Chile 2013

Presidential runoff elections were held in Chile on December 15, 2013. The first round, along with congressional elections for all members of the Chamber of Deputies (Cámara de Diputados) and half of the Senate (Senado) were held on November 17. The President is elected to a four-year term, with no possibility for consecutive reelection, by a two round system.

Last month, I wrote up a detailed guide to Chilean politics and an overview of the first round and congressional elections from all angles. I would recommend at least skimming through it (if you haven’t read it already) to get a good idea of Chilean politics and what I’m talking about, since this post will be far more concise and less explanatory.

In the first round, former President Michelle Bachelet, in office between 2006 and 2010, came out far ahead of a very packed field with 46.69% of the vote. Her second round rival, cabinet minister Evelyn Matthei, the candidate of the governing right-wing coalition, won only 25% of the vote. Bachelet was the candidate of the Nueva Mayoría (New Majority), a centre-left coalition made up of the old Concertación coalition (composed of Bachelet’s Socialist Party, or PS, the Christian Democrats, or PDC/DC, and the smaller Party for Democracy and the Radical Social Democratic Party, PRSD) expanded to small left-wing parties and the old (but, since 1989, weak and marginalized) Communist Party (PCCh).

Bachelet left office in 2010 with sky-high approval ratings and maintained high levels of popularity in Chile while she worked as head of UN Women in the past four years. During the campaign, her popularity levels fell some to more reasonable levels, given the heat of campaigning and waves of criticism on the vagueness of her policies or the content of said policies. Yet, she was still the runaway favourite. She crushed opponents in a Nueva Mayoría primary in June, and sailed her way through the campaign, doing her best to stay above the fray and let the divided right publicize their troubles (the candidate who won their primaries dropped out for health reasons, and the most right-wing party in the coalition, the Independent Democratic Union or UDI, imposed Matthei as the right’s candidate despite the opposition of many in the centre-right National Renewal, or RN, party). She was left relatively unscathed by the rise of two independent contenders: Franco Parisi, a TV economist perceived as being on the centre-right, and former PS deputy Marco Enríquez-Ominami (MEO) who ran for a second time after taking 20% in the 2009 election. MEO finished a distant third with a respectable 11% and Parisi placed fourth with a more disappointing 10%.

There were clear contrasts, as far as platforms go, between Bachelet and Matthei. Bachelet’s platform was one of the most left-wing in Chilean history since the restoration of democracy in 1989-1990, a reaction to the rise of social movements (particularly student protests) critical of the neoliberal consensus created by military dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) and continued by Concertación governments (1990-2010).

The neoliberal economic model promoted by Pinochet and his famous ‘Chicago Boys’ in the first half of his regime made Chile an ‘economic model to follow’ for other Latin American states because of high growth, macroeconomic stability and orthodox fiscal policies. However, social movements – the student movement at the forefront – argue that the neoliberal model’s much-trumpeted success is an illusion masking very high levels of income inequality (the seventeenth most unequal country in the world according to the Gini index) and major problems in education, pensions, healthcare and the tax code. While the giant student protests which began in 2011 and have continued to this day, although much smaller in size, were mostly highlighting problems in the country’s education system (municipal control of schools, high levels of student debt for post-secondary education, profiteering in private post-secondary education, the proliferation of private education at all levels), they were also criticizing other aspects of the economic model which had until then been widely accepted by both the Concertación and the right.

Bachelet, accused of not responding adequately to a student movement early in her first term, presented a rather left-wing platform. Her main promises included education reform (free education, including at the post-sec level), tax reform to raise $8.2 million (cutting income taxes, raising corporate taxes, eliminating a Pinochet-era tax fund (FUT) allowing businesses to not pay taxes immediately on their profits) and adopting a new constitution – Chile’s current constitution, albeit reformed significantly, was written by Pinochet’s regime in 1980 and still has ‘authoritarian enclaves’. She also proposed a pension reform to complement the private capitalization system pension funds (AFPs) with a public pension fund, decriminalizing abortion in certain cases (currently illegal under all circumstances) and legalizing same-sex marriage.

On the other hand, Matthei proposed a much more conservative platform. Indeed, she stood out from a largely reformist – and I dare say left-leaning field – by her stances on some major issues. Matthei opposed free post-secondary education (an OECD report warned against free higher education since it’d be regressive, offering state funding to poor and rich students alike) and instead proposed more access to grants and loans – basically the stance of President Sebastián Piñera’s administration (which equalized interest rates on state-guaranteed private bank loans at 2%, previously only students at traditional universities received 2% interest loans from the government). Every other candidate besides her supported free post-sec education. Matthei opposed Bachelet’s stances on taxes and pensions, criticizing Bachelet’s plan to abolish the FUT (it would stifle investment, she says) and create a public AFP (Matthei said the AFP’s problems are due to low employee contributions). She stood out from nearly every other candidate by opposing a new constitution, she settled at proposing cosmetic constitutional reforms. Finally, Matthei, who hails from a very socially conservative party (the UDI), opposed legalizing abortion or same-sex marriage. During the runoff campaign, Matthei even pledged that her government would adhere “to a path in which nothing contradicts the teachings of the Bible”.

