On Sunday July 2nd, Chileans headed to the polls to vote in primaries. The process and its results shed light on the strengths and weaknesses of the country’s traditional parties, and marked the debut of the leftist coalition, the Broad Front (Frente Amplio). The primary results set the stage for the general elections that will be held on November 19th (If the trend from the four presidential elections since 1999 still holds, the election will likely go into a run-off on December 17th if no candidate receives an absolute majority.)
The clear winner of the primaries across all the parties was former president Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014), who easily defeated his rivals within the center-right coalition Let’s Go Chile (Chile Vamos). The second place finisher in the cross-party balloting was Beatriz Sánchez, a journalist-turned-candidate in the Broad Front primaries. Sánchez achieved a respectable share of votes for an outsider that launched her presidential bid in early April. The loser was the incumbent center-left coalition, the New Majority (Nueva Mayoría), which was unable even to hold primaries. Instead, due to internal disputes and poor electoral coordination, the coalition is planning to have two candidates on November’s ballot: Alejandro Guiller, an independent supported by the Socialist Party (PS), Party for Democracy (PPD), Radical Party (PR) and Communist Party (PC), and Carolina Goic, a senator and president of the centrist Christian Democrats (PDC).
Voter turnout exceeded expectations. A total of 1,812,077 Chileans voted on Sunday’s primaries (approximately 13% of total eligible voters). While seemingly minor, it’s important to keep two things in mind. One of country’s main coalitions, New Majority, was not competing and Chile’s football team was playing an international match (the final of the Confederations Cup) on the same day.
Overall, the results portray the growing electoral strength of the right, which almost doubled voter participation from the 2013 primaries (from 808,002 in 2013 to 1,418,138 in 2017). The Broad Front had fewer reasons to celebrate: with only 327,716 votes cast for their candidates, the coalition had a respectable debut, but lacks the popular backing to effectively challenge the traditional parties that have dominated Chile’s politics since the country’s transition to democracy in the early 1990s.
Battles within the right
In the Chile Vamos internal balloting, the coalition’s heavyweights, the Democratic Independent Union (UDI) and National Renewal (RN), and the smaller Independent Regionalist Party (PRI), unilaterally nominated Sebastián Piñera as their candidate. The challenges came from relatively fresh faces in the coalition. Felipe Kast, a congressman and former cabinet member of Piñera’s previous government (2010-2014), sought the Let’s Go Chile presidential nomination as a member of Political Evolution (EVÓPOLI), a small liberal party that seeks to challenge the conservative politicians of the traditional right with a new set of faces. (Kast, an economist by training, is 40 years old.) Manuel José Ossandón, who served as mayor of the popular municipality of Puente Alto for 12 years (2000-2012), quit his party, RN, to launch his own candidacy in the primaries as an independent.
Though Piñera and Kast see eye to eye on a series of issues and didn’t attack each other (much) throughout the campaign, Ossandón is known as the maverick of the Chilean right—and was extremely critical of Piñera’s government. His sharp criticisms of Piñera, while earning him publicity, alienated voters on the right. As a result, while Piñera and Kast competed against each other for the vote of affluent Chileans, Ossandón won outright among lower-income voters. But it was not enough for him to win the nomination. Ossandón’s platform consisted mostly of not being Piñera. And a humiliating live television interview, where he didn’t seem to know the details of the Paris Agreement, and didn’t remember how he voted for the agreement in the Senate, did not help his electoral prospects. In the end, Piñera comfortably won the nomination with 58.4% of votes, leaving Ossandón and Kast far behind, with 26.3% and 15.4% of votes, respectively.
The primaries were an opportunity for the newly created Broad Front, a coalition of leftist parties that emerged as a byproduct of the student protests of 2011 and discontent toward Chile’s conventional left, to show its electoral strength. Though the coalition had been building momentum after one of its main parties, Democratic Revolution (Revolución Democrática), nominated Beatriz Sánchez as their candidate for the primaries, the coalition failed to capitalize results from an unpopular government and draw in voters with their Podemos-style message. Though Sánchez easily defeated Alberto Mayol, a university professor who represented the radical left, with 67.6% and 32.4% of votes, respectively, turnout for the Broad Front was low compared to that of Chile Vamos: representing less than 20% of valid votes cast in the primary and barely exceeding the individual vote share of Manuel José Ossandón.
And splits in the left
The incumbent New Majority coalition is struggling to appeal to voters, saddled with an unpopular government. A stagnant economy and an influence-peddling scandal involving her daughter-in-law have led to historically low approval ratings for President Michelle Bachelet. In the week leading to the primary, her approval was barely 26%, according to Plaza Pública Cadem, a local pollster.
Bachelet’s New Majority coalition’s failure to hold its own primaries stemmed from the internal battles between the conservative faction (led by the Christian Democrats) and a leftist faction (led by the Communists). Other members of the coalition offered up their own candidates. The Party for Democracy (PPD) nominated former president Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006). The Socialist Party (PS) was planning on holding internal primaries between José Miguel Insulza, former Secretary General of the Organization of American States (2005-2015) and Fernando Atria, a lawyer and university professor. The Radical Party nominated Alejandro Guiller, while the Christian Democrats did the same with Carolina Goic.
Most candidates, however, failed to gain backing in public opinion polls. The Socialist Party, faced with the prospect of a costly internal primary and low voter turnout, ditched the idea of choosing a candidate from their own ranks and made Guiller their nominee. The decision ended Lagos’ electoral ambitions and the former president, a historic member of the Socialist Party, withdrew from the primary process after his party backed Guiller. This in turn led to a chain reaction. Carolina Goic and the Christian Democrats decided to follow their own path, fearful that the New Majority’s leftist turn might make their voter base turn right. The result is the curious situation where the New Majority will be presenting two candidates in November’s election, representing the two ideological factions of the coalition which will likely backfire by splitting voters.
Though most parties within the New Majority fell for the charm of Guiller’s early popularity, many are starting to regret that decision. As an independent, the former news anchorman needs 30,000 signatures by August 21st to officially be on November’s ballot. Whereas for the past few months candidates from the left and right have been rallying voters and promoting their candidacies (even taking out primetime TV ads), Guiller has been sidelined by the arduous and slow-moving task of collecting signatures. This low-profile task has led to the gradual erosion of his popularity. While in January Piñera and Guiller were statistically tied in voter intention with 23% and 22%, respectively, Guiller has since slipped to 9%, almost to the level of September 2016 when he was still relatively unknown. In the same poll, Beatriz Sánchez surpassed Guiller as the second most popular candidate. If this trend were to continue, it could mean the first time that the New Majority candidate failed to make it to a second-round vote.
There is still a long road ahead. Despite their differences, in the next months the parties of the New Majority will have to sit down and negotiate a single candidacy. The leftist faction holds greater leverage and will probably call the Christian Democrat’s bluff; the CD favorite, Goic, only has 1% popular support. In the meantime, Piñera and Sánchez will have to act quickly to heal the wounds inflicted during the primary season: Piñera needs Kast’s and Ossandón’s votes, and Sánchez needs those of her challenger, Mayol. This will all need to be done as the anointed candidates begin their appeals to voters beyond the loyal supporters of their coalitions by moving to the center.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD student in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on Twitter @lucasperello