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Journal of Democracy 11.2 (2000) 78-84

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Chile's Elections:
Change and Continuity

Manuel Antonio Garretón

In December 1999, Chile held its third presidential election since the rejection of the military government of Augusto Pinochet in a 1988 plebiscite. Like the two preceding elections, which brought to power Patricio Aylwin in 1989 and Eduardo Frei in 1993, the 1999 contest was won by a representative of the Concertación, a center-left coalition of the Christian Democrats, the Socialists, the Radicals, and the Party for Democracy. It differed from these earlier elections, however, in four important ways. First, in 1999 there were not simultaneous parliamentary elections. Second, the candidate of the Concertación, Ricardo Lagos, was not a Christian Democrat but a Socialist, who had easily defeated his Christian Democratic rival in the primaries. Third, the Rightist opposition was united for the first time behind a single candidate, Joaquín Lavín. Finally, the unprecedentedly close results of the December 1999 race led to the first runoff election in Chilean history, with Lagos narrowly defeating Lavín by 51.3 to 48.7 percent of the vote.

The climate of the 1999 campaign was characterized by a "de-dramatizing" of the elections that sharply contrasted with similar occasions in Chilean history. Some thought that the country had already entered a "new era" of democracy, markets, and globalization. They feared, however, that Chile was moving too hesitantly into the twenty-first century, and that impediments to the full realization of globalization and the market economy needed to be removed. Many of them argued that politics had to be put at the service of this process [End Page 78] and thus that presidential elections were important only in a negative sense in ensuring that Chile was not "left behind." Others believed that politics and elections no longer played a crucial role in social transformations and thus that governments should do as little as possible. For them, politics had become pretty much irrelevant. Both these views were shared, to varying degrees, among the Right and the business community.

A different view of this question prevailed among those sectors of the Left outside the Concertación, which included the Communists and two other parties that fielded minor candidates for the presidency. They attacked what they called the "neoliberal model" adopted by the governing coalition and doubted the capacity even of the Concertación's more leftist elements to modify this model. In their view, the elections were useful only for consolidating a sector of public opinion that would express its discontent with the Concertación's "administration of the legacy of Pinochet."

Within the Concertación itself, two viewpoints were present. On one side were those who shared the belief that this was not the time for grand government programs or great ideas of historic significance. This was not because they had lost faith in the importance of politics but because they feared a return to the ideological polarization that had caused the collapse of Chilean democracy. The trauma of the 1960s and 1970s was still alive for them. Such fears also prompted concern about the shift from a Christian Democrat to a Socialist as the candidate of the Concertación. On the other side, leftist sectors saw an opportunity for the next Concertación government to achieve a transformation that would usher Chile into the twenty-first century while maintaining the achievements of the Aylwin and Frei governments. Overall, the pre-dominant discourse within the ranks of the Concertación combined economic continuity with sociocultural change and a call to reform the authoritarian elements of the Constitution of 1980 inherited from Pinochet.

The campaign was dominated by the style and themes of Lavín, especially in the media, which, with the exception of a couple of radio stations and one television channel, gave him their unrestricted support. As noted above, Lavín was the candidate of an alliance that, for the first time in the postauthoritarian period, represented the whole of the Chilean Right. This alliance was led by the...