The two candidates attracted media coverage around the world because of their unique personal trajectories: both were childhood friends because both of their fathers were air force generals at the time of the 1973 coup. The directions which their lives took following the coup reflect how the 1973 coup painfully divided families and friends. Matthei’s father, General Fernando Matthei, went on to serve as commander of the Chilean air force between 1978 and 1991 and a member of Pinochet’s military junta. Matthei herself worked in the private sector in Chile during the dictatorship, and also worked for the government body which supervises the private pension funds (AFP). Bachelet’s father had been named to head the food distribution office under Allende and effectively supported Allende’s democratically-elected government, which led to his arrest, detention and torture at the Air Force Academy. He died as a result of torture in March 1974, Bachelet herself (along with her mother) were later arrested and tortured in detention centres by the intelligence services. Bachelet lived in exile in Australia and East Germany and only returned to Chile in 1979.

Bachelet did not win on the first round, but there was no doubt that she’d win in the second round. The month-long or so campaign between the two rounds was therefore largely subdued, of little interest to voters – over half of which hadn’t turned out to vote in the first round anyway – and largely marked by the right continuing to air its dirty laundry in public.

Bachelet picked up a few endorsements between the two rounds. One presidential candidate, Alfredo Sfeir, the colourful Green candidate who won 2.4%, directly endorsed her but apparently his party, the PEV, was not entirely pleased by this. Independent candidate Franco Parisi said right after the first round that he would not vote in the runoff, but congratulated Bachelet on her near-certain victory and took another jab at Matthei, who he said was a “very, very bad person” – the two candidates had traded punches in the first round campaign, after Matthei had revealed that Parisi and his brother owed thousands to employees in a private high school which they owned. On December 13, Parisi tweeted that Matthei “hurts Chile” and that, in the “current electoral scenario” he trusted that Bachelet was the best for Chile. Parisi’s campaign manager went further and publicly endorsed Bachelet.

Third-placed candidate Marco Enríquez-Ominami said that Bachelet had already won, and did not endorse any candidate. MEO said he would cast a blank ballot and mark his ballot ‘AC’, an independent campaign (Marca Tu Voto) calling for a constituent assembly and backed by left-wing politicians including Camila Vallejo, Giorgio Jackson, Gabriel Boric and Guido Girardi.

On the left, Bachelet gained the official backing of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), Chile’s largest trade union which is led since 2012 by Bárbara Figueroa, a Communist. Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva reiterated his support for Bachelet during a visit to Santiago where he met with Bachelet, Figueroa and Camila Vallejo, a former student leader and deputy-elect for the Communist Party.

As was widely expected, former student leader and deputy-elect Giorgio Jackson, who won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies as an independent backed by the Nueva Mayoría, and his party – Revolución Democrática – endorsed Bachelet, after not officially backing any candidate in the first round. Two other student leaders (both Communists) who were elected to Congress on November 17, Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola, had, alongside the Communists, already backed Bachelet in the first round but Vallejo stepped up her involvement in Bachelet’s campaign after the first round. Vallejo, who in 2012 had said in an interview to El País that she would never campaign for or endorse Bachelet, eventually came around to supporting Bachelet after the PCCh’s leadership endorsed Bachelet in the Nueva Mayoría primaries in June. The fourth student leader to win a seat on November 17, Gabriel Boric, elected in Magallanes for the Izquierda Autónoma, did not endorse Bachelet. Boric represents a large strand of the student movement distrustful of the old Concertación and critical of leaders such as Vallejo for their ties to national parties such as the PCCh.

Ex-RN senator Antonio Horvath, who had taken his distances with the right and the president due to his opposition to the controversial hydroelectric dam project HidroAysén and had served as an adviser on Franco Parisi’s platform team, effectively endorsed Bachelet by noting his “greater congruence” with Bachelet’s platform. Horvath’s support was a key strategic victory for the Nueva Mayoría, which needs the support of independents and right-wingers to obtain congressional super-majorities needed for changes in education, the electoral system and so forth.

Meanwhile, on the right, Matthei’s campaign, which stood little chance from the get-go, limped to the finish line. With Matthei standing no chance, right-wing leaders feuded amongst themselves on who was to be held responsible for the electoral disaster (unpopular President Sebastián Piñera, the government, Matthei herself, the UDI or the party leaderships?) and some even began aligning the cards for the 2017 presidential election.

Lame-duck President Piñera, on bad terms with both the UDI and his own party (RN) and fed up with the right’s squabbles, has proceeded to finish his term as an independent statesman. His decision to close a luxury prison where ten military officers sentenced for human rights violations under Pinochet were being held unnerved some on the right (particularly in the UDI), where a number of members and prominent leaders still hold Pinochet in high regard. On the 40th anniversary of Pinochet’s 1973 coup which overthrew Salvador Allende’s left-wing government, Piñera criticized “passive accomplices who knew and did nothing or did not want to know”, a thinly-veiled jab at members of his own coalition, members of whom served in government under Pinochet. Many believe that Piñera might be seeking to return to the presidency in 2017.

