By Brittany Peterson for The Voice of Russia
Chileans took to the polls Sunday to elect a new president and Congress, but only came away with the latter.
Brittany: Michelle Bachelet is a former president to Chile and for the last three years, was the head of UN Women in New York City. She returned to Chile, where she has a generally positive reputation, to run for office this year. Yet Bachelet was unable to secure a majority vote against rival candidate Evelyn Matthei. So, there will be a run-off election this December to decide the winning candidate. Joining us today to discuss these issues is Tomas Hirsch, a left-leaning Chilean politician and businessman and former presidential candidate. Thank you for speaking with us today, Tomas.
Tomas Hirsch: Well, thank you for calling me and I’ll try to answer whatever you need to know.
Brittany: You were the presidential candidate for the Humanist Party in the 2005 elections. What was your experience running as a candidate that had a very small chance of winning, on a platform of social and economic reforms that many Chileans did not support at the time?
Tomas Hirsch: It was a great experience to be a candidate, to be able to know the real country, and the big difference you can see between the macroeconomic numbers of Chile that are very good, they look very nice (growth, exports, macroeconomic stability, etc), and the very bad situation of a huge number of families, because of the terrible distribution of the income of our country. But yes, still many people believe in this system. And still many people are afraid of big changes. At least that was the situation in 2005. I think that in the last eight years, the country changed a lot. Especially after the mobilizations of the students in 2011 when the vast majority of the country, especially the youth, started to ask for big and deep changes of the political, social, and economical system that we have in Chile.
Brittany: Michelle Bachelet of the New Majority political coalition was president of Chile in 2006 to 2010, and was expected to receive more support in this election than rival front-running candidate Evelyn Matthei of the right-wing Alliance coalition. Although Bachelet won yesterday, she was unable to secure over 50% of the votes, so Chile will face a run-off election in December. Are you surprised by these results?
Tomas Hirsch: No, it’s not surprising to tell you the truth. At least I said before the election that this was going to happen. First of all, first of all, Evelyn Matthei had very bad results, and that is the consequence of the very bad image that the majority of the Chileans have of the [current] government of Sebastián Piñera. You have to remember that in all of his service, President Piñera never had more than 35% of support, and normally it’s below 30% of support, especially after the mobilizations for education, the environment and many different issues. So, we were expecting a very bad result for the candidate of the [Alliance coalition], Evelyn Matthei. On the second hand, even if people want to have Bachelet back, there is no big love for the Concertacion [center-left coalition]. Many people feel that the Concertacion changed the initial things that they were telling the country that they were going to do. So even if people think that Bachelet is better than Piñera, than the [Alliance], still, this result to go for the second election in December is the voice of “wait, wait a little bit. You have to hear us, and we are not happy just for you to come back to the office.”
Brittany: Also, there were nine presidential candidates in this election, so there were a lot of alternative candidates to choose. Did that also take away support that would have gone to Bachelet, but went for a more left-leaning alternative.
Tomas Hirsch: Having nine candidates, it shows the new situation of the country. It shows that now there is not a monolithic country divided in two big coalitions. It is a country where many people think in a very different way, where you cannot say, “There is a right-wing thinking and a left-wing thinking.” Nine candidates were very different; one coming from the environmental movement, one from the very left-wing movement, one was a popular from the right. This spread of the votes shows the new situation of the country today. There is no one who can say, “I have a majority” as it has happened in the past with the Concertacion.
Brittany: When you say “Concertacion,” that refers to the “New Majority,” which is the new name for the exact same political coaltion.
Tomas Hirsch: Well, it’s the new name for the same [people.] I mean, yeah, it’s the Concertacion plus the Communist Party, but in general it is the same. But in fact, even with both the Communist Party, the New Majority had the same votes that [they received] in the last election when Bachelet ran, without the Communist Party. So it shows you that they lost an amount, more or less 10 percent of the vote between these two elections.
