Chile: Bachelet and Piñera to runoff

As expected, the Concertación presidential candidate, Michelle Bachelet, and the Renovación Nacional candidate, Sebastián Piñera, will advance to a runoff, according to El Mercurio‘s handy graphics and tables:

Bachelet, 45.7%
Piñera, 25.8
Lavá­n (UDI), 23.2
Hirsch (left), 5.2

Results are not final, but probably will not change much.

Bachelet has a strong lead going into the runoff, but the combined votes of the two right-wing candidates are greater than her own votes by just over three percentage points, and total to around 49%. Bachelet and Hirsch combine for a narrow majority for the left. Her task is now to cement that majority in the head-to-head battle leading up to the runoff in January.

Bachelet has to court the left votes without losing more conservative Christian Democrats to Piñera. The more she courts voters on one side, the more she risks losing voters on the other. If Hirsch voters stay home, it is bad news for her, but not as bad as if center-right voters go to her opponent.

On the right, it can’t necessarily be assumed that all of Lavá­n’s voters will go to Piñera. Some will abstain and others could even vote for Bachelet, as despite his being the most “right wing” in conventional terms, Lavá­n developed a following among some poor constituencies in his term as mayor of a Santiago suburb, and later of Santiago itself. Lavá­n only narrowly lost to the current president, Ricardo Lagos, also a Socialist, in the runoff in January, 2000. In the interim, however, he has probably gained more new enemies than friends (which explains why he came in third, behind a fellow right-wing candidate).

Bachelet should win, but it can’t be called a foregone conclusion.

Chile’s election: Unusual alliance behavior

Chileans vote Sunday in presidential and congressional elections. Polls show that there will likely be a runoff required for the presidency, but the likely winner will be Michelle Bachelet of the Concertación alliance. It is not clear which of the two candidates of the right will qualify for the runoff. Sebastian Piñera of the Renovacion Nacional and Joaquin Lavi­n of the Union Democrática Independiente are running within a few percentage points of each other for second place. Because Bachelet’s ultimate victory is so widely expected, the most interesting feature of this election is that, even with two presidential candidates on the right, their parties are running in alliance in the congressional races. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time anywhere that two (or more) parties have presented an alliance for legislative races but not for president (normally one might expect the reverse, if not the same alliance patterns for the two branches).

Bachelet would be the first woman to serve as Chile’s president, and her victory would represent a second successive term for the candidate of the Socialist party. (Chilean presidents are not eligible for immediate reelection, so popular incumbent Ricardo Lagos is not running.)

Bachelet would probably defeat either conservative candidate, but Piñera would be more likely than Lavá­n to appeal to some Christian Democratic voters put off by once again having the Concertación represented on the presidential ticket by a Socialist. So, if there is a potential upset in the making, it is more likely if Piñera places second on Sunday than if Laván does.

The presidential election marks the fourth since the end of the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Each of these elections has been won by the same electoral alliance, the Concertación, which consists of the Christian Democratic party (which supplied the first two presidents upon the return to democracy), the Socialists, and other center-left parties. This is the first time that presidential and congressional elections have occurred on the same day since 1993.

To understand why the center-left parties remain in an alliance despite the two-round election of the presidency (which would allow them to run separately in the first round and then pool votes in the runoff, as French alliances do), one must understand the congressional electoral system. There is no other electoral system like it in the world, and it puts a premium on electoral cooperation. It thus has helped sustain two large electoral alliances, despite internal tensions within them.

In fact, it is the very strength of the incentives for cooperation in Chile’s electoral system that explains why the center-right alliance has continued to present joint lists for congress even though its component parties failed to coordinate on a single presidential candidates (and are thus hoping to be able to pool their votes on one candidate to defeat Bachelet in the runoff).

The congressional electoral system, in both houses, is one of two-seat districts and open lists. The voter picks one candidate (in each house race) who is running on a list that also contains one other candidate nominated by the same alliance. The allocation rule used to determine how many seats each list wins in a district is the most common of all proportional-representation formulas, the D’Hondt divisor method. However, due to the small districts, the outcomes are not very proportional: Only two parties, at most, can obtain representation in any district, and the second list is likely to be over-represented. (The latter effect was intended by Pinochet, who discovered to his chagrin in 1988 that the right was not a majority if the Christian Democrats would continue to cooperate with the Socialists).

Under D’Hondt, the list with the largest number of votes wins the first seat (of course), and then its votes are divided by two. If the resulting quotient is still larger than the total votes cast for the second list, then the first list also wins the next seat. If not, then the second list wins the second seat. (In Chile, the process stops here, because there are only two seats per district, but if the magnitude were larger, the list that won the second seat would have its votes divided by three, and the process would continue in this fashion, always dividing a list’s votes by the number of the seat it just won in sequence, plus one, and then seeing which party now has the largest quotient at each step.)

In Chile’s two-seat districts, the result of this rule is that a list wins both seats in a district if, and only if, it doubles the votes of the runner-up list. So, you can see the reason for the premium on alliance. If the center-left were to present a joint list, but the right presented two separate lists for each of its two main parties, then in many districts the Concertación would win both seats and the right would win none.

