutionalization of party systems, the internal organization of the executive branch) must be seen as having constituted the key institutional development of democracy in Latin America.

Farida Jalalzai – Women Presidents of Latin America: Beyond Family Ties?

This is a guest post by Farida Jalalzai, the Hannah Atkins Endowed Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science at Oklahoma State University

In his article “On Election Day, Latin America Willingly Trades Machismo for Female Clout” New York Times contributor Simon Romero asserts “Up and down the Americas, with the notable exception of the United States, women are soaring into the highest political realms” (Romero 2013). In exploring this development making headlines, my book, Women Presidents of Latin America: Beyond Family Ties? (Routledge 2016) analyzes four recent women presidents also known as presidentas: Michelle Bachelet (Chile, 2006-2010; 2014-), Cristina Fernández (Argentina, 2007-2015), Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica, 2010-2014) and Dilma Rousseff (Brazil, 2011-2016).  Given the powers presidentialism affords presidents, women’s increasing tendency to play these very strong political roles present a puzzle.  Since institutional factors account heavily for women’s success and presidentialism appears the most difficult system for women to break through (Jalalzai 2013), how can we explain women’s ability to gain the presidency in Latin America?  Historically, women leaders in presidential systems (particularly women directly elected by the public) were generally limited to relatives of male leaders and this proved to be a personal factor linking women presidents worldwide, including those from Latin America. With the election of Michelle Bachelet in Chile, these traditional patterns appeared to be shifting.  What conditions, therefore, allowed for a broadening of routes, beyond family ties, for women in Latin America?  While an important question, I was also interested in the larger implications the election of powerful women posed. Once in office, do the presidentas make positive changes on behalf of women? My findings were primarily based on responses derived from over 60 elite interviews conducted between 2011 and 2014 in these countries. Respondents included political elites and experts of diverse partisan leanings such as cabinet ministers, legislators, party leaders, consultants from think tanks and academics, and a sitting president (Chinchilla)..  I supplemented interviews with data from public opinion polls, media and scholarly analyses, and information from governmental and non-governmental organizations.

In addressing my first question, I found that all presidentas benefitted from centralized and exclusive presidential nomination procedures (see also Hinojosa 2012). Not only were they essentially handpicked by their predecessors, their publics’ were largely supportive of the outgoing president’s policies.  While benefitting from continuity, with the exception of Fernández (as the former first lady, the only political wife in the group) they did not enjoy top placement or independent bases within their parties.  As such, their nominations were perceived as somewhat surprising and occasionally met with party resistance.  Yet, their outsider statuses likely explain why they were viewed as appropriate successors in the first place.  Critically, Chinchilla, Bachelet, and Rousseff also campaigned on how they would change the face of politics.  The combined approach of change and stability proved fruitful.

Regarding their impact, I examined three types of potential effects of their leadership on women:

  1. Appointing more women to political offices
  2. Positively influencing levels of political engagement and participation, political orientations, and support for women in politics among the general public
  3. Supporting policies on behalf of women

Throughout, I compared women to their male predecessors.  Because of their strong ties to the outgoing presidents, we might have expected the presidentas to behave fairly similarly.  Yet, as women, they may have done more to empower women than their male counterparts. My analysis identified mixed evidence.   While presidents Bachelet and Rousseff prioritized appointing more women than did their male counterparts, this did not seem to hold true for either Chinchilla or Fernández. In analyzing data from representative surveys and from my interviews, findings confirmed key differences between the presidentas.  More positive shifts in public opinion and participation were linked to Rousseff’s presidency (my book only covered her first term—it does did not account her cataclysmic fall from grace and subsequent impeachment) while Bachelet’s showed little consistent or significant effects.  In interviews, respondents easily identified positive influences Rousseff’s and Bachelet’s presidencies offered.  In contrast, both the representative surveys and interviews concerning Chinchilla and Fernández regularly indicated backsliding.  Support for women’s policies proved most prevalent in Bachelet’s presidencies.  Rousseff, to a lesser degree, also made women’s issues an important part of her first term.  While many programs were extensions of Lula’s, Rousseff added more depth to existing programs.  She also connected seemingly gender neutral policies to women, particularly poor women.  We see little prioritization of women’s issues, in contrast, during Fernández’s and Chinchilla’s presidencies, affirming the variability in positive effects of presidentas on women.

