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Cablegate: Chile's Municipal Elections: Center-Left Party

VZCZCXYZ0000
PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHSG #0735/01 2251441
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 121441Z AUG 08
FM AMEMBASSY SANTIAGO
TO SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 3579

UNCLAS SANTIAGO 000735

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV CI
SUBJECT: CHILE'S MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS: CENTER-LEFT PARTY
FOR DEMOCRACY (PPD) TO FLEX ITS MUSCLE

REF: SANTIAGO 581

1. (SBU) Summary. Pepe Auth, President of the center-left
Party for Democracy (PPD), recently told the Ambassador that
the PPD's growing strength and an outdated formula for
dividing city council seats among Concertacion candidates led
his party to join with the Social Radicals (PRSD) in
presenting a separate slate of city council candidates for
October's municipal elections, splitting the governing
Concertacion into two separate lists. Auth predicted
Concertacion would do reasonably well in the municipal
elections, but could lose a few seats to the center-right
Alianza. Looking to presidential elections in 2009,
Chileans' eagerness for a more authoritative leader explains
the popularity of opposition politician Sebastian Pinera.
Concertacion will coalesce behind a single candidate well in
advance of the December 2009 vote. End Summary.

2. (U) The Ambassador, accompanied by E/Pol Counselor and
Poloff, met with Auth August 6 as part of an on-going effort
to reach out to all major political parties in advance of the
October 2008 municipal elections. Auth was accompanied by
Ricardo Lagos Weber, PPD Vice President for International
Affairs and son of former President Ricardo Lagos Escobar.

Growing PPD Strength Behind Separate Candidate Lists
--------------------------------------------- -------

3. (SBU) The PPD's decision to run its own list of city
council candidates for the upcoming municipal elections was
rooted in a desire to utilize its growing number of members
interested in running for office; dissatisfaction with the
way seats are divided among Concertacion members; and a
belief that progressives could run two slates without hurting
center-left parties. In recent years, PPD and the Socialists
have been gaining strength at the expense of the Christian
Democrats, which were the original backbone of the
Concertacion coalition, Auth explained. Thus, the PPD
believes the standard formula for distributing Concertacion
candidates on, for example, a six member city council
ballot--three Christian Democrats, one PPD, one Socialist,
and one Social Radical--is now out of step with current
levels of partisan support. In addition, the PPD now has a
larger base of potential candidates for political office than
in the past, and would like to be able to maximize the number
competing for political office in the October 2008 municipal
elections.

4. (SBU) Lagos Weber asserted that the PPD's decision to run
a separate list of candidates for upcoming municipal
elections was "not as foolish as some of our friends say."
Lagos and Auth maintain that two lists of center-left city
council candidates (one put forward by PPD and the Social
Radicals, the other by the Socialists and Christian
Democrats) can compete with each other for support from
progressive voters without advantaging the center-right
Alianza coalition. However, when it comes to mayoral races,
where there is only one winner, putting forward two
Concertacion candidates does threaten to split the
progressive vote to the advantage of Alianza, Auth noted.
Thus, PPD will join with other Concertacion parties in
presenting a single mayoral candidate for each municipality.
(Note: Recent press reports quote Auth as saying that
running two Concertacion lists for the 2009 parliamentary
election, which operates under a binomial electoral system,
would be "suicide" and that the PPD will cooperate with other
Concertacion members in developing one slate of candidates.
End Note.)

Municipal Elections: Auth Predicts Limited Success for
Progressives
--------------------------------------------- ------

5. (SBU) Auth predicted that Concertacion will do reasonably
well in the municipal elections, but may lose seats and will
not match its better-than-expected 2004 municipal election
performance. (Note: In 2004, polls showed Concertacion and
Alianza running neck and neck in mayoral races, and some
observers predicted that Alianza would win a majority of
mayoral posts for the first time. Instead, Concertacion and
Alianza both lost some seats to popular candidates who
decided to run independent campaigns. Nonetheless,
Concertacion remained a substantial six points ahead of
Alianza, to nearly everyone's surprise. End Note.) While
widespread frustration with Transantiago and what Auth
described as popular belief that the right will make a very
strong showing in the municipal elections might suggest
otherwise, the PPD leader insisted that Concertacion will be
able to hold its own. Auth noted that metropolitan Santiago
residents hold local authorities--both Concertacion and
Alianza--responsible for the Transantiago debacle because it
is seen as a municipal issue. Thus, the deeply unpopular

reform is unlikely to have a major partisan impact on
municipal elections.

6. (SBU) At the same time, succeeding in electoral politics
is largely a matter of managing expectations, Auth observed,
and the right is playing this game well by saying that they
expect only to maintain their city council and mayoral seats.
Thus, if they wind up with a net gain in municipal
positions, a real possibility in Auth's assessment, they will
be seen as triumphing over Concertacion and may be able to
put a better spin on their results. However, Auth maintained
that, in real terms, the more critical issue is not the
absolute number of mayoral races won by each coalition but
whether or not the right will be able to maintain control of
key Santiago-area municipalities, like the City of Santiago,
as well as lower middle class neighborhoods such as La
Florida and Recoleta.

Presidential Race: Chileans Want Political Cooperation,
Authoritative Leaders
--------------------------------------------- -----------

7. (SBU) Turning to Chile's presidential elections in 2009,
Auth noted Alianza has a real challenge in providing a
constructive alternative to Concertacion initiatives without
seeming obstructionist. Chilean voters do not like conflict,
he opined, and so merely opposing Bachelet's proposals would
backfire. At the same time, Auth stated that the
Transantiago controversy has had a real impact on Bachelet's
popularity. Whereas other government policy changes affect
people at specific times--e.g. at retirement, upon admission
to a hospital, etc.--many voters are reminded afresh each day
of Santiago's public transportation woes as they struggle to
get to work. This explains why Bachelet is regarded more
favorably by rural Chileans (48% approval rating according to
a recent poll) than by Santiago residents (35% approval
rating).

8. (SBU) Auth also predicted the current atmosphere of
political uncertainty will lead Chileans to choose
presidential candidates who are authoritative and decisive,
in contrast to Bachelet's consultative leadership style.
This rationale explains why opposition presidential contender
Sebastian Pinera is doing well in polls and suggests that
former president Eduardo Frei is likely to be the Christian
Democrats' strongest choice, the PPD leader said. Lagos
Weber added that Concertacion might also loosen the purse
strings--a bring home the bacon strategy--but only if forced
to do so by rightist populist rhetoric.

9. (SBU) While the field of potential Concertacion
presidential contenders is quite open at the moment, Auth
said he expected the center-left coalition to coalesce around
a single candidate. Poll results are likely to be decisive
in determining who Concertacion's candidate will be, the PPD
head asserted, reminding Emboffs of presidential candidate
Soledad Alvear's decision in 2005 to drop out of the
presidential race when Bachelet gained a substantial lead in
public surveys.

Comment
-------

10. (SBU) Auth is known for his political insight, having
accurately predicted in both 1999 and 2005 that the
presidential contests would end in run-off elections. He now
seems to have applied the same keen analysis to strategizing
the best way for his party to gain mayoral seats and greater
political prominence without advantaging Alianza or overly
alienating his Concertacion allies. Auth's observation that
Chileans are yearning for a strong president is consistent
both with common criticisms of Bachelet and popular
sentiments toward her potential successors. Lagos Weber's
observations regarding doing whatever it takes to
win--including increasing public spending--may also prove an
ace in the hole. End Comment.
SIMONS

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