Meanwhile, right-wing politicians aired their opinions on the right’s electoral disaster. RN senator-elect Manuel José Ossandón, a moderate/liberal on the right, caused quite a stir when he had tough words for Piñera and the government, saying he’d never work or vote for Piñera again and added that Piñera’s government, while decent on policy (‘6.5/10’) was horribly incompetent on political management (‘1/10’) because he “despised politicians” (Piñera is a wealthy businessman first and foremost, and his cabinet had a large number of corporate leaders and businessmen, which always displeased the old guard in the UDI and RN). Ossandón, who joined Matthei’s campaign team alongside some other younger liberal leaders (such as deputy-elect Felipe Kast), was criticized for his comments by the presidential palace.

Matthei was perceived as the winner of the last TV debate on December 11, in which Bachelet was once again seen as being vague and evasive about her platform.

Most attention about the second round was focused, it seems, on the only major uncertainty: the level of turnout. Prior to 2012, Chile had compulsory voting (but registration was voluntary and manual), an electoral reform made voting voluntary and registration automatic. The result was quite drastic: turnout fell to 43% in the 2012 municipal elections and in the first round, only 6.7 million voted – or 49.3%. Automatic registration had swelled the size of the electorate from 8.2 million in 2009 to 13.5 million this year. In the past, not bothering to register to vote had been the way to express dissatisfaction with a political system largely viewed as stale, immobile and very conservative; now the new way of expressing such rejection of the system is not voting. In the 2010 election, for example, while turnout was 86.9%, VAP turnout was only 59.1%. VAP turnout, 86.3% in 1989, declined consistently in every election since the restoration of democracy.

Given that the second round’s stakes were even lower than in the first round/congressional elections, turnout was expected to fall and politicians debated amongst themselves what should be done to address the new problem. All politicians urged voters to go out and vote.

To little effect, because turnout fell anew to only 41.96%. 5,695,764 votes were cast, down from 6,699,011 in the first round and 7,203,371 in the second round ballot in 2010. For most voters, the second round held no suspense whatsoever and the campaign interested relatively few voters. Christmas shopping and the holiday season seemed higher on many voters’ minds in the last weeks of the runoff campaign. Furthermore, hot weather (over 30 degrees celsisus) demotivated a lot of voters from turning out, preferring to stay home to avoid the heat or head to the beach.

Communist deputy-elect Karol Cariola noted on Twitter that, from the 58% abstention, one must subtract 1.5 million voters: 9% are Chileans living abroad who do not have voting rights, and 7% who are dead. In 2012, the new electoral register was found to include thousands of desaparecidos (persons forcibly ‘disappeared’ by the Pinochet regime) and even former President Salvador Allende, who committed suicide on the day of the coup in September 1973. Although the electoral service (Servel) has cleaned up the most egregious issues, there are still many desaparecidos and deceased on the register.

The results were:

Michelle Bachelet (Nueva Mayoría-PS) 62.16%
Evelyn Matthei (Alianza-UDI) 37.83%

As expected, Bachelet won the second round in a landslide, taking over 62% of the vote to her rival’s paltry 38%. This is the worst defeat for the Chilean right in a runoff election, of which there have been four since 2000 and which, until this year, all turned out relatively closely fought. Matthei’s defeat came as no surprise – her own team and supporters certainly had no illusions and were preparing for defeat. But only 38% of the vote seems to have come as a bad surprise for the right. Carlos Larraín, the president of the RN, said that they had been hoping for at least 40% of the vote (and Bachelet’s people were concerned about her going over 40%).

Matthei never stood a realistic chance at any point during the campaign. She was ‘imposed’ by the UDI as the right-wing Alianza‘s candidate in circumstances which annoyed the RN and many moderate right-wingers, who find the UDI’s control over the Alliance to be quite tiresome. She led, on the whole, a poor campaign whose markedly conservative orientation proved to be out of touch with an electorate which increasingly challenges the idea of the estado subsidiario (subsidiary state/limited government) espoused by Pinochet’s regime, the 1980 constitution and the post-Pinochet Chilean right. For example, a majority of voters backed free education, a new constitution and tax reform. Her platform was largely uninspiring, proposing very little major changes. On this front, Matthei holds a share of responsibility in her defeat.

Matthei’s campaign spokeswoman, RN senator Lily Pérez, blamed the lack of unity behind the right’s candidate, without naming names criticizing the ‘selfishness’ and ‘personalisms’ of some right-wing politicians. Pérez added that if everyone had ‘spontaneously’ joined the campaign from day one without needing to be called upon or dragged out, Matthei would have stood a chance. This viewed was shared by Matthei’s father, retired general Fernando Matthei who said his daughter was often ‘alone’ during the campaign, but also by many members of Matthei’s campaign team. The former UDI mayor of Santiago and defeated congressional candidate Pablo Zalaquett criticized people “who had gone on vacation” – like Andrés Allamand, a former RN defense minister defeated in the primaries and snubbed for the presidential nomination over Matthei, and Ossandón.

