Chile: The slow agony of the Transition proceeds in the face of elections and demonstrations

This article deals with the presidential primaries and the general situation of the workers’ and youth movement and the electoral policies and alliances of the left parties. It provides useful background analysis to the first round of the presidential elections which took place yesterday. It was published in July in issue 8 of America Socialista.

The primary elections held for the first time in Chile on June 30 have confirmed the name of the two main candidates vying for the presidency: Michelle Bachelet standing for the New Majority (Nueva Mayoría) – a partnership between the Communist Party and the Concertación (the government and electoral coalition of the Socialist Party and the Christian Democrats since  1988 to date). Paul Longuera, a former minister of the economy in the right wing Piñera government, is representing the Alliance for Chile (Alianza por Chile). Both will compete in the elections of November 2013. The winner, however, will have to face a situation of economic slowdown and continuous social mobilization from students, recurring labour mobilizations such as of the miners and dock workers. All this shows us that the "Transition,” the process of restoration of democracy, but in reality a process marked by class collaboration and the economic and social policy of the dictatorship, continues to die a slow death. Only the Left parties seem not to have noticed that profound demands for changes by the youth and the Chilean working class cannot be resolved with patchwork or negotiations with the right wing of the New Majority.

The primaries

Just over three million voters participated in the primary elections of June 30, of which a million and a half voted to elect the candidate of the New Majority, and eight hundred thousand for the candidate of the ruling Alliance for Chile . Total participation in these primaries was 22.6 %, from an electoral census of more than thirteen million people. That turn out is above the expectations of both the government, and the opposition New Majority, which sheds some light on the November general election.

Evidently, the possibility of electing the presidential candidate has mobilised mainly and above all the electorate of the Left. Michelle Bachelet , supported by the Socialist Party (PS) and the Communist Party of Chile (PCCh), has wiped out the other candidates with 70% of the vote, in other words, one in three voters who participated in the primaries supported her candidacy. Bachelet presented herself as being to the left, with generic promises about a constituent process and defending public education, which represent a nod to the student and worker demonstrations in recent years. The same New Majority coalition, that is to say, the old COncertación, which now opened up to the PCCh, is an attempt to change in order to meet the social demands. However, these won’t be easily pass in a context of economic slowdown, and won’t address the problem of the blanket rejection of all politicians, especially amongst the youth, who detest the parties that have governed the transition to democracy.

The socialist and communist activist base has mobilised to cut off the path of the right within the New Majority and generate a towing effect on presidential elections to their advantage. Even though the government and opposition celebrate the primaries as a victory for democracy, which has exceeded its expectations, the reality is that the low turnout echoes what happened in the municipal elections last year, when only 31 % of the electorate expressed a preference for any of the candidates. The youth in particular, responding to calls like those of the Coordinating Assembly of Secondary Students (ACES), abstained massively. The youth, the working class and social movements of Chile, have gone through years of not only the Pinochetist anti-working-class program of the Pinera rightists, but also seen the growing strength of their own demonstrations as they demonstrated an ability to switch between different fronts of struggle, discovering common ground from public education to the re-nationalization of the copper industry. They will not give up so easily and not in exchange for nothing.

The November General Elections

Pinera 's approval has fallen steadily as a result of his anti-working class measures such as tax increases, the proposed construction of a hydroelectric plant to benefit private mining, a counter reform  in education that guaranteed profit and an institutionalized division in primary and secondary schooling, and above all the violent suppression of student and indigenous demonstrations. This is the most important card in the hands of the New Majority, which can count on the victory, although only in the second round, of Michelle Bachelet.

In the primaries, the PS and PCCH were united against the right within the New Majority, the liberal wing, Velasco (former Finance Minister under Bachelet ‘s old government) and Orrego , the Christian Democrat (CD) candidate, who on many instances were divided before the Piñera government proposals , or openly supported them as in the case of education. This explains the difference in the vote for these candidate and Bachelet in the primaries. But after the  vote, both the PS and Bachelet have repeatedly reaffirmed the importance of the alliance with the CD and the weight it carries in this expanded coalition. The PS leaders hope to find in the CD a counterweight to the left wing of New Majority, the PCCH, and in the latter an ally against the pressure that can come from both the CD and especially from the streets.

A New Situation

Bachelet will not only have to face the demands, which started under her first government, from the student organizations calling for completely free public education, but also an economic slowdown that is already giving off worrying signs. The forecasts for economic growth in Chile have been steadily shrinking since the beginning of this year. The slowdown could cost the Chilean economy one and a half percent of its GDP.

