SANTIAGO – As recent nationwide municipal elections proved once again, there’s never a shortage of surprises when it comes to politics in my country.
The elections were a real blow to the rightist government of President Sebastián Piñera, a businessman who three years ago displaced the center-left Concertacion coalition that had led Chile since the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship ended in 1989.
The Concertacion’s last president was Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010), who finished her term with an approval rating of over 80%. Because of Chile’s electoral laws – which prohibit presidents from serving consecutive terms – she could not seek immediate reelection. The man who did represent the coalition for the 2009 election, Eduardo Frei, was unable to benefit from the outgoing president’s popularity. He lost to the conservative Piñera, who promised voters “a new way of governing.”
Since taking office, however, Piñera has seen his popularity plummet. He now has an approval rating of about 30%. The municipal elections could have been a chance for him to turn things around, to give the political right some momentum for next year’s presidential contest. Piñera’s center-right coalition could certainly use some. Polls consistently show ex-President Bachelet winning the next race easily – assuming she is willing to run, which would mean giving up her important post in New York as Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women.
Instead, the municipal elections went the other way, thanks in large part to recent union and student-led social movements, which energized the opposition. The left earned emblematic mayoral wins in three key Santiago boroughs: Santiago Center, Ñuñoa and, last but not least, Providencia. In all three cases, the winners were women.
Remnants of the Pinochet era
Providencia had been run for years by Mayor Cristián Labbé. While he may not be Chile’s only remaining pinochetista, Labbé is certainly the deceased dictator’s most blustering, arbitrary and aggressive defender. He boasts about having served under the dictatorship and says he has no regrets about participating in Pinochet’s repressive secret police force, which committed countless human rights violations.
As the “boss” of an upscale borough whose residents tend to be both comfortable and conservative, Labbé felt happy and secure about his “management” style. He humiliated and repressed Providencia’s student protestors, even expelling some from their schools. He sang Pinochet’s praises every time someone put a camera or a microphone in front of him. He even went to the extreme of participating in a tribute to some of his brothers in arms who are currently serving time in a high security prison because of crimes they committed during the dictatorship.
After all of his past electoral success, Labbé could never have imagined his career would be in trouble, especially when the traditional center-left political parties that could have challenged him are faring so poorly in the polls. This time, though, the parties were gracious enough to step aside and allow the mayor’s local opponents to select an independent candidate: Josefa Errázuriz. Labbé pompously dismissed his challenger’s chances. Laughing, he told reporters there was no way he could lose to a simple “housewife.”
And yet for decades, Chile’s “simple housewives” are precisely the ones who have nurtured the country’s democracy and served as its backbone. Labbé’s chauvinism prevented him from evolving in the way many others on the right have. By making fun of these women, he also offended their husbands and children. Mrs. Errázuriz ended up drawing support from both women and men, and from all social classes. She energized young people, who saw her race against Labbé as a cause really worth fighting for. It was the kind of rallying point the left has been missing since the plebiscite of 1988, which paved the way for the end of the Pinochet dictatorship.
The three women who achieved the impossible in Santiago, Ñuñoa and Providencia all have immense talent. But they also have something else in common, something that has not been mentioned in most of the cold political analyses put forth since the elections. Josefina Errázuriz dethroned the last residue of Pinochet’s arrogance; the winner in Ñuñoa, Maya Fernández, is the granddaughter of martyred President Salvador Allende (1970-1973), who was toppled in the 1973 coup that preceded Pinochet’s 17-year regime; and the mayor-elect in Santiago Center is the daughter or José Tohá, a cabinet minister under Allende. Tohá was tortured to death by fascist soldiers.
And then there’s Bachelet, the former and possibly future president whose father, a pro-democracy Air Force general, was also killed in the aftermath of the coup. Together the triumphs of these women suggest that the sacrifices of the last generation weren’t in vain. Thanks to the power of collective memory, the population has dealt the country a new hand.
And what a hand it is: four of a kind, Queens.
*Antonio Skármeta is a Chilean novelist best known for his book Ardiente Paciencia (Ardent Patience), which inspired the Academy Award-winning film Il Postino (The Postman).