Brittany: So if Bachelet wins, she’ll face a new Chile. You mentioned that Chile has changed a lot over the last eight years or so. Talk about some of those changes, and how that might create a new pressure if Bachelet is to return to the presidency.
Tomas Hirsch: First of all, yes, she is going to win. That is very clear to almost everyone in Chile. There’s no way that Matthei can go up from 25% in the first month to 50%. So yes, Bachelet is going to win. But she knows that the country is different. She knows that this country now is awake. That a new generation came in and is watching very closely what goes on in politics. It is going to be a government with mobilizations over time. Yesterday, the students gave a very clear signal saying “We are going to be in the streets.” And also the Parliament is different. We elected almost five or six leaders from the student movement and the social movement, and that is a very different parliament. And now you have six members from the Communist Party in the Parliament for the first time in 40 years. So she’s going to have a pressure also for a new constitution. And she wasn’t clear until now if she wants really a completely new constitution, or only some changes to the present one. And there is going to be very strong pressure for the “asamblea constituyente,” or an assembly towards a new constitution.
Brittany: Bachelet was heavily criticized by a lot of people, both in the opposition party and in her own party. What should we be concerned about if she becomes president this next year?
Tomas Hirsch: She was criticized basically because she was not clear until now in many issues. When she came back from [working at] the United Nations at the beginning of the year, she said “I am for free, public education.” Then she said, “Well, not exactly, but free education for most of the students.” Well she changed that almost six or seven times in the last seven months, so no one has a very clear image of what she really wants in terms of education. The same happened relating to the constitution. She arrived to the country saying, “We want a [constitutional assembly], then she said, “No, we are going to change the constitution through the institutional way,” and that is through the Parliament, and of course that is not accepted by a majority of the country. And the same happened for the royalty for the copper. She said we are going to increase the royalty and then not so much. So, that is the main criticism against Bachelet. It’s not clear until now what exactly she is going to do.
Brittany: Four of the five former student leaders who decided to campaign, all in their mid-twenties, won seats in parliament. Would you comment about what this means for Chile?
Tomas: I think this is very important. Because they understood, very well, that social mobilization is important, but it is not enough. That you also have to run for an elected post. They talked a lot and discussed a lot, and they decided that yes, they needed to take this force from the streets to the Parliament. It was very interesting because they ran, almost all of them, for congressmen, but they did it in different leagues. Some were with the New Majority, some were independent. They took their own decisions, depending on which coalition they felt close with. But all of them decided to run, and most of them were elected. And that I think is a very important change for the future of Chilean politics.
Brittany: This past year was the first year where voters had the option of voting in the presidential election. Before, it was required for all citizens to vote. This year, nearly half of eligible voters turned out at the polls. Would you say this was a success or a failure as far as citizen participation goes?
Tomas: Well I think the participation was very low and because of that, I think that the rest of the candidates had such a low count in the election. At the end, you had 6.6 million voters, and the vast majority of the voters were the old ones. The young people, they didn’t go to vote. And that is a big problem for democracy in Chile. We do have a voluntary vote and I think it is very important, and I think the majority of the country likes this system. But still, the young people, and when I say young people I mean all the people below [age] 38, 37 years old, they are not voting. Yesterday was the lowest number we had in the presidential election since we recovered democracy. And the number [of people] allowed to vote, doubled. So it’s a very low number and we think that has to do with how bad it has been to see politics and politicians in the last couple of years.
Brittany: Thank you so much Tomas for joining us today. We will certainly keep listeners up-to-date when Chile faces the run-off vote in December.
Tomas Hirsch: Well thank you very much for calling and whenever you want, I am here.
Brittany: That was Tomas Hirsch, a left-leaning Chilean politician and businessman, and former presidential candidate in the 2005 elections.
Read more: http://voiceofrussia.com/us/2013_11_19/Chilean-politician-applauds-young-parliamentarians-criticizes-Bachelet-0497/