The outgoing government and the party leaderships on the right also hold their share of responsibility. Sebastián Piñera’s presidency saw strong economic growth, low unemployment and the country’s continued strong performance on economic and trade indicators. How he managed to become so unpopular perplexes the Chilean right. However, Piñera was unable to respond satisfactorily to the students’ demands and likely underestimated the popularity of the student movement’s ideas and demands. His political style was criticized by both the opposition and factions of his own governing coalition. Piñera’s cabinet, as noted above, was largely made up of businessmen or former corporate leaders; Piñera himself is a wealthy businessman who was compelled to sell his shares in several companies before becoming president (notably LAN Chile, the country’s main airline). The numerous conflicts of interest involving cabinet minister and the president’s aloof style reinforced images that Piñera and his government were disconnected from the concerns of middle-class Chileans and too closely tied to big business.

Some in the Matthei campaign also fault Piñera for his behaviour during the campaign. His decision to close the luxury prison for Pinochet henchmen, his statement on ‘passive accomplices’ or his comment that Matthei was ‘wrong’ to vote yes in the 1988 plebiscite on Pinochet (Piñera voted no) have been cited as some of the Matthei campaign’s criticisms of Piñera, who did little to support Matthei.

Andrés Allamand was critical of the ‘enormous disinterest’ his coalition had shown to the ‘ideological debates in the society’, citing issues such as the new constitution, taxes and the future of private education.

UDI senator Hernán Larraín, who recently said that the government obviously had a responsibility in the defeat, commented that Piñera’s government had no major policy achievements, lacked empathy with the people and failed to properly coordinate with the parties and parliamentarians of the right-wing alliance. That is, in my eyes, a fair assessment of the government’s responsibility.

However, the UDI and RN’s leaders are eager to shirk away from considering their own responsibilities. Ossandón reiterated that the first responsibility ‘clearly’ belongs to the government. Blaming it all on Piñera, an easy target given that nobody likes him, is unfair. UDI deputy José Antonio Kast was fairer when he recognized that the parties were responsible, although he still held the government as more responsible for the right’s defeat. UDI senator Juan Antonio Coloma was also rather fair in his appraisals – citing the lack of unity behind Matthei, a poorly planned and managed campaign, mistakes in policy strategies from the government but also ‘mistakes and weaknesses from parties’.

The UDI and RN both did a bad job at or utterly failed at imposing their agenda, promoting an agenda to voters, creating strong leaders, putting forth a competitive presidential candidate and preparing for the possibility of a Bachelet return (which was absolutely not surprising when it happened). Many feel that the presidents of the UDI and RN should step down, like the presidents of the four Concertación parties had done in 2009 or 2010 after their lacklustre candidate’s defeat.

Only the low turnout casts a cloud over Bachelet’s victory and raises questions about her legitimacy, given that she only won the backing of a minority of the electorate. Indeed, Bachelet won less votes than in 2006, when she won 53.5% (3.7 million, only 3.4 million votes in 2013). Few politicians will openly question the legitimacy of her mandate because of low turnout, as that would effectively question the legitimacy of all deputies, mayors, local/regional councillors and half of senators.

A few on the right have questioned Bachelet’s legitimacy as a result of the low turnout. Pinochetista UDI senator-elect Iván Moreira questioned how much legitimacy Bachelet’s government had given how few people voted (only 26% of registered voters effectively voted for the president-elect). Jovino Novoa, a founding member of the UDI and a senator since 1998, argued that the low turnout indicated that voters didn’t want the major reforms proposed by Bachelet. Moreira’s comment was perhaps fair to a certain extent, but he conveniently forget that his election to the Senate on November 17 is hardly more ‘legitimate’ given the low turnout. Others, however, have perhaps understood that Bachelet wouldn’t be the only one with a legitimacy problem. Andrés Allamand said that the rules of the game were as they were, and Bachelet’s victory was therefore ‘unobjectionable’ and warned against undermining that with dishonest arguments.

The left, naturally, was quick to defend Bachelet’s legitimacy. PS senator-elect Rabindranath Quinteros said that ‘losers always tried to justify their defeats by any means’, PDC senator Ximena Rincón said that Barack Obama had been elected with the votes of 40% of the citizens and ‘nobody doubts his leadership’ while Camila Vallejo tweeted that Bachelet was elected by the majority of the population which decided to vote and that she had the legitimacy and mandate to fulfil the Nueva Mayoría’s platform.

