In last week’s presidential primaries, Chilean voters followed the dominant trend in Latin America and signaled that they are ready to hand power back to Sebastián Piñera, a center-right market-friendly former president (2010-2014). If Piñera wins the general election in November, Chile will complete an unprecedented 16- year run under only two democratically elected leaders – Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010, 2014-2018) and Piñera.
This would be partly a consequence of Chile’s Constitution, which forbids presidents from serving consecutive terms but allows them to serve again. But it’s also a sign that, despite a slowing economy and general dissatisfaction with the political class, most Chileans seem inclined to opt for stability and continuity instead of a radical change of course.
Chile’s optional primary system saw two different coalitions voting on July 2 to define their presidential candidate. Turnout was low (1.7 million, or 13 percent of eligible voters) on a cold wintry Sunday, and outgoing President Bachelet’s center-left Nueva Mayoría coalition chose not to participate because of its own internal dynamics. That said, Piñera received one of every two votes cast – and eight in every 10 votes cast were for right-of-center candidates.
Not all the news for Piñera was good. His center-right Chile Vamos coalition received only about a third as many votes as the Nueva Mayoría did in 2013 primaries – indicating a possible enthusiasm gap. He also won the primary with 58 percent – a comfortable victory, but a narrower one than Bachelet’s in 2013, when she received 75 percent.
Voting saw the debut of an alternative leftwing coalition, the Frente Amplio (FA, or Broad Front), whose two candidates received a combined vote of 327,000. The FA winner, former journalist Beatriz Sánchez campaigned highlighting all what is wrong in Chile today and promised deep reforms to drastically alter the market-friendly roadmap that Nueva Mayoría (formerly known as Concertación) and Chile Vamos governments have championed since democracy was restored in 1990. Though Sánchez interpreted her 67.5 to 32.5% victory over her FA challenger as a confirmation of her leadership among the radical left, the timid turnout for her coalition signals that Chileans prefer to back candidates who want to fix what is wrong with Chile, not those who seek to implement a new state-led economic model.
The absence of Nueva Mayoría from the presidential primaries can be interpreted in different ways. As center-left voters did not have a choice, turnout declined compared to 2013. Many Nueva Mayoría supporters opted to stay at home and watch Chile play against Germany in the final game of the Confederation Cup. The reason Nueva Mayoría opted out reflects the difficult times that President Bachelet and her coalition are experiencing.
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