Three years after the article quoted above was published, another journalist for the New York Times, Jonathan Gilbert, posed the following question: “What has happened to the powerful women of South America?”  The previous fervor had given way to disappointment as the presidentas analyzed here encountered plummeting approval ratings, much of which is related to economic travails, and nearly all were ensnared in corruption scandals. While this book suggested mixed effects of women presidents, I wonder if women face greater scrutiny for their lackluster performances or alleged engagement in inappropriate behavior. These remain open questions, but ones worth pursuing in future investigations as enhanced scrutiny shapes women’s abilities to exercise power generally and behalf of women specifically. These questions will be even more salient with the United States on the brink of electing its first woman president. As Hillary Clinton is a former First Lady, her path to power is not very puzzling.  Still, no doubt this historic moment will soon give way to investigations regarding what Clinton’s presidency offers women and whether she too receives undue scrutiny because of her gender.


Gilbert, Jonathan. “South America’s Powerful Women Are Embattled. Is Gender a Factor?” The New York Times. May 14, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/15/world/americas/dilma-rousseff-michelle-bachelet-cristina-fernandez-de-kirchner.html?_r=0

Hinojosa, Magda. 2012. Selecting Women, Electing Women: Political Representation and Candidate Selection in Latin America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Jalalzai, Farida. 2016. Women Presidents of Latin America: Beyond Family Ties? New York: Routledge Press.

Jalalzai, Farida. 2013.  Shattered, Cracked or Firmly Intact? Women and the Executive Glass Ceiling Worldwide.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Romero, Simon. “On Election Day, Latin America Willingly Trades Machismo for Female Clout.” The New York Times. December 14, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/15/world/americas/on-election-day-latin-america-willingly-trades-machismo-for-female-clout.html?_r=0

Farida Jalalzai is the Hannah Atkins Endowed Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science. Dr. Jalalzai’s research analyzes the representation and behavior of women and minorities in politics and the role of gender in the political arena. Her work focuses on women national leaders. Her first book Shattered, Cracked and Firmly Intact: Women and the Executive Glass Ceiling Worldwide (Oxford University Press 2013, updated paperback 2016) offers a comprehensive analysis of women, gender, and national leadership positions. Her second book, Women Presidents of Latin America: Beyond Family Ties?  (Routledge 2016) examines several case studies of the behavior of women national leaders including presidents Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica), President Dilma Rousseff (Brazil), Cristina Fernández (Argentina). Her current projects include a co-edited volume “Measuring Women’s Political Empowerment Worldwide” (with Amy C. Alexander and Catherine Bolzendahl, under contrast at Palgrave) a co-authored book Senhora Presidenta: Women’s Representation in Brazil during Dilma Rousseff’s Presidency (with Pedro dos Santos), and  “Blood is Thicker than Water: Family Ties to Political Power Worldwide,” a global analysis of the prevalence of family connections among executive political office holders (with Meg Rincker).

Chile – Constitutional Court Rejects Labor Reform of President Bachelet

When Michelle Bachelet, of the Partido Socialista (PS) and larger Nueva Mayoría alliance, came to power in March 2014, she did so with nearly 63 per cent of the vote, although low turnout deprived her of a commanding mandate for change. Nonetheless, President’s Bachelet ambitious legislative agenda included major educational, taxation, electoral and labor reform.

Educational reform and alterations to Chile’s infamous binomial electoral system were always going to be difficult given the requisite constitutional majorities, but yesterday, President Bachelet’s hard-fought labor reform was halted in its tracks by Chile’s constitutional court. The Court, with 6 in favour and 4 against, ruled that the legislation, which was designed to aid organized labor in a country that saw labor weakened during the period of market reform, was unconstitutional.

The reform, which was only passed by the Senate in April and which caused divisions in the ruling coalition, Nueva Mayoría, sought to establish labor unions as the principal agent for collective bargaining. In effect, it was an effort to overturn the alterations to the labor code undertaken by the military dictatorship of General Pinochet in 1979, which saw Chilean organized labor significantly weakened and side-lined.[1] Members of the conservative right-leaning opposition opposed the legislation however, and filed a motion challenging aspects of the reform with the Constitutional Tribunal.

It was specific codes of the new provision that the Court objected to: the stipulation that companies must negotiate only with labor unions during wage talks; the prohibition on the extension of negotiated benefits to non-unionized works; and compulsory intercompany trading. Although opposition legislators hailed this decision as a victory, unsurprisingly, the government and labor unions were harshly critical of this outcome, with unions suggesting it could lead to labor unrest.