The low turnout has sent a lot of politicians into a frenzy, leaving them wondering how best to deal with the fact that over 50% of voters chose, in local (in 2012), presidential and congressional elections, not to vote. Beyond the flaws in turnout numbers due to issues on the electoral register or the circumstances of this election, the very low turnout reflects deep-seated dissatisfaction and apathy towards the Chilean political system, some 24 years after the restoration of democracy.

The social movements which erupted during Piñera’s presidency did not mobilize citizens to take a more active role in politics, on the contrary, they might have reinforced scepticism about government and democratic institutions’ ability to affect real change. This is hardly surprising, given that most of the protests were critical of the government and the Concertación, both of which were taken by surprise by the scope of the protests and their popularity.

This was particularly true of the student movement; notwithstanding Vallejo and Cariola’s integration into Bachelet’s coalition, which owes more to their pragmatism and endorsement of institutional politics stemming from their Communist ties. The newly-elected independent deputy and former student leader Gabriel Boric remains distrustful of the established parties, and the new student leadership is very much anti-system. The new president of the Student Federation of the University of Chile (FECh), Melissa Supúlveda, is an anarchist who did not even vote in the election because she believes the possibilities for political transformation are not in Congress. Vallejo’s decision to take her demands to Congress by way of the Nueva Mayoría was criticized by many more radical students, some of whom went as far as branding her a ‘traitor’ for allying with the old parties.

The panicky responses of the political leadership to the low turnout might surprise those European or North American readers, who are relatively used to voluntary voting and low(er) turnout, but Latin America – by and large – still is a continent of compulsory voting, although in some cases it is not enforced and almost never matches Australian levels. Chile has always had compulsory voting prior to 2012.

Many on the left are publicly calling for a return to compulsory voting – among others, former president Ricardo Lagos (PPD), PDC leader and senator Ignacio Walker and Camila Vallejo. Walker said he had always supported compulsory voting, because he wants a highly engaged electorate and because of a ‘republican conception of democracy with rights and responsibilities’. Vallejo supports compulsory voting and automatic registration, but with voluntary de-registration. She says that abstention is a structural issue which cannot be resolved overnight, and argues that low turnout should act as an impetus for encouraging greater citizen participation in democracy and a democratic system more closely linked to social movements.

On the right, however, most oppose returning to compulsory voting. Andrés Chadwick, the Minister of the Interior, warned against seeing abstention as a catastrophic thing. Rather, he contended that low turnout was also a sign of citizens ‘exercising their freedom’. On a similar note, the president of the UDI, Patricio Melero, saw low turnout as a sign of a mature country, which had little passion to support or oppose something at the polls. RN senator Alberto Espina opined that it was up to politicians to motivate citizens to vote and convey the importance and value of electoral participation.

Gabriel Boric, however, took issue with both sides’ attitude to the issue. He supports the new system, saying that abstention is legitimate and is a response to a feeling of not being represented by either coalition. He criticized the Nueva Mayoría for not seeming to care about abstention and the right for caring only about abstention, in a bid, he said, to ‘symbolically delegitimize the election hiding behind abstention, with no self-criticism’.


Results of the second round by comuna (source: Saint Brendan’s Island)

Matthei won only 15 of Chile’s 346 comunas, nevertheless five more than a month ago when she had won a plurality in only ten of them. At the regional level, Bachelet won every region by large margins, falling under 60% in only three of them – Tarapacá (her worst region with 56.8%), the Metropolitan Region of Santiago (59%) and Araucanía (58.7%).

Tarapacá, in northern Chile, and Araucanía, in south-central Chile, are both traditionally right-leaning and conservative regions. Tarapacá, an historically working-class region thanks to saltpeter and copper, was favoured by the military regime’s commercial policies (Iquique became a free port) and the right has done well in the region since 1988 – Piñera won over 60% there in 2010. As in the first round, Matthei won two impoverished Andean communities with an indigenous majority – Colchane (65.6%) and Camiña (63.9%), but her third best showing came from the largest city in the region, the old coastal industrial centre of Iquique, where she won 45.4%.

La Araucanía, a poor agricultural region with the country’s highest indigenous Mapuche population (and resulting conflicts over resources), is solidly conservative – it was the only region which Bachelet lost in the 2006 runoff and the strongest region for the yes in 1988, with 54%. She topped the poll, however, in only one town in the region – the affluent lakeside adventure tourism resort of Pucón, where she took 54.9%.

In the Metropolitan Region, the right has a very solid base in Santiago’s leafy hilly upper-class suburbs. Her best result came from Chile’s most affluent municipality, Vitacura, where she won 82% of the vote. In Lo Barnechea, centered around a nouveau riche suburb, she won 78%. In Las Condes, the largest city in western Santiago and one of the wealthiest in the country, Matthei took 75.5%. Matthei also won 59% in Providencia and 53% in La Reina, other wealthy towns which she had won in November as well. From the first round, Matthei picked up Colina (51.2%), a rapidly growing well-off exurban area to the north of Greater Santiago.