As long as the right presents an alliance list, as does the Concertación, in all but the most one-sided districts, one seat will go to the center-left and one to the right. This means that the congressional outcome is relatively insensitive to changes in the balance of support between left and right. Only a very small number of districts in any election are at the cusp of one alliance winning two seats instead of one (or vice versa).

As I noted, the lists are open. That is, voters select a candidate within a list. If a list wins one seat, it is won by the candidate who won the greater number of votes of the two on that list. Because parties have a reasonably good idea of the districts in which their support is greatest, when the leaders of the parties comprising an alliance are selecting candidates, they can roughly determine the balance of the component parties in congress by nominating, for example, a strong Socialist on the same list with a weak Christian Democrat in one district, while doing the opposite in another.

So, the D’Hondt rule in two-seat districts and the ability of parties to divide up the nominations within their respective alliances means that competition in congressional elections is somewhat limited.

However, this year there is real competition on the right. Not only are the two main conservative parties presenting separate presidential candidates, but they also have some of their better congressional candidates competing against one another in districts in which only one of them is likely to win. Naturally, each presidential candidate wanted to be associated with strong co-partisan legislative candidates wherever possible.

Barring an upset, the outcome of this election–another Socialist presidency within the Concertación, and not much change in the left-right balance in congress–is a foregone conclusion. But the competition on the right will be interesting to watch for what it reveals about the relative strength of two parties that are now trying to distinguish themselves more than ever.

That two presidential candidates of the same alliance are nonetheless pooling their votes in congressional races shows the imperative the Chilean electoral system puts on cooperation, however strained it may be at times.

It is likely that the two-seat districts will be abolished in the near future. A return to PR in larger districts would allow the reemergence of the perhaps more-natural tendency in Chile of the Christian Democrats and moderate right to work together. It would also allow the extra-Concertación left (whose candidate could win 7% or more on Sunday) to gain representation. Now that the years that have elapsed since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship are longer than that dictatorship itself, Sunday’s election could mark the beginning of the end of the two big alliances that first formed over the question of Pinochet’s continuismo.

Revolutionary situations?: Bolivia and Morales in comparative perspective

A commenter to my previous post on Bolivia reasserts his claim that a potential victory by Evo Morales in the scheduled interim election for Bolivia’s presidency would lead to a revolutionary dictatorship. The gist of the commenter’s argument is that it happened in Cuba (Castro) and Venezuela (Chávez), and it could happen in Bolivia:

It doesn’t happen overnight, but with a determined despot, it eventually happens. In fact, it always happens.

Wow, what an amazing claim! This is a bit like the claims made by players on victorious sports teams that they wanted it more than the other team. If we believe in ourselves, nobody can stop us! No, the winning team did not want it more, it won because of forces largely out of the immediate control of the players themselves. Same with revolutions and revolutionaries. It is not the determination of the would-be dictator that makes a revolution; it is the collapse or take-over of state institutions that would otherwise check the “determined despot.” In the Bolivian case, the probability is low that Morales could become president in the first place. But if he does, the probability is even lower that he could control congress or dispense with its check on the presidency, and lower still that he could overcome the resistance of the armed forces to the consolidation of a totalitarian-style revolutionary regime.

Let’s review the Cuban and Venezuelan (and, I will add, Chilean) cases and see the extent to which Bolivia has similar characteristics.

In the case of Cuba, Batista’s army collapsed, unwilling to stand and fight once the dictator fled. (I have developed this argument in Theory and Society (1989), and Robert Dix and others have developed similar arguments.) There were no political parties to articulate the interests of the middle class (as noted by Javier Corrales in Latin American Politics and Society, 2001), and most of the middle class that might have formed the backbone of an oppositions to Castro—the way the Nicaraguan middle class and its parties and backing of armed resistance would later check the Sandinistas—fled the island. There was no legislature to check Castro because it had already been emasculated by Batista. In the decades since coming to power, Castro has never permitted the development of institutions that might check him (as argued by Perez-Stable in Comparative Politics, 1999). Cuba is about as institution-free an environment as one can imagine for a relatively stable political system, and it has been such almost from the day Castro took power, thanks to the collapse of the army and the absence of significant political parties or a legislature.

In Venezuela, Chávez had first tried to seize power in a coup in 1992, for which he was subsequently dismissed from the army, but for which he received widespread accolades from the lower classes who had been losing ground under what had become an increasingly hollow form of “democracy.” He was later released from prison and mounted a presidential campaign, and won 58% of the vote in 1998—the most ever for a candidate under the 1958–98 electoral regime. He campaigned openly on a platform of replacing the country’s constitution and signed a decree convoking a referendum on the matter on his very first day in office. This represented a break in the institutional order, but one that he clearly had a mandate for (and the supreme court upheld it). In the ensuing years, he has indeed consolidated an ever narrower regime that could be moving in a quasi-totalitarian direction (as I argue in a review of an edited volume on Venezuela; the review will be published soon in Perspectives on Politics). While I do agree that Venezuela’s political situation has radicalized, it is still a very long way from being “another Cuba.” (And while land seizures are indeed on the increase, as the commenter to my first post notes, I would note that they are nowhere near the scale of Zimbabwe. Moreover, Chávez still confronts stronger opposition parties and a larger middle class than Mugabe does.)

