In a recent election, the complacent centrist candidate lost to a charming conservative. A right-winger had not won this elected post in decades. Many traditionally center-left voters stayed home or voted for the conservative to send a message to the political elites. While many progressives feared this misguided way to convey anger, they were sympathetic to disgruntled working-class voters who felt neglected by those in power.
I write not of Massachusetts, but of Chile. The 2010 Chilean presidential election was similar in many respects to the Martha Coakley-Scott Brown US Senate race. In each election, the center-left candidate ran terrible, complacent campaigns and lost, but in neither country did conservative electoral victory translate into a clear conservative popular mandate. And perhaps most importantly, both elections clearly demonstrated the dangers of failing to effectively mobilize a party’s electoral base.
Since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990 until the recent election, the Concertación, a coalition of the Christian Democrats and three social democratic parties, held the Chilean presidency and majorities in the National Congress. Current president Michele Bachelet, a doctor, divorcee, and former political refugee whose father was killed by Pinochet’s regime, had a rollercoaster tenure but will leave office with public approval ratings of over 70%. This is due in no small part to the fact that Bachelet and the Concertación reduced poverty rates from 40% to nearly 13%, even though the overall thrust of their economic policy was fairly neoliberal in orientation.
Eduardo Frei, a former president who ran again at the top of the Concertación list, failed to recapture the presidency and lost to billionaire Sebastián Piñera by 4% in the final round of the election. The divisions within the left in the first round illustrate how Piñera was able to score an upset win. In December, two candidates ran against Frei and Piñera: Jorge Arrate, a former socialist representing the Communist Party-led coalition, and Marco Enriquez-Ominami, a young former Socialist representative and filmmaker running as an independent. Each candidate sought to push the Concertación toward the left and to shake itself out of the complacency engendered by almost two decades of uninterrupted rule.
The Concertación’s first problem was scrapping a pre-election primary so that it could anoint Frei the nominee. This angered many in the coalition’s base, who did not respond favorably to the prospect of a second unremarkable Frei presidency. Even so, the centrist and leftist candidates collected nearly 55% of the first round’s votes, but Frei’s disappointing 30% result was incapable of overcoming Piñera’s momentum. By the end, much like trying to connect Scott Brown to George Bush, the campaign unsuccessfully tried to frame a Piñera victory as a defeat for democracy that would undo all of the progress that had been made since Pinochet’s ouster in 1990.
The Frei and Coakley campaigns clearly demonstrate the foolishness of being complacent in the face of a supposedly automatic electoral victory, not responding to offers for help from powerful institutions such as unions until too late, and spurning the concerns and frustrations of the party’s base. But neither loss should be viewed a popular mandate for conservatism. Each candidate lost by a margin of less than 6%, showing that a strong get-out-the-vote effort coupled with a platform that addresses the concerns of swing voters worried by economic downturns could have produced different results. The silver lining: here in Massachusetts, Coakley’s loss has given a much needed wake up call to Democratic politicians, and in my campaign work in Somerville I saw numerous volunteers trained by the Obama campaign doing great work on the ground. Defeating well-funded conservatives will always be difficult, but progressives don’t need to shoot themselves in the foot by running poor campaigns.