The end: Chilean legend exits presidential race, ushering in a new political era

Ricardo Lagos bids adieu after withdrawing from the presidential race on April 10 2017. Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

In a dramatic change of heart, former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos, who played a central role in the country’s return to democracy in the 1980s, has withdrawn from the upcoming presidential race. It seems Lagos’ lengthy career in public service has finally reached its end.

The decision came after the Socialist Party, historically an ally of his Party for Democracy, publicly backed a different candidate – the independent senator Alejandro Guillier – for this year’s election.

It is the end of an era in Chile. As the 79-year-old Lagos withdraws, an entire generation of ageing leaders is also being symbolically retired. The mood in the nation’s political establishment is funereal.

Most of Chilean people, however, have already moved on.

A fruitful trajectory

Ricardo Lagos Escobar has been a towering figure in Chilean politics for over three decades.

He became a political celebrity in the 1980s after pointing his finger at the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on live national television, an act of bravery that catapulted him into the front lines of the opposition against the authoritarian regime.

When democracy was restored in 1990, he served Chile’s first democratically elected president, Patricio Aylwin (1990-1994), as secretary of education and then his successor, Eduardo Frei (1994-2000), as secretary of public works.

In 2000 Lagos, long thought to be a presidential frontrunner, finally became the third president of modern Chile. During his six-year term, he enacted numerous progressive reforms, including having crucial authoritarian clauses removed from the constitution, ending military influence over key institutions, establishing universal health care, launching anti-poverty programs, overhauling Chile’s infrastructure, legalising divorce, abolishing the death penalty and instituting a modern civil service.

Lagos, newly sworn-in as president, in 2000. Reuters

Lagos even refused US president George W. Bush’s plea in 2003 to join the Iraq War.

When he left office in 2006, Lagos had an approval rating of over 60%. This was symbolically important: he was the first Socialist to take office since Salvador Allende, and his generally well-regarded administration dispelled the widespread but unfounded notion that a leftist president would only lead the country to economic mismanagement and political chaos.

A different country

But things have changed since then, and Lagos’ 2017 campaign was dogged by crucial policies of the time that have now come under severe scrutiny.

A full-scale transformation of public transit in Santiago he orchestrated, for example, turned out to be disastrous. Train lines were inaugurated but never run, and public service concessions granted to private companies have since been questioned.

Lagos’s legacy among young Chilean leftists was also damaged by his decision as president to invite Chile’s big banks to fund tuition fees as a way of increasing access to higher education. While this policy did indeed extend the system’s coverage, thousands of families became indebted.

The discomfort of the middle class exploded in the massive 2011 student protests, which irrevocably changed Chile’s political landscape.

The generation that followed Lagos never questioned him, but the generation after them – citizens his grandchildrens’ age – weren’t so easily won over. Born into democracy, they were not enticed by Lagos’s finger-to-Pinochet tale. For them, Lagos was the status quo.

Lagos is revered for challenging General Augusto Pinochet, centre, who toppled the Socialist Salvador Allende in 1973. CC BY

In this year’s presidential race, young leftists have argued that some of Lagos’ fundamental achievements as president may have looked good at the time but sorely need upgrading today.

Case in point: Chile’s debate over writing a new constitution. While Lagos was proud of amendments he orchestrated to make the nation’s constitution more democratic, protestors on the street said that these amendments did too little and were too few. They wanted a brand new constitution for Chile.

Lagos, unmoved, announced in September 2016 that he would run for president again as a candidate of the ruling Concertación coalition.

The energetic near-octogenarian organised town hall meetings across Chile and convened policy groups to furnish a robust centre-left government programme. He insisted on the need to discuss substantive ideas.

The public was less enthusiastic. Polls consistently showed Lagos with 5% support.

He was trying to hold a national conversation, but Chile had already checked out.

Treason or renewal?

In March, President Michelle Bachelet’s Socialist Party, currently the strongest wing of the ruling coalition, declined to back Lagos, putting its money instead on Alejandro Guillier, an independent Senator and former TV news anchorman whose polling was in the 20% range.

Pundits said it was an act of radical pragmatism. Elected Socialist officials are, after all, naturally interested in retaining their posts. And Guillier likely represents the best chance to beat the front-runner, the right-wing former president Sebastián Piñera.

The two main contenders in Chile: Alejandro Guillier (left) and Sebastián Piñera. CC BY

But for others, this pragmatism reeked of betrayal: Lagos was being humiliated by his own people, who opted for a character of unknown doctrinal inclinations and little political experience. Some likened Lagos’s defeat to the assassination of Julius Caesar by his disciples.

Editorials and opinion pieces, particularly from right-wing sources, have bid farewell to Lagos in an obituary mood, singing his virtues and remembering his good deeds.

The establishment was eager for an electoral battle between Piñera and Lagos, two former presidents with proven credentials. With Guillier, they fear a populist in the making.

But other interpretations hold that what the Socialist Party did was to put an end to an era that needed to be over.

Lagos’ generation has been one of the most politically fertile in Chilean history. They suffered under (or encouraged) the military coup in 1973, and then fought (or supported) Pinochet’s dictatorship for 17 years.

And for two decades after his defeat, they lead a never-ending transition to democracy. They changed the face of Chile in many substantial ways, most of them positive. But they refused to retire.

According to this thesis, the Socialists probably did the right thing in bringing in some new blood.

The two best-rated politicians in Chile are former student leaders Gabriel Boric, 31, and Giorgio Jackson, 30. And the Socialist Party’s new leader, Alvaro Elizalde, is 47 years old.

The right is seeing a similarly long-awaited generational renewal: congressman Felipe Kast, 39, has challenged Piñera in the primaries.

Lagos’ fall cannot be isolated from these events.

“My friends”, said Lagos in announcing his withdrawal from the race, “life goes on…” It would only be fair to add that in his case, “…but, for us, political life does not.”

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