24 2005

Indigenous Leader Fights Hurdles to Become Candidate
by Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Sep 23 (IPS) - A Mapuche indigenous leader, Aucán Huilcamán, whose bid to run in Chile's Dec. 11 presidential elections has been blocked by legal formalisms, could overcome the hurdles and thus help democratise an electoral system that discriminates against indigenous people.

Michelle Bachelet, the ruling centre-left coalition's presidential candidate and the front-runner in the polls, met this week with Huilcamán and told him she supported a legal reform that would make it possible for him to stand in the elections.

The government of President Ricardo Lagos also expressed its willingness to seek a legislative solution to the problem.

The indigenous leader had already obtained the support of the other three presidential candidates - Sebastián Piñera and Joaquín Lavín of the right-wing opposition parties, and Tomás Hirsch of the leftist Juntos Podemos Más alliance, made up of the small Communist and Humanist Parties.

Huilcamán, who is "werkén" (spokesman) for the All Lands Council, one of the leading Mapuche organisations in Chile, presented his candidacy to the electoral authorities on Sep. 12, representing the "Popular Indigenous Network", a movement that is not a legal political party.

Under Chilean law, a presidential candidate must have the support of two legal parties, or register as an independent with the backing of 35,171 signatures. Huilcamán, who visited the Electoral Service in Santiago on Sep. 12 wearing typical Mapuche dress and riding a white horse at the head of a line of 10 other indigenous riders, presented 39,100 signatures.

But on Sep. 15 he announced that his application had been rejected.

The reason, he was told by the director of the Electoral Service, Ignacio García, was that only 1,399 of the signatures had been authenticated by a notary public, which is a legal requisite. The indigenous leader, who collected the signatures on a horseback tour that started out from Temuco, the capital of the southern region of Araucanía, said the requirement that the signatures be notarised discriminates against candidates without financial resources since notary publics charge between two and four dollars for each authenticated signature.

"What happened in the case of Aucán's candidacy represents an injustice, and also shows that the Chilean democratic system is elitist, with huge difficulties in opening itself up to different approaches to politics," said Francisco Estévez, president of the non-governmental organisation Fundación Ideas, which is dedicated to studies on political and social exclusion. "The requisites are practically impossible for an independent candidate like Huilcamán to meet," he told IPS. "I believe it is absolutely superfluous to require that the signatures be notarised."

He argued that the signatures should be authenticated free of charge by the electoral authorities.

Parliamentary Deputy Antonio Leal of the co-governing Party for Democracy (PPD) concurred. "All independent candidates should be able to present the signatures they collect without being required to have them previously notarised, because the Electoral Service can check the signatures," he commented to IPS. "I support the PPD's commitment to push for the modification of the law, in order to give independent candidates a greater chance of running in elections, not only at the presidential level, but at the legislative level as well," the lawmaker added.

The PPD is one of the four parties comprising the governing Coalition for Democracy, along with the Christian Democracy Party, the Socialist Party and the Radical Social Democrat Party, which has governed Chile since the restoration of democracy after the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) came to an end.

"The legislation should at some point tend towards greater ease in registering candidates to Congress and the presidency," said Cristián Monckeberg of the right-wing National Renovation Party (PRN).

But, he cautioned, the legislation must also guarantee that presidential candidates are serious. "We're not talking about registering candidates for the presidency of a trade union or for class president, but for the presidency of the republic, someone who will guide the country's destiny," he told IPS.

The PRN has its own presidential candidate, Piñera, even though it is jointly fielding parliamentary lists with the Independent Democratic Union (UDI), the other large right-wing party, whose presidential candidate is Lavín.

Both Piñera and Lavín have poll ratings between 18 and 20 percent, compared to 45 to 47 percent for Bachelet - just a few points shy of the absolute majority she needs to avoid a runoff election.

Right-wing media outlets suggested that Bachelet would benefit the most from the disqualification of Huilcamán's candidacy, because like Hirsch - who has two to three percent support in the polls - the indigenous leader could draw votes from the most progressive sectors, which the ruling coalition candidate will need in order to secure a first-round victory. Nevertheless, Bachelet not only expressed her determined support for Huilcamán's candidacy, but also called on the right-wing alliance - made up of UDI and the PRN - to be coherent when calling for the democratisation of the electoral system, and to also agree to reforms of the "binomial system".

Under that system, put in place by the Pinochet regime, two deputies and two senators are elected for each electoral district and constituency. The system basically promotes the existence of two large coalitions, while marginalising smaller forces like the Communist and Humanist Parties, as well as independents. Although these parties take a significant number of votes, they are excluded from parliament since they are unable to win the first or second largest majority in any particular district.

Twenty of the 38 seats in the Senate will be up for grabs on Dec. 11, along with all 120 seats in the lower house. A total of 64 candidates are running for the Senate and 400 for the Chamber of Deputies. Most of the candidates belong to the governing coalition, the rightist alliance, and Juntos Podemos Más. Less than three percent are independent.

There are few indigenous people on the parliamentary slates, despite the fact that indigenous people make up nearly seven percent of Chile's population of 15.2 million, according to the 2002 census, or as much as 10 percent by other estimates. Guillermo Trapailaf Manquelafquen of the Communist Party - who is running for the southern region of Los Lagos - is the only Mapuche candidate for the Senate. But he stands no chance of winning.

Similarly slim odds are faced by six indigenous candidates competing for seats in the lower house, of whom four belong to the Juntos Podemos Más electoral alliance and one to the Coalition for Democracy, while one is independent. There are currently no indigenous lawmakers, and the only descendant of Mapuche Indians - Chile's main minority ethnic group - who has served as a member of Congress is Christian Democrat Francisco Huenchumilla, now mayor of Temuco.

In the December 2002 municipal elections, 17 indigenous mayors were elected, out of a nationwide total of 345.
The disqualification of Huilcamán as a candidate even had international repercussions, prompting the Greens in the European Parliament to send a letter to the Lagos administration and Congress, insisting that he be allowed to run. (END/2005)