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Volume 65 / Social Sciences


Michael Fleet, Professor of Political Science, Marquette University

CHILEAN POLITICS DURING THE BIENNIUM 2004–2006 have been less stressful and less uncertain when compared to previous periods. With markedly improved civil-military relations, and the constitutional reforms approved in 2005, its lengthy transition to democracy appears to be close to an end. The continuing operation of an electoral system that inflates the representation of the political right remains, in the minds of most observers, however, a significant flaw in the country's democratic character.

The period's most important single political event, no doubt, was the election, in January, 2006, of Michelle Bachelet, the first woman in Latin American history to be elected in her own right, and not just on the heels of a politically prominent husband. Bachelet served a year as Minister of Health under Ricardo Lagos, before being named his Minister of Defense in January 2002. She served in that capacity for two years, during which time she gained the trust and cooperation of senior military officers, helped them to embrace the concept of civilian supremacy, and in the process became a leading candidate to succeed Lagos as president. Ironically, her political ascent coincided with the equally dramatic decline of the political fortunes of the UDI's Joaquín Lavín, whom Lagos had narrowly defeated in the 2001 run-off, and who was expected to be a formidable candidate the next time around.

Bachelet's victory over eventual right-wing standard bearer Sebastian Piñera catapulted her into international political prominence, but saddled her government with high expectations. The first several years of her presidency were disappointing to both supporters and observers alike, as the economy faltered, party leaders bickered, and her government earned low marks for its management of Santiago's new metropolitan bus network (el Trans-Santiago) and its handling of secondary students who were protesting educational policies. Toward the end of her term, however, her handling of the Chilean economy in a period of global recession, and her unassuming, and yet graciously personal style, enabled her to recover her footing and to approach the end of her term with relatively high popularity ratings.

The literature on Chilean government and politics for this biennium reflects the increasingly normalized character of the country's political life. Perhaps the sharpest contrast with preceding periods is the marked decline of interest in Pinochet himself and in the issues and divisions generated by his almost 17 years in power. With the discovery of his US bank accounts, Pinochet's image and reputation suffered virtually irreparable political damage. The revelations clearly helped the Concertation in the 2005/2006 elections, but both the right and the public at large seemed willing, if not eager, to move beyond the coup and its continuing aftermath. Accordingly, national debate and discussion have revolved around more mundane political topics, and the political literature has followed suit. During the biennium, scholars and observers have focused on President Bachelet herself, the 2005/2006 elections, executive-legislative relations, civil-military relations, decentralization, and policy initiatives in areas such as health care, tax exemptions, gender equality, rather than on historical divisions and disjunctures.

Reflecting the increasingly normalized state of Chilean politics, most of the material published during this biennium dealt with either elections or contemporary political developments. In their coverage of the 2005/2006 elections, Angell and Reig point to elements of both continuity and departure vis-à-vis elections of previous years (item #bi2008002774#). Gamboa and Segovia (item #bi2008001095#) stress the continuing importance of the democratic/authoritarian divide in both the parliamentary and presidential elections. Huneuus analyzes Bachelet's meteoric rise in the polls, Lavin's equally dramatic decline, and the problems facing the PDC and UDI (item #bi2008001224#). And Morales, finally, offers a detailed analysis of Bachelet's victory, relating her vote totals, and those of other candidates, to voter attitudes towards the Lagos government, and to the gender, household status, and income level of individual voters as well (item #bi2008003051#).

In other articles dealing with election-related issues: Astorga argues that the country's merely "electoral" democracy is a perfect political fit for its neoliberal economic model (item #bi2008003566#); Carey and Siavelis explain how the Concertation uses the prospect of an administration appointment to persuade strong candidates to run in a district in which their coalition may not receive enough votes to win both seats (item #bi2006001789#); Garrido and Navia challenge this "insurance policy" explanation (item #bi2008001127#); Fuentes and Villar discuss the pros and cons of obligatory registration and voting (item #bi2008003567#); Rojas and Navia offer evidence that the binomial system was explicitly designed to favor forces sympathetic to the right (item #bi2007003091#); Siavelis proposes an open-list, small-district based proportional system in place of both the current binomial system and mixed-member systems to which some countries have been turning of late (item #bi2008001094#); and Bonilla and Gatica review efforts to develop a spatial theory of voting based on realistic assumptions and capable of predicting outcomes (item #bi2008001137#).