This comes at a bad time for President Bachelet. She has been seeking support for her larger legislative agenda, and her popularity has plummeted a long way from the eighty plus rating that she enjoyed towards the end of her first term in office. Her administration has been beset by a number of corruption scandals, one of which involved one of Chile’s largest corporate entities, Penta Group, and the right-leaning Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI). More significantly however, one of the scandals involved the President’s own son, Sebastián Dávalos. Dávalos was accused of using his political influence to arrange a US$10 million bank loan for his wife’s firm, Caval, which then used the funds to purchase land in central Chile that was promptly resold for a profit. This has left the Chilean electorate generally dissatisfied and unhappy with the political elite and the institutions of the state.

So what happens now? The government has two options: they can either withdraw the legislation altogether or they could effectively veto the Court’s decision. The Court has until May 9 to return the legislation, with their recommend changes, to the government. President Bachelet will then have 30 days to send the now altered legislation back to Congress, or to veto the alterations of the Court and re-send the original bill back to the house. In this scenario, the opposition could of course then challenge the legislation in the Court once again.

This means that this dispute could rumble on for quite a while unless some form of compromise is found.

[1] See for example, the chapter by René Cortázar in Labor Markets in Latin America, edited by Sebastian Edwards and Nora Lustig.

The Basis of Presidential Power in Chile: An analysis from the perspective of public opinion

This is a guest post from William Porath of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. It is based on a recent paper published by William and co-authors José-Joaquín Suzuki (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile), Tania-Marie Ramdohr (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile) and Juan Cristóbal Portales (Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez) in the Bulletin of Latin American Research. The full paper is available here.

Presidential power in a mediatized society is increasingly determined by the image that the leader is able to transmit through the media, as the basis of his or her popular legitimacy. This is, of course, beyond the presidency’s institutional power basis. In the Chilean case, it appears that this country has increasingly become a mediatized society. Under this assumption, we conducted a study that has just been published in the Bulletin of Latin American Research, regarding what issues or topics are most covered or highlighted by the press across three presidential campaigns in Chile, over a span of 20 years.

The assumption is that those aspects that the press highlights about the campaign are an indicator as to what attributes a candidate, i.e. the future president, should have, or about what issues public debate should concentrate on. That is to say, the profile of the candidates for president being displayed to the public through the media, should be the profile and the concerns of those deemed fittest for the office, according to this indirect way of assessing public opinion.

In 1989, and excluding the simple general information about the campaign and the discussion of certain issues as various controversies and political attacks, the topic that found most interest in the media was the government programs of the candidates, which occupied 35% of the analyzed space. We could say then that at that time the basis of public legitimacy of a candidature was in its ability to offer solutions, through public policies, to the problems, which society felt was important and urgent. It is therefore interesting to note that 10 years later, during the presidential election of 1999, that this space decreased to 24% and continued to decline to during the 2009 campaign, when it reached 19%.

In summary, proposals for public policies and programs have been losing importance as the basis of legitimacy for the presidency in a campaign. At least according to this analysis of the media.

In this context, the subject that increases dramatically in importance is the discussion of campaign strategies. The space devoted to this topic goes from 24% in 1989 to 37% in 1999, and reached 44% in 2009. That is, following this line of argument, the basis of legitimacy of a presidential candidate is the ability to organize and lead a successful strategy to win an election, and paradoxically, not the substantive content of their policy proposals.

And what about of the characteristics of the candidate? Our work has distinguished between personal political skills, as defined by the competence for office, their integrity or charisma, and the characteristics of their private lives as an ordinary person, such as their hobbies, family, appearance and wardrobe or information about their non-political biography. In this sense, the media interest in the political competencies of the candidates remained constant in all three elections analyzed, around 8% of campaign coverage. Meanwhile the interest in the private life of candidates (the “privatization “of politics) remained around 5% in the first two elections we studied, but it then rose explosively in 2009 to occupy about 19% of all coverage.

It appears that there is a new basis of legitimacy for candidates for the post of president in Chile: his or her private life.

In any case, we should point out that our analysis considers the four most important newspapers in the country, in terms of circulation and national scope, including two tabloids or so called “popular presses”. And if their presence explains the huge increased interest in the private lives of candidates by 2009, it is significant that the same pattern is repeated in the serious press, or the reference newspapers.

The above analysis was also broken down according to the actor who took the initiative. Thus, we separately analyzed the agenda that was initiated by the press, and we compared it with the priorities of the issues that came to the newspapers as direct or official statements from candidates. By doing this, the impression is that politicians have tended to follow a pattern of discussion that has been imposed upon them by the media.

