Sebastián Piñera, president of Chile from 2010 to 2014, appears set to win this year’s presidential election on November 19th. The outcome would add yet another country to the list of center-right governments winning democratic elections in the region (following Mauricio Macri in Argentina and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in Peru). Although some analysts are speculating that Piñera might win the election during the first-round vote—a feat not been achieved since 1993—most pollsters predict a run-off between him and Alejandro Guillier, an independent senator representing the incumbent New Majority coalition; that second round would be held on December 17th. If it does come to a second round, Piñera is expected to cruise to an easy victory.
Despite Piñera’s seemingly inevitable triumph in the presidential race, his coalition will likely fail to gain a majority of seats in the simultaneous legislative elections, where Chileans will renew almost half of the seats in the senate and the entire lower house. The failure of Chile’s traditional coalitions to gain electoral majorities stems from a growing number of voters that are turning their backs on the country’s established parties because of a sense that the system has failed bring new leadership and change.
Piñera and Guilllier are two of eight presidential candidates that will be on this year’s ballot. Beatriz Sánchez, a famous journalist, is running as the representative of the Broad Front, a leftist coalition of 13 political parties and social movements that are critical of Chile’s post-transitional model of political and economic development. For a moment, it seemed that Sánchez’s campaign was on the rise and could even challenge Guillier for a place in the run-off election. But her message failed to appeal to a large portion of Chilean society, while the parties that compose her coalition have displayed the customary infighting of traditional parties. As a result, Sánchez’s campaign lost popularity, leaving her in the third place in polls. Other candidates include Christian Democrat senator Carolina Goic and the highly conservative José Antonio Kast, a congressman who quit his party, the Independent Democratic Union, to run as president. Marco Enríquez-Ominami, who is currently being investigated for his involvement in Odebrecht’s foreign campaign contributions—along with other irregular campaign financing schemes—will be running for a third time, while maverick senator Alejandro Navarro represents the radical left alongside the little-known Eduardo Artés—whose biggest claim to fame is his statement that North Korea is a “popular” democracy.
The fact that radical alternatives are performing poorly in polls is good news for Chilean democracy. It implies that overall levels of polarization are low, and that a majority of voters converge around centrist candidates. However, the growing number of political parties in Chile will likely be reflected in the composition of the next Congress. An electoral reform championed by president Bachelet replaced the electoral system inherited by infamous dictator, Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) with a proportional system. The new system redrew electoral districts and increased the number of congressmen from 120 to 155 and senators from 38 to 50. As a result, the new Congress will be more diverse in its composition—making it difficult for the future president, most likely Piñera, with a majority in either house of Congress.
The New Majority rose to power with the re-election of Michelle Bachelet in 2013. Bachelet, who ended her first presidency with record-breaking approval ratings of 80%, was re-elected with 62% of votes on a broad ideological platform that grouped conservative Christian Democrats, the social democratic Socialist Party, the Party for Democracy and Radical Party, and the Communist Party, along with a group of other smaller parties. One of the most interesting aspects of the coalition was its severe criticism of the Concertación, the center-left coalition that successfully oversaw Chile’s transition to democracy and lifted millions from poverty during its 20-year rule (1990-2010). As a result, many within the New Majority sought to revamp Chile’s renowned model of development.
The New Majority’s diversity ultimately became an obstacle to its foundational objectives, as it struggled to govern with unity. The coalition’s power struggles increased as Chile’s economy slowed down—a result of the end of the commodity boom. (Despite growing economic diversity, the country remains highly dependent on metals and mineral products, which in 2016 accounted for 51% of exports.) Since the beginning of Bachelet’s second term, Chile’s economy has grown at paltry 1.9% per year. At the same time, starting in 2014 a wave of corruption, influence peddling and irregular campaign financing scandals hit Chile’s political class across the ideological spectrum. Not even Bachelet’s inner-family circle proved immune to the crisis. The combination of factors resulted in Bachelet’s sinking popularity levels throughout her second presidency; her job approval currently stands at 23 percent.