Unsurprisingly in a class-stratified country like Chile, voting patterns in the Santiago region are closely tied to wealth. Bachelet did very well in the Greater Santiago’s poorest towns, winning 75.7% in La Pintana, 75.5% in Lo Espejo, 73.4% in Pedro Aguirre Cerda, 72.3% in Cerro Navia and 72.2% in San Ramón. However, Bachelet also performed strongly in more middle-class or socially mixed areas such as La Florida (62.1%), Macul (61.3%) Maipú (62.1%), Quilicura (64.7%) or Santiago itself (57.2%).

In Valparaíso region, Matthei won 39.1% overall. In the first round, she had won only the affluent coastal tourist resort of Zapallar, which she held with 53.4%. However, in the runoff, she picked up Concón (51.6%), Algarrobo (51.2%) and Santo Domingo (50.3%) – three important resort towns, all three rather wealthy. Matthei came within a hair of winning Viña del Mar, one of Chile’s most famous tourist resorts. She won 49.4%. In the more industrial cities of Valparaíso and Quintero, however, Bachelet took over 60%.

In the Biobío region, Matthei won in Pinto (50.5%), which seems to be touristy as well. In the southernmost region, Magallanes, if Bachelet won 69.3% of the vote, Matthei nevertheless won three very sparsely populated comunas: Timaukel, by one vote (42 votes to 41), Cabo de Hornos (61% – this is the only one of the three where over 100 votes were cast, although with 461 valid votes this isn’t any metropolis) and Antártica (71.4%, but with only 15 votes to 6). The few who vote in the latter two settlements are likely military, civilian defense or aviation personnel (maybe some Antarctic scientists).

Bachelet’s best region was Coquimbo, a Concertación (PDC) stronghold, where she managed no less than 70.5%. She won 69.6% in the left-wing mining region of Atacama up north, 67.7% in Maule, 66.3% in Aysén and 66.2% in O’Higgins. The latter three are located south of Santiago, with Maule and O’Higgins being poor and predominantly rural regions in the Central Valley while remote Aysén is located in Patagonia. Aysén was rocked by two major protests during Piñera’s presidency – protests against the controversial HidroAysén dam project and 2012 protests against the high costs of living and centralization. Iván Fuentes, a fisherman who led the latter protests, was elected to Congress as a Nueva Mayoría candidate in November.

Surprisingly, Bachelet only won 63.3% in Antofagasta, where she had been weak in the first round (39.7%) and Parisi very strong (second with 21.7%). Antofagasta, a major mining region and old left-wing hotbed, had previously been one of the Concertación’s best regions – Bachelet won 61.2% there in 2006. Perhaps her anemic performance in the runoff has something to do with Parisi, with some of his voters moving to Matthei?


The hard part starts now for Bachelet (or, more accurately, in March 2014 when she takes office). Her victory was never in doubt given the wide array of factors touched upon in this post and the previous one, what is in doubt, however, is her ability to really implement the ambitious structural reforms she ran on. Actually doing what one was elected to do is a hard task in any democracy, but it is even harder in Chile, which has a notoriously conservative system which is averse to major changes. Pinochet made sure that his legacy would be hard to undo once he left office. The binomial electoral system, in use to this day, effectively guarantees a two-party/coalition system with the minority (almost always the right) being often overrepresented in Congress. The 1980 constitution sets higher majorities for changes to legislation in certain areas, including education, the armed forces, mining, local and regional government or the electoral system. These higher quorums guarantee a veto over major legislative changes to the minority caucus and make compromise the rule of the game. If you take into consideration that the two coalitions are far from homogeneous, with the old Concertación including the centrist and traditionally cautiously conservative Christian Democrats (PDC) alongside centre-left but historically moderate and pragmatic Socialists (PS) and two smaller parties, this makes compromise and consensus key to decision-making in Chile.

As a reminder, in the congressional elections, the Nueva Mayoría won 67 out of 120 seats (55.8%) in the Chamber of Deputies and 21 out of 38 seats in the Senate (55.3%). The right won 49 seats and 16 seats respectively, with independents/others taking 4 seats in the Chamber and one in the Senate. Since then, one RN senator, Antonio Horvath (Aysén), quit the RN to sit as an independent and join forces with the other independent senator, Magallanes’ Carlos Bianchi, in a regionalist alliance (Democracia Regional). This leaves the right with only 15 senators.

Within the Nueva Mayoría, the PDC remained the largest party with 22 deputies and 6 senators, followed by the PS and PPD each with 15 deputies and 6 senators. Of considerable importance was that the Communists, who adroitly negotiated their presence in the Nueva Mayoría, doubled their representation in the Chamber from 3 to 6 deputies, leaving them with as many deputies as the PRSD (and with the likes of Vallejo and Cariola, they’ll likely have a media presence disproportionate to their actual parliamentary weight). Within the new governing majority, there are four independent deputies (two backed by the PS, one each by the PDC and Izquierda Ciudadana) and two independent senators (one backed by the PDC, one backed by the PRSD).

