Bachelet’s delayed victory

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, November 19, 2013


Though Michelle Bachelet had good reasons to celebrate on Sunday, the fact that the former president had asked voters to give her a clear majority of votes in the first round of the presidential election made the 46.7 percent she eventually took look like a disappointment. Bachelet is likely to defeat her run-off contender, rightwing candidate Evelyn Matthei, in the second round of voting on December 15, but the first round setback might make her president with the lowest turnout since democracy was restored in 1990.


The centre-left Nueva Mayoría coalition (formerly known as Concertación) had an excellent electoral performance on Sunday. In addition to Bachelet’s vote — well above the 25 percent received by Matthei — NM won 68 seats in the 120-seat Chamber of Deputies. With support from 4 additional independents (all of them left-of-centre), NM will have a sufficiently large commanding majority to pass all kinds of laws — including many that have supermajority requirements. NM achieved the 3/5 majority requirement to pass some constitutional reforms in the Chamber. Despite winning a majority of seats in the Senate, the 21 seats held by NM senators falls short of the supermajority requirements. The vote of an independent senator can give Bachelet enough votes to pass educational reform initiatives, but constitutional reform will have to be negotiated with the rightwing opposition in the Senate.


The first presidential election held under the new rules of new automatic registration and voluntary voting had low turnout. Less than seven million people (55 percent of the eligible population) showed up to vote. Pre-electoral polls anticipated that high turnout would throw the election into a run-off, as many new voters are inclined to support alternative candidates. However, more ideologically inclined voters who turned out in the first round still denied Bachelet of a first round win. Bachelet’s weakest support was in the capital city, where Marco Enriquez-Ominami, a former Concertación legislator and leader of the Progressive Party, and rightwing populist independent Franco Parisi had their strongest support. After Enríquez-Ominami and Parisi declared that Bachelet would win the run-off regardless of their support, the expectation is that even fewer people will turn out to vote in the second round.


Though her victory is all but assured, Bachelet will need to campaign hard to get her sympathizers to turnout on December 15. A low turnout might make her the president with the lowest vote share (as a percentage of all eligible voters) since democracy was restored. The fact that many NM legislators who just won re-election will not work as hard for a candidate who is a shoe-in will further depress turnout.

As she finds herself in the run-off, Matthei will seize the opportunity to directly confront Bachelet. After a late entry into the presidential race in August, Matthei wasted valuable time in September trying to explain her role and involvement with the military dictatorship in the 1988 plebiscite. By making it into the run-off, Matthei now has a full month to engage directly with Bachelet. The rightwing candidate will also suffer from the lack of enthusiasm among rightwing legislators who see this as a lost race and who will not campaign on her behalf. Moreover, as Bachelet has a large campaign war chest, Matthei has struggled to raise funds. Even worse, Matthei will not be able to attract the support of any of the relevant presidential candidates who lost on Sunday. Turning this election around will not be easy, but at least she will get a shoot in a two-person race against Bachelet.


Since all political parties in Chile suffer from low approval, Matthei won’t be able to campaign against NM. The two parties that comprise the Alianza suffer from equally low approval. If she fights the campaign on the personal vote message, Matthei will easily lose to the more popular Bachelet. Matthei’s best possible strategy lies in exploiting Bachelet’s most evident weakness, the ideologically contradictory Nueva Mayoría coalition.


The far-left Communist Party and the very moderate Christian Democratic Party are strongly behind Bachelet, but they agree on little else. Whereas Communists want a constitutional assembly to draft a new Constitution, the Christian Democrats reject it. Liberals want Bachelet to push for same-sex marriage, but Christian Democrats strongly oppose it. As a result, Bachelet has been particularly ambiguous as to what she will attempt to accomplish. Her government programme is vague on specifics and timelines. In the four weeks before the run-off, Matthei will work hard to convince Chileans that Bachelet will either not be able to lead her coalition or will not even try to deliver on her campaign promises. The chances of success are slim for Matthei, but she reacted to the news of the run-off as enthusiastically as if she had won the election.


After this somewhat surprising first round vote, Bachelet appears more inconvenienced than vulnerable. Nueva Mayoría will have to wait until December 15 to celebrate its return to power. Even if Bachelet wins with the lowest turnout in modern Chile, it will still be a sweet victory for some of the members of the coalition that was thrown out of power just four years ago.