In 2013, Chile could experience her first trade deficit in 10 years (the difference between exports and imports) or, in the best-case scenario, a tiny trade surplus of about 50 million, the smallest in more than a decade. All this is due mainly to a drop of more than 5% of the price of copper. The contraction of investment was one of the factors that determined the downward revision of economic growth forecasts for this year. According to the President of the Central Bank of Chile, Rodrigo Vergara "the slowdown in investment was more marked in machinery and equipment ... we cannot rule out that this will not intensify.”

The right wing and the government have tried to politicize the economic situation, in particular attributing the fall in investment and domestic demand to the statements of the candidates who contested the New Majority leadership in the primaries. According to the current Finance Minister Felipe Larrain, "the majority of the presidential candidates in opposition to taxation undoubtedly have an effect on the economy today ... If one announces a tax package of between 5 and 8.5 billion dollars of tax revenue, collecting taxes is not neutral from the point of view of economic activity."

The program of the Alliance for Chile is clear and consistent from this point of view with the class interests they defend. They propose to ‘stimulate the economy and investment,’ counter reforms in educational system based on class selection, labor flexibility by reducing social protection for regular workers, and etc. In the face of economic prospects that could precipitate a crisis and in the best case scenario result in an abrupt slowdown in the Chilean economy, there is no doubt that this program would act as a strong force in favor of the right wing Christian Democrats creating instability in the New Majority. An instability that would put the PCCH between a rock and a hard place considering that its most prominent militant cadres, such as Camila Vallejo, fought for the re-nationalization of copper and progressive tax reform,  as well as one of the most important political battles, in defense of free public education.

The Debate in the PCCH

The PCCh approach to the Concertación coalition was announced some time ago. Already in the Fourteenth Party Congress, held in 2010, the approved document stated: "The main political challenge now is to remove the right wing off the government (...) If the coalition, in the Together We Can and other forces of different names including the vast independent sectors, convergence will be imposed as a way to create a new national majority for the democratic changes the country needs, then we might achieve a new kind of government." The road to the Coalition for the PCCH has meant a substantial decline in its electoral support offset by greater institutional presence that has definitely tipped the balance towards the New Majority.

Thanks to a non-competition agreement not to run candidates in the ridings where another party of the Coalition is most likely to win, the PCCh managed to elect three deputies in the last general elections in 2009. However, the amount of votes it received fell by 50%, to 132,000 from 339,000 (5.14%) in 2005. In last years’ municipal elections in almost all the seven of the communes (electoral districts) where the PCCH ran their candidates with the support of the coalition, it could not manage to add the votes of the latter to their own. On the other hand, in more than one commune and particularly working class communes, such as Calama, where the PCCH candidate supported the Coalition, a consistent part of the local electorate swung to the Progressive Party (PRO), the split from the SP led by Marco Enríquez-Ominami . A growth of PRO, which is the most important political formation outside the two primary forces would first and foremost damage the PCCh itself.

All this has caused discomfort not only in the party's electoral base but also in the new militancy that has been forming and emerging in the social struggles of these years and has more than once expressed its opposition to hypothetical government alliances with the Coalition and particularly with the DC. Camila Vallejo, the best known example of this new militant layer, in January 2012 declared: "I would never be willing to campaign for Bachelet or call the youth to vote for her." Even though she has changed her mind about the New Majority presidential candidate, she has not stopped expressing criticism. In March this year she stated to the press: "It makes me a little sick in the stomach making alliances with the Christian Democrats.”

The PCCh is being sentenced by institutionalist currents to carry the political weight of entering a government that will have to face a situation of social ferment and economic instability. A party of “struggle and governing” is a party which will be force to mediate and shuffle in order to maintain government stability. They would pay the price on both sides, and above all, with internal divisions. If now Camila Vallejo has moved her criticisms to a defence and promotion of her own candidacy, which the CD opposes, in the popular commune “La Florida,” the sick stomachs of thousands of rank and file militants will be much more difficult to cure.

The Student Movement

The PCCh has lost ground in the student movement, which year after year has been the main social opposition to the government of Piñera. In a recent interview in early July, the current leader of the Chilean Student Federation (FECH) Andrés Fielbaum presented the following position regarding the agenda of the student movement itself stating : "It is clear that if it were not for the protests , our National Congress would approve the profit , our Congress would continue arguing about issues that only mater to them, as the dispute over electoral advertising of the primaries, which they were able to solve in a week, it is clear that our Congress today does not reflect the discussions that are happening in most of the country. " When students refer to "our Congress,” they make no distinction between the Alliance and New Majority. Fielbaum won the presidency of the FECH on a slate opposing that of Camila Vallejo. His slate proclaimed the continuity of the struggle and the independence of the student movement, while the PCCh was orientating towards the New Majority.

