Chile Stays the Course

BUENOS AIRES – When Sebastián Piñera – the moderately conservative tycoon who was recently elected president – takes office on March 11, Chile will experience what some political scientists consider a watershed in every successful transition to democracy: the rotation of power among political parties.

After General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship gave way to democracy in 1990, the center-left coalition known as the Concertación won four consecutive free and fair presidential contests. After 20 years in office, it will now cede power to Piñera´s Coalición por el Cambio , composed of his center-right Renovación Nacional and the more conservative Union Demócrata Independiente .

The long rule of the Concertación reflected its success. In almost all areas, from political stability to economic development to poverty alleviation, Chile has done very well over the past two decades, certainly much better than its Latin American neighbors. The rightist opposition had to solve the puzzle of defeating a coalition that had maintained Pinochet’s most successful policies (mainly the free-market, export-oriented economic model) without being tainted (as many Coalición leaders are) by links to his bloody regime.

Piñera benefited from his own critical stance towards the military government, and from an electoral campaign that emphasized the liberal much more than the conservative aspects of his coalition. Instead of vindicating Pinochet and appealing to traditional Catholic values, Piñera offered a centrist vision of change that included more rights for homosexuals and an emphasis on social issues (in a country that, even after 25 years of strong growth, remains very unequal).