Now, do these conditions apply in Bolivia? First of all, we do not even know if the elections for December are going ahead, as I noted in my earlier post. If they are, the outer limit in voter support that Morales can obtain is probably in the low-to-mid thirties. (He won 22% and placed second last time.) Under Bolivia’s constitution, the popular vote is not decisive. In fact, Bolivia is one of two countries in the world in which the presidential candidate who obtains the highest vote total in the final or sole round of popular voting can “lose” to the runner up. (The other, of course, is the United States.)

Having failed to win a majority outright, Morales would be dependent upon horse-trading in congress just to get the presidency in the first place (as noted by baz in the comments to my earlier post, as well as in the post itself). It is highly unlikely that congress would elevate him to the presidency, but even if it did, he would face a congress in which he had a plurality of seats, but nowhere near a majority. Unlike Chávez, who also faced a fragmented congress (elected, unprecedentedly for Venezuela, months before the president in a transparent and successful effort to deprive the winner of a working majority in the body), Morales would lack the popular backing to decree a constitutional-replacement process over the heads of that congress. Not having built up a base of support inside the junior office corps (as had Chávez, from the inside), Morales could not count on the acquiescence of the armed forces. I cannot see how a hypothetical Morales presidency could avoid being checked by congress, the military (and probably also the judiciary, which has become quite assertive in recent years, unlike that of Venezuela in the 1990s).

If Morales were to become president, the historical parallel most relevant would not be Venezuela or Cuba, but Chile under Allende. And we know how that ended. But even that scenario is unlikely to be repeated in Bolivia were Morales to become president. Unlike Allende, Morales could not count on a broad alliance of well established parties to support him. He certainly would not get the unanimous support of congress to nationalize gas production, as Allende got for nationalizing copper. The pro-Allende parties managed a narrow majority in 1971 nationwide municipal elections and very narrowly missed a majority in congressional elections three months before the September 11 coup. Allende was a long-time senator with considerable respect across the political spectrum, even if his avowedly revolutionary agenda commanded only minority support. Morales would have none of Allende’s advantages, such as they were.

Revolutions that occur almost always surprise us. They are notoriously hard to see coming. But if Morales (1) became president, (2) controlled or overcame congress, and (3) marginalized the military, it would be one of the great surprises of contemporary Latin American regime change. Even in revolutions, the preexisting institutions matter. (That was for you Steven T.: a little flashback to, what, 1988?)

Whether Morales is selected president one day or not—and I still think the likely outcome is not—the most likely scenario is continuing instability and ungovernability. Not a pretty scenario, but not the installation of a Marxist dictatorship, either.

Remembering September 11

Today marks the thirty-second anniversary of the day the Chilean armed forces went to war against their own country’s democratic government, toppling the constitutional socialist government of Salvador Allende and ushering in seventeen years of one of Latin America’s most repressive dictatorships.

Soldiers at La Moneda

While Chile has recovered its democracy over the past sixteen years–probably stronger than ever–the coup of September 11, 1973, will always be remembered as an event that quashed the rights and liberties of a Chilean society that had long been one of the most open in Latin America.

This event, more than any other in my youth, is what pushed me into a career in political science, although I was probably not aware of that until many years later.

Today’s anniversary is a reminder that democracy can never be taken for granted. Allende himself had stated that Chile’s democracy was so solid that there was no risk of a break in the constitutional order as he and his allies in government and the labor movement went about implementing their “Chilean road to socialism.” As Allende said in his first speech as President before the congress (where he had long served as a senator):

It is not simply a formal commitment but an explicit recognition that the principles of legality and institutional order are inseparable from a socialist regime despite the difficulties involved in the transitional period.

Whether it was ever possible to thread that needle between democracy and socialism is, to say the least, debateable. But September 11, 1973, was probably the last day that any revolutionary socialist anywhere in the world believed it was possible. Afterwards, socialists either ceased being revolutionary (like today’s socialist president of Chile, Ricardo Lagos) or ceased being democratic (for instance the leftist parties of El Salvador who had been denied their own electoral victory in 1972). September 11, 1973, was thus genuinely a day that changed history.

The Chilean experience after 1970 is a dramatic example of the impact of institutional rules in democracy. Allende received a plurality of the popular vote in 1970, but it was only 36%. He was duly confirmed by Congress as President per the requirements of the 1925 constitution. However, had Chile required a popular runoff–as its current constitution and most new constitutions in Latin America now require–most likely he would never have been president, and Chile’s democracy would have survived. On the other hand, had he become president but had the 1971 national election been a congressional election instead of a municipal election, Allende’s alliance most likely would have won a majority of seats. That would have meant there would not have been the narrow center-right majority in congress that blocked most of Allende’s program and later declared his government unconstitutional for its use of decree-law provisions that were in fact on the Chilean statute books.

Dr. Salvador Allende Gossens


The link in the first line above is to a BBC story remembering the event. It includes a brief and fascinating audio clip of a BBC broadcast from Santiago regarding resistance to the military three days after the coup.