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Journal of Democracy 11.2 (2000) 70-77

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Chile's Elections:
The New face of the Right

Arturo Fontaine Talavera

On 16 January 2000, Socialist Ricardo Lagos won Chile's first presidential election of the century, narrowly defeating rightist candidate Joaquín Lavín 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent. The results in the first-round balloting on December 12 had been even closer, with Lavín shocking almost all observers by finishing in a virtual dead heat with Lagos--47.96 percent for Lagos and 47.52 for Lavín, with Communist Gladys Marín (3.19 percent) and three other minor candidates trailing far behind.

It was not supposed to be a close race. Ever since winning the plebiscite in 1988 on whether General Augusto Pinochet's military government should continue in office, the coalition that Lagos represented--the Concertación, a center-left alliance of the Christian Democrats, the Socialist Party, and the Party for Democracy--had never gotten less than 50 percent of the vote in a presidential election. Christian Democrats Patricio Aylwin and Eduardo Frei had won with 55.2 percent and 57.8 percent in 1989 and 1993, respectively. In the 1997 parliamentary elections, the Concertación managed to get 50.4 percent of the vote. As the 1999 presidential elections approached, Lagos looked all but invincible. How can one explain the narrowness of his victory?

Three things had happened since the 1997 elections that nearly cost Lagos the election. First, unemployment rose dramatically, reaching more than 12 percent in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis. [End Page 70] The outgoing Concertación government, needless to say, was blamed for this, even though per-capita income had doubled in the last ten years.

Second, President Frei called too early for Lagos to resign as minister of public works. Lagos was an excellent minister. More public works were built under his tenure than under any other government in history, and most of this construction was financed through private investment, without draining public funds. By stepping down too early, Lagos was deprived of a useful platform from which to launch his campaign, especially against an opponent (Lavín) who liked to present himself as a mayor who got things done.

Third, Pinochet's detention in London at the request of a Spanish magistrate also hurt Lagos, and not just because of the question of sovereignty that it raised. As a result of this detention, Pinochet suddenly came to be viewed not just as a former perpetrator of human rights abuses but as a victim, weak, old, and infirm. The Frei government and the Right now shared the same objective--bringing Pinochet back to Chile. This tended to dull one of the sharpest differences between the two candidates: Lavín in the past had been closely tied to Pinochet, while Lagos, a hero of the democratic opposition, had gained renown in a telecast during the 1988 plebiscite campaign by pointing directly at the camera and personally challenging Pinochet.

A Battle Made for Television

The campaign was a fight between Lagos's accusing finger and Lavín's permanent smile, between the imposing father-figure and the son asking for an opportunity. The scenario played itself out on television, a medium for which Lagos was ill-suited.

Lagos has a face dominated by a large mouth, and when he is tense his tongue escapes from it with incredible speed, to whip across his lower lip and disappear. This nervous tic, unimportant but uncontrollable, was mercilessly picked up on television and even on his own campaign commercials.

He is a shy man, and like many shy people, proud. Physical contact does not come naturally to him. He doesn't have the typical politician's easy affability. His own supporters would approach him full of expectations, only to be met with a cold, almost indifferent embrace. He seemed most comfortable speaking from a podium, lecturing professorially from above to an audience seated below. He is self-righteous, solitary, and severe.

The jovial Lavín, on the...


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