For example, if the candidates initially showed more interest in discussing their proposals for public debate, allocating about 43% of the space in their statements in the media to this subject, in 2009, that space fell to 35%. Also, given the growing media interest in the campaign strategies of the candidates, discussion of strategies shifted from 19% of candidates’ statements in 1989, to 24% in 1999, and 33% in 2009. It is also significant that by 2009, the candidates themselves quadrupled the space allocated to details of their private lives (16% vs. 4%).

While these analyzes are limited to quantifiable indicators, nonetheless, we can say that in the past 15 years, increasingly, the subject of public discussion about the capabilities of the successive presidents in Chile has been about his or her ability to communicate, and to manage their communications strategy. The degree to which this strategy is successful can be observed in public opinion polls, which the media focus on practically every two weeks. Also, and as in many other Western democracies, in Chile, the first question that policy makers appear to discuss when they are designing a new policy is “How will this sound in the media?”

Of course this year, the slowing economy, the accumulation of structural reforms undertaken by the government, and a series of political corruption scandals have returned the focus to political issues. In particular, the deep distrust that the public feels about the political system and the increasing loss of its legitimacy have returned to public debate the question of political leadership and acumen, above and beyond simple popularity in the media.

Chile – Major Cabinet Reshuffle

Nearly two weeks ago, the President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, during an interview with Canal 13, announced somewhat unexpectedly that she had asked her entire 23 member cabinet to resign. Stating that now was “the moment to change the cabinet”, President Bachelet then said that she would consider the position of her former ministers over a 72-hour period.

Those 72 hours are now up and President Bachelet has presented her new cabinet in what amounts to the most significant cabinet reshuffle ever witnessed in contemporary Chile. Five ministers have been completely removed from the cabinet, while four others have received new portfolios. Interpreted as a shift to the centre within the centre-left Concertación, Rodrigo Valdés, an economist trained at MIT, replaced Alberto Arenas as Finance Minister. This is the first time that a sitting Finance Minister has been removed by a Chilean President mid-term since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990.

Jorge Burgos, formerly Defence Minister, replaced Rodrigo Peñailillo as the Minister of the Interior while Alvaro Elizalde, formerly the chief government spokesperson, was replaced by Marcelo Díaz, formerly ambassador to Argentina. In addition, President Bachelet announced new ministers for Defence, Labour, Culture and Social Development. Some key portfolios remained undisturbed: Heraldo Muñoz will continue as Foreign Minister and Nicolás Eyzaguirre, key to the President’s wide-ranging education reforms, will stay as Education Minister.

The cabinet reshuffle can primarily be understood in the context of Michelle Bachelet’s dwindling popularity. Her approval ratings have reaching the nadir of the low thirties, a far cry from the eighty plus rating that she enjoyed towards the end of her first term in office. In turn, this poor support for her administration is largely a product of a number of corruption scandals that have recently engulfed the Chilean body politic, leaving the Chilean electorate generally dissatisfied and unhappy with the political elite and the institutions of the state.

The first of these corruption scandals involves one of Chile’s largest corporate entities, Penta Group, which was allegedly receiving false invoices from politicians in order to allow the company channel illegal campaign donations to political parties, mainly the right-leaning Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI). A number of Penta executives were jailed, but have since been released and placed under house arrest.

More significantly however, one of the scandals involves the President’s own son, Sebastián Dávalos. Dávalos has been accused of using his political influence to arrange a US$10 million bank loan for his wife’s firm, Caval, which then used the funds to purchase land in central Chile that was promptly resold for a profit. Although the national banking regulator has cleared Dávalos of any wrongdoing, Congress has launched an investigative committee to explore the allegations.

For a previously enormously popular president, who was partly elected due to her harsh critique of staid and corrupt practices among the country’s political elite, these scandals have been disastrous for her administration. President Bachelet denies any wrongdoing, or knowledge of the loan her son received, but the scandals have nonetheless left their mark. The cabinet reshuffle is clearly an attempt to inject new life and untarnished political blood into her damaged administration. We will just have to wait and see if it works.

Chile – Michelle Bachelet wins Presidency

Michelle Bachelet, of the Partido Socialista (PS) and Nueva Mayoría alliance, has emerged as the winner of yesterday’s presidential run-off race against Evelyn Matthei of the right-leaning Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI). A recent poll from Ipsos and the University of Santiago estimated that Bachelet commanded support from 63.7 per cent of the electorate, in comparison to just 36.3 per cent for Matthei. With nearly 92 per cent of ballots counted, Michelle Bachelet currently has 62.32 per cent of the national vote.