Guillier’s erratic campaign
Although Bachelet’s unpopularity and Chile’s economic problems certainly don’t make Guillier’s job of leading the New Majority into the elections any easier, his candidacy has suffered from a series of problems of his own making. The renowned journalist has not been able to win over the hearts and minds of Chilean voters mainly due to his poorly coordinated and seemingly improvised campaign style. When the former news anchorman was rising in the polls, he declared that he would not run as president if he wasn’t nominated via primaries. This was a failed attempt to establish his authority over the New Majority’s parties. Guillier retracted barely weeks later, when the Socialist Party announced its support for the independent senator. The decision forced former president Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), an elder statesman of the Socialist Party, to quit the race after losing the backing of his own party, which eventually led to a chain reaction in which the Christian Democrats decided to not participate in primaries—forcing an uncomfortable situation within the incumbent coalition: having two candidates, Alejandro Guillier and Carolina Goic, running against each other for the presidency.
Shortly after, Guillier called on his supporters not to vote in the country’s presidential primaries, encouraging them to instead cook barbecues on election day (which coincided with an important football match). The candidate was once again forced to reject his call after public outcry criticizing his apparent lack of commitment to democratic procedures.
His most recent faux pas, however, has been the most damaging to his campaign—leaving his candidacy bordering on ridicule. Last week, after rising concerns regarding the lack of a government program three weeks into election day, Guillier announced that he would present his program only after the first-round vote. Instead, voters would be able to read a compendium of his ideas prior to the election. Although policy agendas tend to be less important than a candidate’s personal attributes in Chilean elections, rival candidates didn’t hesitate to criticize the poorly prepared rollout of his platform.
Additionally, rival campaigns—especially Marco Enríquez-Ominami—have shed light on Guillier’s not-so-distant past, which has resulted in a series of controversial incidents. These include Guillier’s profitable support for Chile’s private health system in 2006 on behalf of the country’s private insurers—which are unpopular—and his refusal to support Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, the Concertación’s candidate, in the 2009 presidential election—when he hinted the possibility of voting for Sebastián Piñera, his former boss as a news anchorman and his rival in this year’s election.
All of these episodes have forged the image of Guillier as being unfit to be president, and explain why barely weeks into the election he lags far behind in second place.
However, a prospect that is being discussed by center-left candidates is to join forces after the first round vote to stop Piñera’s election in the run-off. If the opposing candidates can successfully unite their bases, this plan may have some momentum. According to the Center for Public Studies, Chile’s most prestigious pollster, the combined individual support for Alejandro Guillier, Beatriz Sánchez, Marco Enríquez-Ominami, Carolina Goic, and Alejandro Navarro currently totals 40.1% among likely voters—bordering on Piñera’s 42.3 percent. However, this simple addition incorrectly assumes that the votes are transferable. A similar example when the votes didn’t add up was in the 2009 presidential election. In that case, the Concertación candidate chosen to continue the coalition’s lock on power after Bachelet, Eduardo Frei, remained largely unpopular despite president Bachelet’s record-breaking approval ratings. Although Frei passed to the second round, he was unable to gain the support of all the center-left candidates that had supported Bachelet—resulting in Piñera’s triumph.
Falling for your ex, again?
Though Chile’s Constitution prohibits the immediate re-election of presidents, incumbents can aspire for another term between presidencies. If polls are correct, Piñera will comfortably win the election. Piñera’s victory would make him the second former president since Chile’s transition to democracy in the early 1990s, to be re-elected (sitting president, Michelle Bachelet, being the first to do so after serving from 2006 to 2010).
Chile’s political class inability to present fresh alternatives has been an ongoing theme in the past two decades. The losses in the 2009 campaign, Frei, had been president from 1994 to 2000. And earlier this year, former president Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) unsuccessfully sought the nomination of the incumbent New Majority coalition, only to drop out of the race after performing poorly in polls. It seems likely that the pattern will be repeated in March 2018, when Chile’s new president is sworn into office. We will likely witness the transfer of power from one former president to another. Bachelet and Piñera combined will have ruled Chile for 16 years out of the 32 years since democratic transition. Maybe it’s time for some fresh faces in Chilean politics.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD student in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on twitter @lucasperello