No stopping Bachelet

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, July 2, 2013


The landslide victory of Michelle Bachelet in the presidential primaries held on Sunday in Chile has put her in a decisive lead to become the next president of Chile.  Since Bachelet received twice as many votes as those of the two rightwing presidential candidates combined, Bachelet now seems unstoppable.  Unless she makes many unforced errors, Bachelet is headed to be the first president re-elected in Chile since universal suffrage was established.


The June 30th, the first of its kind in the history of Chile, were organized by the electoral institution.  Political parties in Chile are grouped into two coalitions, the center-left Concertación, in power from 1990 to 2010, and the center-right Alianza, in power since March of 2010, when Sebastián Piñera succeeded Concertación’s Michelle Bachelet as president.


Though they originally intended to hold primaries for senatorial and chamber of Deputies candidates, the two coalitions ended up using the primaries only to select presidential nominees.  Since the failure to hold primaries in 2009 facilitated its defeat, the Concertación was determined to hold primaries despite the fact that Bachelet was way ahead in the polls.  Christian Democratic former mayor Claudio Orrego, outgoing Radical Party senator José Antonio Gómez and the former minister of Finance Andrés Velasco, an independent, got into the race despite the fact that former president Bachelet, a socialist, was the overwhelming favorite.  During the campaign, as it became evident that Bachelet was unstoppable, the other three candidates sought to be the runner-up.  Because she wanted to confirm her favoritism in an election, Bachelet welcomed the primaries and even showed up for two televised presidential debates where she witnessed her rivals fight against each other and tacitly concede to her even before the election was held.


In the Alianza, two months before the primaries, a bitter dispute between its two parties, moderate RN and rightwing UDI, forced UDI to withdraw its presidential candidate and replace him with Pablo Longueira, a controversial former legislator and minister in the Piñera administration.  Close to the Pinochet dictatorship, Longueira is the indisputable political figure of the most conservative party in Chile.  Though revered by conservatives, Longueira has high negatives among moderates and independents.  Defeating Andrés Allamand, the moderate RN candidate, looked like an uphill battle when Longueira entered the race 60 days before the election.


The vote on June 30 produced three big surprises, Bachelet won by a wide margin, Longueira defeated Allamand, and turnout was higher than expected.  After the municipal elections of 2012 registered the lowest turnout since 1990, most analysts expected a low turnout, but more than 3 million people voted, one in every four eligible Chileans.   By showing up to vote in a non-mandatory primary, Chileans signaled their commitment to democratic institutions. More people turned out to vote than to protest in all marches combined in the last two years.  The high turnout—for a primary election—calls into question those who have warned about an imminent crisis of the market-friendly economic and institution-based political model that has characterized Chile since democracy was restored.


Bachelet benefited most from the high turnout. The former president received more than 1.5 million votes. She clinched the Concertación’s nomination with 73% of the vote.  She received more votes than all other candidates combined, and twice as many as the combined votes for the 2 Alianza candidates.  Turnout was high, but it was mostly so because Bachelet attracted many voters in low and mid income areas.


In a close finish in the Alianza primary, Pablo Longueira defeated Andrés Allamand, becoming the first UDI presidential candidate since Joaquin Lavín lost in 1999 and 2005.  Though the UDI boasts having a strong organization in popular sectors, Longueira’s victory resulted from the big advantage Longueira had in the highest income areas of Santiago. Excluding Santiago’s wealthiest district, Allamand came ahead. But high turnout in the wealthiest districts gave Longueira the victory.


Chile’s persistent inequality was also evident in turnout levels.  In the wealthy district of Las Condes, almost 100 thousand people voted. In the working class district of Puente Alto, with more than twice the population, only 50 thousand showed.  In Las Condes, 60% voted in the Alianza primaries and Bachelet only received one in every ten votes. In Puente Alto, three out of four voters cast ballots in the Concertación primaries and Bachelet received 72% of those.  Nationally, three out of four voters cast ballots in the Concertación primaries.


Because turnout was significantly higher in wealthier districts, the Alianza stands little chances against Bachelet in November, when overall turnout is expected to more than double that of June 30th.   Pablo Longueira, the Alianza candidate, will try to transform his narrow victory into an epic moment as he seeks to retain the La Moneda presidential palace for the rightwing coalition.  But because she received won by such an overwhelming margin and because Longueira is perceived as far to the right to be competitive against her, Bachelet had plenty to reasons to smile on June 30th.  The presidential election of November 17th is hers to lose.