Chile shifts to the right

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, October 25, 2016


The municipal elections in Chile held on Sunday confirmed the turn to the right that several Latin American countries have experienced in recent elections. In addition to a record-breaking low turnout, the decline in support for the left-wing New Majority ruling coalition allowed the right-wing opposition, Chile Vamos, to take over key mayoral offices. Only three years after Bachelet returned to power with the biggest share of the vote since the restoration of democracy in 1990, Chilean voters have tossed from office New Majority administration in many local governments.


A year before the next presidential and legislative elections on November 17, 2017, Chileans chose the mayors for the 345 municipalities in the country. Low presidential approval and the sluggish economy pointed to an electoral setback for the New Majority.


The government was prepared to lose a few local governments, some of which it had surprisingly gained in 2012, when outgoing right-wing president Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014) and his right-wing Chile Vamos coalition suffered a setback. With 43 percent turnout, the 2012 election had a record-breaking rate of abstention. That election, those who bothered to show up were in the mood for punishment. The ruling centre-right coalition lost 33 local governments, falling from 144 to 121. The centre-left coalition gained 22, growing from control of 156 local governments to 178.


On Sunday, the tables drastically turned. The New Majority suffered a net loss of 37 local governments. For the first time in recent memory, Chileans will have more right-wing mayors than those from the New Majority. Chile Vamos’ mayors will govern 144 municipalities, including most of the regional capitals and the six of the most populated municipalities in Santiago. The vote of punishment against the New Majority also helped several independent and third-party candidates win. Sixty municipalities will be governed by a mayor not affiliated with either of the two dominant coalitions, the highest number since the restoration of democracy.


Record low turnout

The weak showing by New Majority was partially due to record low turnout. Only 35 percent of eligible voters showed up. Though most parties received fewer votes than in 2012, the decline was steeper among the New Majority and other left-wing parties.


On election night, the right-wing candidates took over several middle-class municipalities in Santiago that had been historically governed by leftist mayors and others — who recaptured other regions that the left had surprisingly taken in 2012 — were all smiles. The centre-left coalition was in despair and the Bachelet administration was slow to react to the bad news. In part, the government had been put on the defensive in the week prior to the vote when it was revealed that around half a million voters (four percent of the all those eligible) had been switched to other districts when their voting address were changed without their consent, most likely as a result of a technical glitch.


The election results are a boost to the right and to former president Piñera, who leads the polls among presidential hopefuls for 2017. Though Piñera had the lowest presidential approval rating on record when in office, Bachelet has broken that, setting a new low record after taking over in 2014.


Bachelet’s unpopularity has helped improve Piñera’s image. He is not as likeable as Bachelet, but under his leadership, the economy grew and opportunities expanded, while under the personable Bachelet, the economy has stagnated. Piñera joined winning right-wing candidates yesterday and spoke of better days ahead for Chile.


Among the New Majority, the race for the presidential nomination is heating up. As President Bachelet suffers from lame-duck syndrome, several presidential hopefuls have thrown their hats into the race. Former president Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), a 78-year old statesman, is leading the pack. Since Lagos is more moderate than Bachelet, his presidential bid has been welcomed by the business sector. But Lagos has failed to reinvigorate his base. Several of the candidates he campaigned for lost decisively on Sunday. Lagos has rounded up support from many elected officials, but polls show there is popular resistance to his nomination.


Independent left-wing senator and former television news anchorman Alejandro Guillier is an up-and-coming figure. Since he entered politics only in 2013, he is new but well-known among the public. Aged 63, he is also much younger than Lagos. Yet, because his policy positions are unknown and since he is not a party militant, he raises lots of concerns among many in the New Majority establishment and among market-friendly advocates who believe Bachelet’s embrace of leftist reforms is responsible for the coalition’s electoral debacle. While Lagos actively engaged in the municipal election campaign, Guillier did not participate as intensely. As a result, the New Majority’s setback hurts Lagos more than Guillier.


In the next few weeks, the New Majority coalition will need to decide if it holds presidential primaries in July or if the parties will unify to nominate a presidential candidate for the November 17 presidential election. The defeat in the municipal election has hastened the presidential race in the ruling coalition to try to reduce the advantage that former President Piñera now commands.


Though many Chileans are still trying to recover from the incontrovertible electoral defeat of the New Majority centre-left coalition, the results in the country only confirm the resurgence of market-friendly, moderate right-wing parties throughout Latin America.