The new government will be able to pass a tax reform and changes on abortion or marriage legislation with a simple 50+1 majority. However, education reform will require a four-sevenths majority – 69 deputies and 22 senators; amending certain parts of the constitution (and, in all likelihood, an electoral reform) requires a three-fifths majority – 72 and 23 seats; and amending key parts of the constitution will require a two-thirds majority – 80 and 26 seats.

Bachelet was vague about how she intended to adopt a new constitution, not ruling out a constituent assembly (demanded by many on the left and many defeated candidates in the first round) but not endorsing it as the only option she is willing to consider. The constitution makes no provision for scrapping it in favour of a new document, the President’s ability to go to the people in a referendum is tightly constrained by the constitution and there is the threat of the right taking the issue to court.

The PCCh will decide on December 21 whether or not they will participate in Bachelet’s cabinet, and all expect the party’s central committee to follow president Guillermo Teillier in voting in favour of cabinet participation. This is a momentous event: the Communists have only been in cabinets twice in their history (and both times it ended very badly for them), under Radical President Gabriel González Videla between 1946 and 1947 before the President and the right passed a law banning the party, and under Salvador Allende, which ended abruptly with the September 11, 1973 military coup. The PCCh had played a major role in Radical-led Popular Front governments beginning in 1938, but after 1989 the Communists isolated themselves outside of the Concertación and were punished by the binomial system. Since 2009, the PCCh has gradually integrated the centre-left coalition and proved very adept at negotiating candidacies for the congressional elections and influencing the Nueva Mayoría’s platform. The Communists openly boasted that they had been well taken into account when the platform was formulated, at the annoyance of the PDC, which was a bit sidelined after its candidate in the primaries, Claudio Orrego, placed a disastrous third with 9%.

The PDC, a centrist party with a long history of anti-communism (especially in the 1960s and 1970s), is at the very least a bit queasy at the prospect of Communists in government and unsettled at the perceived ‘leftization’ of the coalition. Some conservatives in the PDC stand at odds with their colleagues, for example, on the issue of abortion. The PDC came out weakened of the primaries and there was some public agitation with the place of the Communists (it was a mutual feeling, given that Vallejo said that working with the PDC made her stomach a bit sick). The results of November 17 was generally not well received by the PDC, which mourned the surprise defeat of one of its leading senators, Soledad Alvear and the purported weakening of the old PDC-PS axis which had ruled the Concertación in the past. Alvear was defeated by Carlos Montes, a Socialist critical of this PDC-PS axis.

Gutenberg Martínez, a former PDC deputy and party president (and the husband of Soledad Alvear), said that he felt that the inclusion of the Communists in the government would be a ‘mistake’, because of concerns over the Communists’ stances on human rights and Cuba. Martínez was rebuked by members of his own party and Bachelet herself, who reminded him that she would decide the makeup of her cabinet.

The reality is that the PDC is a divided party, between discontents who are the most uneasy with the leftist shift of the coalition and the PCCh’s role in the coalition and those less concerned by those issues. Chilean journalists seem to be of split opinion on whether or not Bachelet’s victory is ultimately good news or bad news for the PDC.

The party faces something of an existential question in the new government: does it ‘give in’ to the rising ‘progressive bloc’ within the new majority or do they maintain a centrist attitude, at the cost of dividing the new government?

Bachelet will therefore not only have to deal with the necessity of forging alliances with independents and/or the right on some reforms, but working out disagreements and differences within her own coalition. Independent leftist deputy-elect Gabriel Boric aptly noted on Twitter that Bachelet’s government has a “mathematical majority, but not a political [majority]” in Congress and that “internal contradictions are very deep”. The Communists and some in the PDC have tried to downplay such differences, insisting that the relations between both parties are good.

The Communists, with deep ties to many social movements and unions, will face the challenge of keeping those ties strong while they ‘institutionalize’ themselves as a governing party, which they haven’t been since 1973. The Communists say they want to be in cabinet to ensure that the platform’s promises are fulfilled; they also wish to maintain strong ties to social movements. Student leaders, especially Vallejo and Cariola, face the same challenge. How will they deal with the reality of congressional politics, compromises, watered-down legislation and unfulfilled grandiose election promises? Vallejo says that she wants to address student demands from within Congress but also by keeping ‘a feet in the street’; she has underlined several times the importance of continued social mobilization and participation to the democratic process. Her views largely reflects the traditional attitude of the Communists, who generally wish to be reliable but critical supporters of the government.

Will Vallejo and the Communists succeed in doing so, or ill they become part of “the system” – turning into acclimated parliamentarians – or will they be able to stick to their ideals, even if it is at the cost of breaking with the coalition to which they owe their victories? As such, the Communists’ influence over the new government may be both a blessing and a curse for the party.

