Chile is not Peru

The results of the elections in Peru, which faces an extremely polarized second round of voting — between the ultra-left alternative of Pedro Castillo and the right-wing Fujimori movement (Fujimorismo) led by Keiko, former President Alberto Fujimori's daughter — prompt us to reflect on the current political culture in Chile. The disconnect between citizens and the elites, along with the excessive individualism found in the different political projects, has us on alert. By Cristina Bitar (*)

20 April 2021

In Chile, in addition to the impact caused by the surprising results of the Peruvian elections, the question constantly arises as to whether a similar scenario is possible in our country. Undoubtedly, many of the symptoms are present: fragmentation of political sectors, disconnection between the citizenry and the elites, as well as a growing loss of respect for democratic institutions by our authorities. Nonetheless, and despite the conditions, I believe we can breathe a little easier, at least in the short term of this year’s elections.


Our neighbors currently face an extremely polarized runoff election between an ultra-left alternative — Pedro Castillo — and the right-wing Fujimori movement led by Keiko, the former President Alberto Fujimori’s daughter. To have arrived at this juncture, one must understand how unusual last Sunday’s first round was. The official figures have just been published and the surprising result is still being analyzed. The unexpected winner — Castillo — did not even obtain 20% of the valid votes cast, which is equivalent to less than 40% of voters who did not go to the polls, and barely 11% of eligible voters. Indeed, as if in a Saramago novel, there were more null and blank votes than votes for Castillo. Absenteeism, despite mandatory voting and considering the pandemic, reached 26%, according to the National Office of Electoral Processes (ONPE).


The result is even more surprising because until a few weeks ago Castillo did not figure in the polls. It was only in the last week that he upended all expectations, with a conservative message on values and riddled with proposals for nationalization of companies and centralized control of the economy. For her part, Keiko Fujimori renewed her contacts with the historical Fujimori movement, marking a turnaround with respect to her campaigns in previous elections. In doing so, she shored up a base on the right that she had not previously been able to count on and was able to overtake De Soto, another sector favorite. Behind these three, there were 15 more candidates, each representing an even smaller faction of the electorate.


Peru’s political problems did not begin with this election, however. One of the main traits of the Peruvian system is the complete disappearance of political parties. While Castillo’s group won 37 seats out of 130, and Fujimori has 24, the truth is that the political forces in Peru are highly fragmented and answer more readily to personal leadership than to party orders. This state of affairs, born in the times of Alberto Fujimori, added to a poorly designed semi-presidential system and a unicameral Congress, is the perfect recipe for a political system lacking direction and proposals. In Peru no one wins, rather some lose by less than others.


In Chile’s case, we are seeing evidence of the same political culture. We have a disconnection between the citizenry and the elites, in addition to the excessive individualism found in the different political projects.  However, we still have a couple of lifelines that allow us to be less pessimistic. First, our political actors seem to be more aware of the need for common projects. On the right there are six potential candidates, but most of them are looking to enroll for a joint primary. On the left, despite the many divisions we are used to seeing in the sector, attempts have been made to come up with common programmatic agendas, although the option for a single primary among the 10 candidates seems distant. It is unlikely, although not impossible, that we will arrive at the year-end elections with 18 candidacies. But the institutional framework is still robust enough to withstand it.


The constituent process, however, opens the door for these institutions to change in unexpected ways. In addition to the attention we pay to social rights and the functioning of certain institutions, such as the Central Bank, it is of paramount importance that we look to examples like the Peruvian one to learn how to best design ways in which we administer power. Subjects such as the system of government or the existence of a unicameral Congress are usually discussed lightly and with little real interest, but the survival of the system depends on whether these same institutions are able to foster legitimate political parties and reduce caudillismo or “strongman” leadership. Peru’s situation is not ours… yet.


(*) Cristina Bitar has an economics degree from Dartmouth University, MBAs from the University of Chile and Tulane University, and is a Managing Partner at Azerta. Column published in Interferencia.