With penalties for not voting abolished, turnout for the run-off race, at 5,174,624, was even lower than the first round of the election, thereby depriving Bachelet of a commanding mandate for change. Nonetheless, Bachelet and her new government will now press forward with major education reform together with an increase in corporate tax from 20 to 25 per cent. However, proposed constitutional changes, and a pledge to reform Chile’s infamous binomial electoral system, will prove very difficult for the new president.

Significantly, for the wider region, Sunday’s election was the first ever presidential run-off race in Latin America where both candidates were women. Michelle Bachelet re-joins the growing list of women who have been elected to the presidency across the region: Dilma Rousseff (Brazil), Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica), Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (Argentina), Mireya Moscoso (Panama) and Violeta Chamorro (Nicaragua).[1]

In a region noted for its culture of machismo, this is an important, albeit gradual, change. A number of Latin American countries have adopted gender quotas to increase women’s participation in politics. In 1991, Argentina was the first country to do so, introducing legislation, which stipulated that women had to comprise at least 30 per cent of the list positions on party ballots for legislative elections. Thirteen other Latin American countries followed suit and adopted similar laws stipulating gender quotas for legislative elections.

Recent research has demonstrated that while gender quotas have notably increased women’s representation in elected office, they have done little to address the marginalization of women in mass political participation across the region.[2] Latin America still has a very long way to go to address long-standing and entrenched gender inequalities.

In Chile, Michelle Bachelet will assume residency of the Palacio de la Moneda next March.

[1] Rosalia Arteaga also served as interim president of Ecuador for two days in February 1997. Lidia Gueiler Tejada was interim president of Bolivia from 1979 to 1980. Isabel Perón, the first ever woman president in Latin America, assumed office following the death of her husband Juan Domingo Perón in 1974. None of these women were directly elected to the office of the president.

[2] See Leslie Schwindt-Bayer (2012) ‘Gender Quotas and Women’s Political Participation in Latin America,’ available at http://www.vanderbilt.edu/lapop/pdfs/Schwindt-Bayer_SmallGrant_Publish.pdf

Chile – Presidential Election to be Decided in Run-off

On Sunday, Chile held concurrent presidential and legislative elections, producing one of the least surprising results in recent Latin American electoral history.[1] Michelle Bachelet of the Partido Socialista (PS) and Nueva Mayoría alliance, received 46.7 of the vote, just short of the 50 per cent threshold needed for outright victory and so will compete in a run-off election on December 14th with the second place candidate, Evelyn Matthei, of the Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI), who received 25.01 per cent.

This election signals important changes ahead in Chilean politics. Firstly, the election, occurring against the backdrop of the 40th anniversary of the military coup in Chile, which ousted Salvador Allende and installed the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, was widely considered to be the most ideologically polarized in the country since the return to democracy.

It also highlights the disorientation of the right in Chile. From the outset of the campaign, the right was in disarray and fell foul to in fighting over their choice of presidential candidate. Evelyn Matthei, a former labour minister under the current right incumbent, Sebastián Piñera, was only the third choice candidate for the right-wing alliance, Alianza por Chile. Alianza has also suffered in the legislative elections held on Sunday, winning only 48 of the 120 seats in the lower house and 7 in the senate.

However, this does not mean it will all be plain sailing for Michelle Bachelet if (and when) she wins the run-off election in December. During the campaign, Bachelet promised to change the constitution, raise corporate tax rates, and oversee significant education reform. While the Nueva Mayoría alliance won 68 seats in the lower house and 12 in the Senate (giving them 21 of 38 senate seats), this still falls far short of the 60 per cent needed to change the electoral system, or the 67 per cent supermajority needed to change the constitution. The two-third requirement for constitutional change is a legacy of the Pinochet era dictatorship, together with Chile’s rather unique binomial electoral system, which ensures that it is virtually impossible to ever win such a majority in the house.

Nonetheless, this majority should be sufficient for tax reform, and if Bachelet can meet the demands of at least one of the four newly elected independent candidates linked to the highly mobilized and militant student movement, it should also be enough for the 57 per cent majority needed to reform the education system.

This election also recorded a total turnout of 6,691,840, by far the lowest turnout in a presidential election since the return to democracy in Chile. This is particularly interesting given that this was the first Chilean election to be held without compulsory participation and penalties for not voting.

It is widely expected that Bachelet will win the run-off election on December 14th.

[1] All 120 lower house seats were up for election, and 20 of 38 senate seats.