For all the talk about Bachelet and the Nueva Mayoría’s shift to the left, it must be emphasized that Bachelet and her coalition are no radicals. Bachelet is certainly no Evo Morales, Nicolás Maduro, Rafael Correa or even Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – she’s a known quantity, a long-time politician with a reputation for pragmatism and consensus and ultimately the candidate of an established coalition of moderate parties. The private sector and businessmen, by and large, do not apprehend her presidency. In fact, Bachelet has good relations with several leading entrepreneurs, among them the Palestinian businessman and ‘leader’ of the Arab community Alberto Kassis, a pinochetista business magnate who has been on very friendly terms with Bachelet since her first time.

Bachelet’s platform, despite a far more progressive orientation than previous Concertación campaigns, still largely stuck to a gradualist and incremental calendar for reforms. That explains, for example, why a lot of the current student leadership or what I call the ‘True Leftist’ left was so critical of Bachelet’s platform.

The right, as touched on above, is probably at its lowest ebb since the restoration of democracy. The political system still confers it significant power to influence or block Bachelet’s major reforms, but the next four years will undoubtedly be a tough period of reconstruction for the right. On the one hand, a rising faction of younger, moderate and liberal-leaning politicians are advocating for generational change and the creation of a ‘new right’. In the RN, senator-elect Manuel José Ossandón has presidential ambitions for 2017, as does Andrés Allamand. RN senator Francisco Chahuán also advocates for a generational change within the rightist coalition, wishing to continue the promotion of younger leaders that began during the presidential campaign.

Related to this is a rising number of younger moderate right-wingers advocating for greater plurality within the alliance, perhaps with the creation of a third, more liberal, party within the right-wing coalition. Evolución Politica (Evópoli), a new liberal reformist movement founded by deputy-elect Felipe Kast and former culture minister Luciano Cruz-Coke, is increasingly cited as a movement which could drive this recreation, pluralist expansion or ‘liberal turn’ of the right. Following Horvath’s exit from RN on December 19, two high-ranking members left the RN on December 20. One of them, Hernán Larraín Matte, the son of a prominent UDI senator and a bit of a ‘rising star’ left to join Evópoli. Two cabinet ministers – culture minister Roberto Ampuero and transport minister Pedro Pablo Errázuriz – both recently announced that they were joining Evópoli. This liberal shift, however, will not be accepted by all. The more conservative factions of the UDI and RN will certainly show resistance. Just recently, the UDI countered Evópoli’s new recruits by announcing that it too had signed up two sitting cabinet ministers. UDI senator Iván Moreira, certainly one of the right’s more conservative figures, talked of ‘change’ and ‘finding a new right’ but said it was not an issue of recreating the right but tuning it to citizens’ concerns.

As a backdrop, there is much talk of Piñera already preparing for a comeback in 2017. El Dínamo cited the outgoing president as one of the ‘winners’ of Bachelet’s election. If the right goes to dark places, one argument goes, Piñera might be an attractive option in 2017. However, it is also highly possible that the UDI and RN will continue to blame Piñera for their defeat. Two potential RN presidential contenders, Ossandón and Allamand, both oppose a Piñera comeback.

Everything indicates that Chile might finally be at the cusp of breaking with the transition era. Yes, with a former president coming back for a second non-consecutive term as president (which nobody had successfully managed to do since Carlos Ibáñez in 1952) at the helm of a coalition led by old parties. But Bachelet returns with a platform which indicates at least a written commitment to major reforms touching some key aspects of the economic and political model inherited from Pinochet. She returns with a coalition, which is certainly largely an old one repackaged, but which is nevertheless expanded to the Communists (who might join their first government since Allende) and features a less predominant PDC – and that’s still a bit significant. If she is able to accomplish most of what she has promised, her second term in office will have been greatly significant and definitely mark a break with the transition era politics (without marking a radical or revolutionary break). Even if she’s not able to accomplish most of it, there are new ideas and views ingrained in the political debate which will be tough to root out. After all, it is easy to view Bachelet and her coalition’s shift to the left as a direct response to the wave of protests, historic in their own right, which shook Chile in the past three years.

On the right, there is rising incentive for generational change and renewal, perhaps even a recreation along more liberal and centrist lines, less closely tied to Pinochet’s legacy and ‘1988 politics’. New leaders wish to take leadership of the right, and sideline the old guard of the UDI and RN.

These elections will also have seen the beginning of a generational shift in the political leadership. The elections of Camila Vallejo, Karol Cariola, Giorgio Jackson and Gabriel Boric are all very significant; as are the defeats of some old names such as Soledad Alvear (PDC), Camilo Escalona (PS), Hosaín Sabag (PDC) or Pablo Zalaquett (UDI). Even Iván Fuentes’ victory in Aysén might not be a generational shift per se, but he is also symbolic of ‘rebels’ joining the ranks of the political system. Once again, this isn’t a radical or revolutionary break, and the new young deputies might grow into old politicians and institutionalize themselves, but it is nonetheless still significant.

Perhaps an uneventful election, but one which offers at least possibility for interesting and important changes in Chile.

Please comment below or tweet your views on 2013’s most important elections.


Posted on December 21, 2013, in Chile. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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