As we said, Bachelet’s program, which still must be negotiated with economic demands, business pressures and the right wing of his coalition, is already quite generic and unspecific about education. The platform of the students is clear and over time managed to build alliances with the working class: re-nationalization of copper, tax reform with a progressive taxes on high income returns to fund free public education. The student movement has greatly influenced the Chilean political situation of the last decade. First were the high school students who, under President Bachelet, marked the death knell of the "transition," during which the Coalition was in power and was, in essence, defending the economic model of the dictatorship, betraying the expectations of the people and creating inequality. The student movement has had an impact and has played an important role in opening the path for a working class mobilization of the more organized sectors.

The independence on which the Chilean students insist in the face of the New Majority is an effective guarantee that the Bachelet government would not receive a blank check. It is a mistake of the electoral team of the New Majority if they think that a Bachelet a government would mark the end of the demonstrations of the public and students. That is precisely the point on which the parties outside the bi-nominalism, such as the PRO stand. Not only the students, but also the Chilean working class have been learning that the struggle is vital and that with the struggle it is possible to obtain what years of Coalition could never do.

The Strike of the Dock Workers and Miners

An example of the above is the strike of the dock workers in Chile. On the 18 of March the workers of ULTRAPORT went on strike against the refusal of the owners to accept the minimum demands of the union. They demanded a wage of 3,600 pesos ($7.20 US) and a half hour lunch break. Faced with corporate repression, including the firings that affected the 500 striking ULTRAPORT workers, the struggle spread to 85% of the dock workers who went on a 21 day strike with solidarity from other unions, in particular, copper miners. The strike didn´t stop until all their demands were met and the firings of their co-workers were reversed.

The victorious strike of the dock workers, even though it was on a minimal platform of improving working conditions, expresses a renewed mood of confidence in the general working class movement of Chile and has had an electrifying effect on the workers. Over 70% of the Chilean GDP passes through the ports making dock workers a crucial and powerful section of the Chilean working class. The workers received an injection of confidence that thanks to their great determination in the fight allows them to return to the struggle with higher demands.

The strike of the dock workers was immediately followed by a national strike f in the state and private mining sectors, which are critical to the economy. The Chilean miners stopped work for 24 hours on April 9 demanding an improvement to their pensions, the defense of public health and better job stability for subcontracted workers who receive only 70% of the salaries of their co-workers in the same jobs. The government of Pinera attacked the workers during the strike. Pablo Longuera, who wished to dispute Bachelet’s presidency, stated that “there is an illegal paralysation in a sector that gives back the best returns to Chile.” However, the government’s campaign to discredit the workers was not able to avoid that from the platform of the workers would emerge a larger platform than that with which the CUT has issued a call for the general strike of July 11.

The Workers and Students United and Moving Forward

The students have played an important role in unifying these struggles in a united front. Their call for a national demonstration for June 26 in defence of state education and against the profit making motive on which the Chilean educational system is based on, was heeded by teachers, miners and dock workers. The union leader, Cristian Cuevas, of the PCCh, by joining to the mobilization used it as an opportunity to make a call to prepare for the general strike on July 11 that has been massively promoted.

The demands of the strike they called didn’t have a possibility of coming into being under the neo-liberal policies of the dictatorship. The workers demanded the direct renationalization of the copper industry (July 11 is the anniversary of the first nationalization of mining in Chile), an end to the private administration of the pension funds, completely free healthcare and education. The emphasis with which Bachelet points to a constituent process seeks to draw attention away from the demands of the working class and channel the energy into something more controllable by the bureaucracy of the New Majority. Even though for the moment the majority of the workers and students regard Bachelet’s proposals with some interest, they  will not be fooled by formal aspects and will demand the resolution of their substantial demands.

The End of the Transition

The transition is dying. The restoration of democracy without a resolution to the most urgent social issues, such as the growing social inequality and the semi-corporate union system, no longer holds. The fear of the rightist Pinochetistas has been defeated by the recent mobilizations. The demands of the workers, students and other parts of Chilean society have raised the tone of their mobilizations and directly point the finger at a system that has guaranteed private profitts at the expense of education, health, stable jobs, the possibility of organizing real unions and much more.

The New Majority is not a renewal, but just the latest attempt to save the previous political regime. In the face of the crowing social demands and the determination demonstrated in the struggles of these years, the New Majority will suffer from the same limitations as the Coalition, especially facing a scenario that paints an uncertain economic perspective. The New Majority will inherit a bitter product from Coalition, i.e. an alliance of working class and bourgeois parties, (and extend this poison to the PCCh). The labour organizations face an internal turmoil and an inevitable process of redefinition as the pressure from the ranks of the parties increases with social and trade union activity. An eventual Bachelet government will not mean the end of this process. The only possible perspective for finally ending the decades of meaningless changes and reigniting the struggle of the workers that was violently interrupted in 1973 is a government that is based on a united front of working class parties with a program for defending the interests of the working class.

July 2013