The 1993 Presidential Election

Chile Table of Contents

The compromises struck in the 1980 constitutional reform discussions between the military government and the opposition led to the limitation of President Aylwin's term to four years, half of the normal term contemplated in the constitution. This meant that by mid-1992 parties and leaders were already jockeying to prepare the succession. Leaders of the Aylwin government, including prominent cabinet members, made no secret of their desire to put forth the name of Alejandro Foxley Riesco, the minister of finance, as a man who would guarantee stability and continuity. A Christian Democrat, Foxley had presided ably over the delicate task of maintaining economic stability and promoting growth.

Within the CPD, however, there was considerable disagreement over a Foxley candidacy. Christian Democrats controlling the party organization, who had not been favored with prominent governmental positions, pushed the candidacy of Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, the son of the former president, as an alternative. Frei's candidacy was given an enormous boost when he succeeded in defeating several Christian Democratic factions, including the Aylwin group, by capturing the presidency of the PDC. In the first open election for party leadership among all registered Christian Democrats, Frei, drawing on the magic of his father's name, scored a stunning victory.

While most observers presumed that from his position as PDC president Frei would be able to command the nomination of the center-left alliance, elements in the Socialist Party and the PPD argued that the nomination in the second government should go to a Socialist, not a Christian Democrat. This was the position of Ricardo Lagos, a minister of public education in the Aylwin cabinet and the most prominent leader of the moderate left. Lagos, who was defeated for a Senate seat in Santiago by the vagaries of the electoral law, remained one of the most popular leaders in Chile and was widely praised for his tenure in the Ministry of Public Education.

A Lagos candidacy, however, implied the serious possibility that the CPD would break up. Christian Democrats pointed to their party's significant advantage in the polls and noted that the country might not be ready for a candidate identified with the Socialist Party. Lagos faced opposition within the PPD and the Socialist Party among leaders who thought that risking the unity of the CPD could only play into the hands of forces that would welcome a victory of the right or an authoritarian reversal. Lagos, in turn, argued that the Socialists could be relegated to the position of a permanent minority force within the coalition if they did not have the opportunity to present their own candidate. The constitutional provision for a second electoral round, in case no candidate obtained an absolute majority in the first round, would permit the holding of a kind of primary. The CPD candidate that failed to go into the second round of the two finalists would simply support the CPD counterpart. Lagos, however, was not able to persuade either the Christian Democrats or his own allies to launch two center-left presidential candidacies spearheading one joint list for congressional seats. Instead, he had to settle for a national convention in which Frei handily defeated him with his greater organizational strength.

The right had even more difficulty coming up with a standardbearer . The National Renewal party was intent on imposing its own candidacy this time and sought to elevate one of its younger leaders to carry the torch. Bitter opposition for the UDI and the destructive internal struggle within the National Renewal party precluded Chile's largest party on the right from selecting the standard-bearer of the coalition. After a bitter and highly destructive process, the parties of the right, including the UCC, finally were able to structure a joint congressional list and turn to Arturo Alessandri Besa, a senator and businessman, as presidential candidate.

Several other candidates were presented by minor parties. The PCCh, which had reluctantly supported Aylwin in 1989, endorsed leftist priest Eugenio Pizarro Poblete, while scientist Manfredo Max-Neef ran a quixotic campaign stressing environmental issues. In the election held on December 11, 1993, Eduardo Frei scored an impressive victory, exceeding the total that Aylwin obtained in 1989. Frei's victory underscored the strong support of the CPD's overall policies, bucking the Latin American trend of failed incumbent governments. Frei obtained 57.4 percent of the vote to Alessandri's 24.7 percent. The surprise in the race was Max-Neef, who, exceeding all expectations, obtained 5.7 percent of the vote, surpassing the vote for Pizarro, which was 4.6 percent. Max-Neef was able to translate his shoestring candidacy into the most significant protest vote against the major candidates.

The election of the fifty-one-year-old Frei marked the coming of age of a new generation of political leaders in Chile. Frei, an engineer and businessman, had avoided the political world of his father until the late 1980s when he agreed to form part of the Committee for Free Elections. Subsequently, his party faction challenged Aylwin for the leadership of the party prior to the 1989 election. Although Frei lost, he laid the groundwork for his successful bid for party leadership in 1992 and, eventually, the race for president.

Frei's election signals the intention of the CPD to remain united in a coalition government for the foreseeable future. The designation of Socialist Party president Germán Correa as minister of interior and Ricardo Lagos's acceptance of another cabinet post underscore the broad nature of the regime. Its challenge, however, will be to maintain unity while addressing many of the lingering social issues that still affect Chilean society without upsetting the country's economic progress.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress