Sebastián Piñera, president of Chile from 2010 to 2014, won this weekend’s presidential contest among low voter turnout. The successful 67-year old businessman received 36.6% of votes (with 99.7% of the votes counted). However, his vote share fell way below what was predicted by most pollsters, who had projected Piñera’s total to be around 43 percent. Though Piñera won a plurality of votes, the presidential race is far from over. Alejandro Guillier, an independent senator running for the incumbent center-left New Majority coalition—who landed far behind in second place with 22.7% of backing—will compete against Piñera in a run-off election that will take place on December 17th. While the former president was originally expected to comfortably win the first round and run-off election, Sunday’s results show that the race will be more competitive than originally anticipated.
The election also shed light on the support for third party candidates. Piñera and Guillier—representatives of Chile’s traditional center-right and center-left coalitions, respectively—received a combined share of more than half of valid votes. But the biggest surprise of the night was Beatriz Sánchez, who ran on the platform of the Broad Front, a coalition of leftist parties. Pollsters predicted that Sánchez would receive approximately 9.4% of support among likely voters. The election results, however, proved them way off the mark; Sánchez exceeded all expectations and secured 20.3% of votes. Not only did Sánchez outperform the forecast of pollsters, but her candidacy also came close to allowing her to pass on to the second-round vote, falling short of Guillier’s total by fewer than 160,000 votes. This is quite an achievement for the 47-year old newcomer to Chilean politics, who has never held elected office before and who only announced her candidacy in early April.
Support for the remaining third party candidates was smaller, but their voters will prove critical for December’s run-off election. Carolina Goic, a senator for the Christian Democratic party—who, despite being a member of the New Majority coalition, decided to run in the first round—received 5.9% of votes. Marco Enríquez-Ominami, a former deputy of the Socialist Party, received 5.7% of backing. Though Goic and Enríquez-Ominami were critical of Guillier’s candidacy, they are expected to support him in the second-round vote because they share more with the candidate of the New Majority coalition than with Piñera. On the opposite side of the ideological spectrum, José Antonio Kast, a maverick deputy who quit the conservative Independent Democratic Union party to run for the presidency, also outperformed what polls had predicted, receiving 8% of votes.
The wining candidates have less than a month to convince their allies to support their campaigns. Though Piñera suffered a significant setback on Sunday, he still holds the upper hand going into the second round of elections. If he is capable of obtaining the support of Kast’s voters, as well as some of the disgruntled Christian Democrats that voted for Goic, he should still be able to secure a comfortable victory over Guiller, even with the likely backing of Sánchez and Enríquez-Ominami.
Piñera and Guillier’s strategy to try and gain as many votes of the fallen candidates as possible comes with a warning: votes in Chile are not automatically transferable. Past elections show that expected transfers of votes from one candidate to another are not so simple. In the 2005 first-round elections, two center-right candidates, Joaquín Lavín and Sebastián Piñera, competed against each other. Though their combined vote share exceeded the total of their ideological opponent, the socialist Michelle Bachelet, not all of Lavin’s votes went to Piñera in the run-off, resulting in Bachelet’s triumph. Similarly, in the 2009 presidential election, not all of Enríquez-Ominami’s votes transferred to the Concertación candidate Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, who eventually lost the run-off to Piñera.
Never before in the history of post-transition Chile had the winner of the first-round vote received less than 40 percent. Generally speaking, around 50% of votes on Sunday went for leftist candidates, which means the left is still gaining traction, especially with young voters. This makes the run-off more competitive than ever before. The candidacies of Piñera and Guillier are moving through uncharted territory, one in which every single vote counts.
A new, more diverse, Chilean Congress
One of the most interesting outcomes of Sunday’s elections is the composition of the new Congress. From 1989 to 2013, Chilean deputies and senators were elected under the binomial electoral system, an authoritarian holdover inherited from the country’s dictator, Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). The system allocated two seats for each of the country’s 60 congressional and 19 senatorial districts (which translated to a Chamber of Deputies with 120 seats and a Senate with 38 seats). The importance the system gave to comparatively small districts incentivized the formation of two coalitions, the center-left Concertación (now New Majority) and the center-right Alianza (now Chile Vamos), which resembled a two-party system. In 2015, under the government of Michelle Bachelet, an electoral reform was passed that increased the number of seats from 120 to 155 in the Chamber of Deputies and from 38 to 50 in the Senate.
The shift towards a more proportional system became evident after Sunday’s election results. Piñera’s Chile Vamos coalition will hold 47% and 44% of seats in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate, respectively. Across the aisle, New Majority Coalition and its Christian Democrat allies (which have traditionally run in the same legislative lists) will hold 36% of seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 46% in the Senate. The remaining seats will be allocated among other political parties and coalitions, particularly the leftist Broad Front, which gained 13 percent of seats in the Chamber of Deputies and one in the Senate. This makes the new Congress the most diverse ever constituted since the country’s transition to democracy in the early 1990s.
Towards December’s run-off election
The stage is set for the race between Piñera and Guillier. During the next few days we will likely witness growing levels of competition to earn the support of the candidates that failed to pass on to the second round election. Piñera and Guillier both face the difficult task of appealing to a growing number of polarized voters without losing the centrist voters that made them pass on to the run-off in the first place.
The biggest challenge for both candidates, however, is to keep one eye on winning the presidency and another eye on forming the necessary alliances to get legislation passed in Congress. Whoever wins the run-off and becomes president of Chile will face a deadlocked Congress.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD student in Politics at The New School for Social Research.