Seven of eight million registered voters (88%) turned out for Chile's December general elections, and the results made news worldwide. The vote was held on December 13th.
Most stories led with the victory of Sebastian Pinera, the center-right candidate, who received 44% of the vote. Pinera's campaign attempted to distance itself from the Pinochet regime, but distrust and fear is a deeply-felt legacy of those 18 bloody years.
The vote totals of the three other candidates - 30% for Eduardo Frei, the Concertacion (government coalition) candidate, 19% for independent left candidate Marco Enriquez Ominami and 6% for Jorge Arrate, of the "Juntos Podemos Mas" coalition- would defeat Pinera, but polls show a close race for the January 17 run-off election. Dissatisfaction with the government's record over the 18 years since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship is high, although outgoing president Michelle Bachelet is still very popular.
At this writing, only Arrate's coalition, which includes the Chilean Communist Party (PCC), have declared their support for Frei, saying, "our pledge during the campaign was always to raise ideas from the left, to struggle to bring down the wall of exclusion, and to prevent the right from taking power...although our program is quite different from that of Eduardo Frei, a government led by him would clearly provide greater guarantees of democracy and better conditions of struggle."
The JPM considers Pinera a serious threat to democracy and progress, not only in Chile but in the region.
After the December first round, the JPM held discussions with the Frei campaign in which they emphasized the need for closer connections with the people, resulting in a 12-point program that includes many elements from JPM's program.
The results were contradictory, and can't be viewed as defeat for the left, says Guillermo Teillier, PCC President, who won his race for a seat in the Chilean Congress. Teiller pointed out that 56% of the voters rejected the right.
Although the PCC has fielded its own candidates numerous times since 1990, they rarely received more than 6-7%. In this election, an agreement was made with the Concertacion for a joint list with candidates from both coalitions in the Congressional races. As a result, three Communists won seats for the first time since 1973: Teillier, Lautaro Carmona, the Party's general Secretary, and Hugo Gutierrez, another PCC leader.
Teillier described an intensive, country-wide process of meetings and discussions which resulted in the adoption of the JPM's program in early 2009.
Bread-and-butter issues were the foundation of the Juntos Podemos campaign. This included a call for public takeover of the water system, which in Chile is privately owned, and devoting greater resources for education and health care, which have also been undermined by privatization.
JPM calls for either the re-nationalization or imposition of much heftier taxes on the 70% of the copper industry owned by foreign capital, which reaped $70 billion in profits in the last five years and only paid $3 billion in taxes.
In general, Teillier said, the privatization and de-nationalization that was promoted during the Pinochet years "goes against the history of Chile, where the state had always been invested in major enterprises.
"The state has to be the driving force for major industrialization and economic growth projects, given that unemployment is officially at 11 percent."
JPM campaigned for constitutional and other changes that would expand democracy. These include greatly strengthening workers' rights, extending the franchise to Chileans living abroad, defining Chile as a multi-national state, thereby recognizing the indigenous population, and beginning the process of reforming the electoral system, which prior to the coup was a proportional system. Under Pinochet, districts were re-drawn and the process structured to guarantee control by the right wing.
Teillier commented on the low participation of young people in the elections, not an unusual phenomenon, but perhaps especially troubling for Chileans, whose Popular Unity government lowered the voting age to 18 (from 21) and who elected Young Communist leader Gladys Marin to Congress at the age of 24. "Young people aren't so much turned off by politics as they are by the electoral system, where they see a high level of corruption and politicians who don't make good on their promises." An important indicator of what's ahead is the fact that the JPM received the majority of the 18-25 year old vote. A recently approved change in election law will make voter registration automatic and voting voluntary, which should help increase the participation of younger people.