Subeditors at work ?

by John Q on January 16, 2006

The NYT reports the victory of Socialist Michelle Bachelet (briefly a refugee in Australia) in the Chilean presidential election under the headline “What Is Missing in This Woman’s Victory? Coattails”

I would take this to mean that there were also Parliamentary/Congressional elections at the same time, and that Ms Bachelet’s party had lost, but the body of the report implies the opposite saying her win “assured another four years in power for the [centre-left] coalition, which has governed Chile without interruption since Gen. Augusto Pinochet was forced to step down in 1990. ” Has anyone got any idea what the NYT sub-editor who chose this headline was thinking? As pointed out by Jon in comments, this is a reference to the point made about halfway through that other female elected presidents in the region have been the widows of political leaders this seems a strange choice of emphasis to me.

In other news from the Chilean campaign, the much-vaunted privatised pension scheme introduced under Pinochet is in serious trouble. Even conservative candidate Sebastián Piñera, brother of José Pinera who introduced the scheme, described it as being in crisis.

The success of the Chilean scheme was always illusory. It was introduced not long after mismanagement of the exchange rate had generated an economic crisis and stockmarket crash. So early investors got the benefits of above-average returns as the market recovered. These were enough to hide the high administrative costs (between a quarter and a third of contributions) and poor design of the scheme. Once returns fell back to normal the problems became apparent. The government is still footing a huge ‘transitional’ bill, and coverage is patchy at best.



Jon 01.16.06 at 2:21 am

Did you read on?

“Ms. Bachelet, a single mother who has juggled her career and the demands of raising three children ever since she entered government service little more than a decade ago, is the first woman in the region to win an election without an assist from the coattails of a more famous spouse.”


Jon 01.16.06 at 2:31 am

Oh, and the Concertación did win majorities in both houses of parliament in the vote that took place on December 11: see here for the Chamber of Deputies and here for the Senate.


Jon 01.16.06 at 2:55 am

“This seems a strange choice of emphasis to me.”

Well, it’s a point being made a lot: effectively that Bachelet is the first woman in the Americas to be voted Head of State in her own right. Which is indeed quite something. Especially in what is historically one of the more conservative societies in the hemisphere–the last, for instance, to legalize divorce, only last year.


John Quiggin 01.16.06 at 3:27 am

Fair enough, Jon. I read the article with the (mis)interpretation “Bachelet had no coat-tails” which set me completely on the wrong track.


g 01.16.06 at 6:24 am

It’s certainly a reasonable thing to be remarking on. But the headline does rather
give the impression that the lack of “coat-tails” is a *deficiency* in her victory,
which is pretty weird.


Jon 01.16.06 at 6:29 am

Hey, I agree it’s far from being a clear headline. (But then I find that pretty much a given with US newspapers.)


neil 01.16.06 at 9:14 am

It is a rather odd thing to say, since in reference to an election, a president’s “coattails” means what other politicians s/he manages to drag into office with his/her own popularity. As Jon pointed out, Bachelet’s party won their best victory since the reintroduction of democracy, taking control of both houses of the legislature for the first time.* In this way Bachelet’s victory was not without coattails, and in another important way as well: this year the proportion of female candidates, in all parties, was a great deal higher, and it would be strange not to attribute this to Bachelet’s popularity.

* In all previous legislatures, the Senate contained 38 elected seats and 10 ‘appointed’ seats, chosen in such a way to guarantee the dominance of the right. (Pinochet held a seat until 1998, as former Secretary of the Army. He was also eligible as former President.) This, combined with Chile’s odd electoral system in which one party must achieve _twice_ the vote total of its closest opponent in a district to gain a one-seat advantage in either legislative house, has kept Chile in gridlock since the end of the dictatorship. These appointed seats also served to block any attempts at eliminating them, until last year.


neil 01.16.06 at 9:19 am

Another sad deficiency in the article, by the way:

The tally this time suggested that class may have trumped gender. In some northern copper-mining regions, where union sentiment is strong and suspicion of Mr. Piñera’s wealth and support for untrammeled free-market policies also runs high, Ms. Bachelet won more than 60 percent of the vote. In more prosperous areas, her support was generally weaker among both men and women.

Perhaps true, but a quick look at Chile’s excellent electoral history website shows that incumbent President Lagos won by similar margins in those regions. Due to Chile’s odd habit of counting men’s and women’s votes separately, the same site shows us that in the last election, a majority of women voted for the right-wing candidate, whereas this year, a majority of women voted for Bachelet. This strongly suggests that, in fact, gender made the difference this year.


Randy Paul 01.16.06 at 7:15 pm


Excellent point.

As for the pension issue, check out this article from The Economist in 1998:

Pensions paid so far by the private system may be a deceptive guide to future performance. The savings of today’s pensioners were boosted by the high investment returns of the system’s early years. But, over the past three years, the stockmarket has mostly gone downhill, lowering returns to an average of 1.8%, well below the system’s 4% benchmark. Since 1995, the average of pensions being paid has dropped.

The figures anyway conceal wide disparities. Many of today’s pensioners are people who took early retirement, because they had good pensions and could afford to. For such people, the average pension today is $312 a month. But it is only $195 for those retiring at the statutory age.

Bad news for pensioners is also bad news for the Chilean state. Its pension bill currently equals a huge 6% of GDP. That will fall as its liability to contributors in the old, unfunded public system gradually diminishes. But the original calculation that the bill would eventually drop almost to nothing now looks unrealistic.

This is 1998. It appears to have only gotten worse.


luci 01.16.06 at 7:28 pm

Perhaps she had petti, um, coat-tails.


derrida derider 01.16.06 at 8:29 pm

Yeah, on the pension issue the World Bank has had to eat a lot of crow. It eulogised the Chilean scheme in it’s 1995 “Averting the Old Age Crisis” and pushed it as a model for low-to-middle income countries. It backtracked sharply in its 2005 report (at in favour of a ‘safety net’ approach that’s more approriate for these countries, but I think a lot of damage has already been done.


joejoejoe 01.16.06 at 11:00 pm

My favorite headline was from The Scotsman:

‘Chile elects agnostic single mother as president’

Chile has elected a candidate that would have three supposed strikes against her here in the U.S. (single, female, agnostic). It appears to be a very healthy thing for Chilean democracy to produce such a non-traditional candidate.


Matthew Shugart 01.17.06 at 1:18 pm

On the coattails–as usually understood–it was the right-wing alliance that had no coattails, even though (or because?) it had two presidential candidates in the first round (at which the legislative elections were also held).

I addressed this at length in a series of posts about the Chilean election, but specifically in a preview of the runoff:

The two candidates of the right combined for 48.6% of the votes in the first round, yet their common ticket for the Chamber of Deputies could not even reach 40%!

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