Among the many publications dealing with contemporary politics, the following are worthy of note: Buchanan's comparison of the Uruguayan and Chilean labor movements (item #bi2008003030#); Ferraro's depiction of the considerable influence that Senators and Deputies enjoy in their dealings with public-sector officials (item #bi2008003034#); Fuentes' book-length analysis of the difficulties in curbing police violence in postmilitary Argentina and Chile (item #bi2008003562#); the publication in English of Huneeus' earlier study of the Pinochet Regime (item #bi2008003568#); and Huneeus' reflections on the enduring limitations of the 1980 Constitution (item #bi2007000240#). Additionally, Rodriguez Fisse's informative account of interest groups and lobbying activity in Chile (item #bi2008003564#), Ruiz-Rodríguez's analysis of polarization in the country's party system over the years (item #bi2006002573#), Santa-Cruz' discussion of international involvement in the plebiscite of 1989 (item #bi2007004116#), and Uggla's analysis of the negotiations that led to the 1989 reform of the 1980 Constitution (item #bi2006001791#), are of interest. And, finally, a number of people have ventured opinions as to what should be done to revitalize citizen involvement in the country's political process: the Águila collection brings together essays from veteran and younger Concertation Party members on how to reshape and revitalize their coalition's strategic objectives (item #bi2008003557#); Lahera calls for additional job creation, an extension of social benefits beyond existing levels, and more effective integration and representation of the "non-parliamentary" left (item #bi2007000319#); Walker and Jouannet urge the Christian Democratic Party to embrace the role of junior partner in a broader and explicitly social democratic Concertation (item #bi2008000669#); Garreton urges the Concertation to incorporate the non-parliamentary left and move beyond blandly social democratic initiatives (item #bi2007000322#); and Wilke proposes new, neocorporatist networks that link citizens, interest groups, and the policy-making process (item #bi2008001139#).

During this biennium, observers and analysts also looked at developments in the area of political decentralization, a topic that has attracted considerable interest of late in Chile as in other countries. Cleuren, for example, has written of the potentially destabilizing effects of such initiatives in a country (Chile) in which inter-elite accommodation has worked so well to this point (item #bi2008001449#). Durston, on the other hand, stresses the potential for local clients to play more active, less dependent roles if they are included in discussion between government agencies and local power brokers (item #bi2008000943#). Eaton emphasizes the long-term political risks to national policymakers of even modest concessions (item #bi2009004130#). Mardones Z. also points to the uncertain and unintended impact that decentralization can have on a party's political fortunes at the local level (item #bi2008001093#). And, finally, Kubal examines the effects of efforts to improve the country's schools and health care facilities through decentralization (item #bi2008000870#).

As might be imagined under a government headed by a popular female president, gender politics have also been a recurrent aspect of political life and debate during the period. Blofield and Haas' article looks at the challenges faced by initiatives that challenge traditional gender roles (item #bi2007000482#). Hardy has surveyed and interviewed women leaders in the political and nongovernmental sectors (item #bi2008003560#). Álvarez argues that the women's movement has been co-opted and weakened by its close association with recent Concertation governments (item #bi2008002552#); Pribble compares welfare policies affecting women (as opposed to men or people generally) in Chile and Uruguay (item #bi2007000191#). Franceschet suggests that Bachelet's election as a reflection of cultural changes that have already taken place, and an opportunity for the country to move even further (item #bi2008002867#). And, finally, Guzman and Rojas Donoso have written an informative biography of Bachelet based on interviews of the candidate, her mother, and two of her children (item #bi2008003565#).

Among studies dealing with specific thematic or policy issues, Tokman et al.'s proposal for a new approach to tax-exemption policy might be of interest to political economists (item #bi2008001136#), while those interested in the political implications of Catholic values and beliefs might wish to examine Stewart-Gambino's interviews of pobladoras who feel abandoned by an increasingly conservative Church (item #bi2007003063#), the Summer 2006 issue of Estudios Públicos containing several articles on Catholic teaching and the papacy of John Paul II, and Thayer's reflections on Christian humanism in Chile (item #bi2008003558#).

And, finally, in contrast with previous biennia, only two studies of the once central, and potentially explosive, topic of civil-military relations appeared during this period: Montes and García Pino's account of the breakthroughs in the Concertation's relations with the military in the late 1990s and early 2000s (item #bi2008003561#), and Week's study of civil-military relations through 2002 (HLAS 63:2359).

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