In the 1980s in Chile, under the iron rule of the dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet, Pepe Auth was targeted. Expelled from university for being a member of the Socialist Youth, he fled shortly afterwards to exile to Paris, where he studied sociology and gained a Masters. Five years later, he returned to his homeland and became a key member of the left-wing, progressive Party for Democracy (PPD) in its infancy.
Today, he is proud of how far the PDD has come. But the biggest triumph, he feels, is his contribution to the electoral reform of the binomial system – a legacy of the military dictatorship’s rule — to a proportional, more representative system.
During a recent visit to Buenos Aires to take part in an international roundtable on coalition politics, the politician spoke to the Herald about President Michelle Bachelet’s decline in popularity, the state of the PDD and Bolivia’s sea-access dispute with Chile.
How has Chilean society changed since the end of the dictatorship in 1990?
We have become more “Argentine.” Twenty years ago Chileans had given up (on trying to change things) and we saw Argentines as people who fought for their rights. But we’ve also taken some negative parts from Argentines, like thinking we are the best. Nevertheless, I prefer an excess of personality than a lack of personality.
President Michelle Bachelet is facing low approval ratings and her political agenda is stalling. Why do you think she is so unpopular at the moment?
She has lost her “virginity.” She was seen as the mother of Chile and her strongest assets have been hit: her credibility and trustworthiness. In the last 30 years there hasn’t been a politician in Chile with such high levels of credibility, but it dropped dramatically after her son (Sebastián Dávalos) was involved in a case of influence-peddling. She didn’t condemn him with the vigour everyone hoped she would and this helped the people lose their trust in her.
Are citizens frustrated because she hasn’t carried out all the reforms she promised to during her re-election campaign?
When you start a process of reform, people expect it to happen faster than it really can. Bachelet has encountered the inherent difficulties of an ambitious reform process of the tax and labour systems, the Constitution and so on. She has done well; during her first year she reformed the electoral and the education system.
A two-month-long teachers’ strike has just finished. Why are people in that sector so against the education reform?
Many teachers believe that the new evaluation system will go against them. For 30 years the training system in the educational sector was totally deregulated — this has made the quality of teaching very low because the teachers haven’t been educated in universities nor do they have ministerial certification. Most of the 100,000 teachers do not have the circumstances to offer good education, but they are not responsible for this, the state is. We have to change this.
Recently a high-profile tax fraud, money-laundering and bribery case, involving the financial holding company the Penta Group and businessmen related to the right-wing, pro-Pinochet Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party, dominated the media. How strong is the influence of economic power and the right in Chilean politics?
This case proved what many believed to be true: that corporations have “captured” parts of the political parties with their financial contributions. I see this case as a big opportunity to change things. It is a chance to increase the ethical standards of politics, which to be honest, are too low.
I pushed for a bill, which is currently being debated in the Senate, and will forbid firms from making financial contributions and only permit individuals to donate money. There will be a limit to the amount of money that can be donated and it will be (a matter of) public (record). If the law is violated, a parliamentary seat will be taken away from the party.
The Party for Democracy is one of seven parties comprising the New Majority coalition of President Bachelet. What assessment would you make of your party, the PPD, almost three decades after its founding?
The boundaries (between parties) are blurred. The PPD has lost its specificity, it’s more traditional. It situated itself as a modern, centre-left party, a socialist-liberal party. But most of the issues it fought for, such as care for the environment, gender equality and public liberties have become consensus, common sense.
I believe that what is coming in Chile is the formation of a big social democracy composed by the convergence of the PPD and the Socialist party, which will become the main party in the country.
How is the ruling centre-left coalition New Majority working?
From the 1990s onwards, the other coalition (the centre-left Concertación, or Coalition of Parties for Democracy) governed with the fear of falling back to a dictatorship. There were certain tacit agreements made with the “factual” powers, such as the business sector and the military to preserve certain institutional and economic elements (from the past). But after 20 years, a new generation came along and no longer had that fear and didn’t consider those tacit agreements acceptable anymore, like for example not changing the tax and labour system, nor the Constitution.
When we lost the elections in 2010, our diagnosis was that we weren’t able to deal with the changes our society had been going through. The problem was no longer poverty but equality, not coverage of education or healthcare but its quality. Chile reduced poverty from 40 percent to 17 percent and those millions started making middle-class demands.
In a recent interview you talked about the lack of dialogue in the current coalition and government. Why did you say that publicly?
The coalition has shown signs of divisions and a lack of coordination. It has lost its traditions of dialogue and tackling problems head-on. From 1990 until 2010, the coalition (Concertación) made decisions together first and then discussed them with the government, whereas now each party of the New Majority coalition meets with the government and decisions are made with them and not with the coalition itself.
Why is this, because they don’t have the same goals?
No, because the new coalition hasn’t assimilated the conditions of being a new coalition.
On a regional level, Chile doesn’t seem to be as close, politically speaking, with Bolivia and Ecuador, as Argentina is with the two countries. Why do you think this is the case?
For over 20 years Chile’s economy has been very open to the world. We are the country with the highest amount of free trade agreements in the world. Ninety-five percent of our products are exported under a framework of free trade deals. We didn’t wait for Mercosur to ink a deal with the European Union (EU), we signed an agreement with them directly. We are conscious that this also contributes to certain isolation from our neighbours. However in the last years there has been a political will to re-integrate in the region, but this process was severely affected by Bolivia’s decision to take the sea access dispute with us to the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
Does Bolivia have a legitimate case here?
I understand Bolivia’s case. I recently saw journalist Jaime Bayly’s television programme from Peru and he talked about this. He commented on Bolivian President’s Evo Morales remarks, in which he said that Chile took Bolivia’s sea access in an unfair war. Bayly answered Morales by saying: “Is it true that Chile took Bolivia’s sea access in a war? Yes, Was it unfair and unequal? Well, Bolivia declared war on Chile and, unfortunately, Chile defended itself and won.” After the war, a treaty defining the borders was signed. Germany would not ask France now to give them back the Alsace region.