Too many hopefuls makes for a long and complicated race in Chile

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, January 13, 2017


Eleven months before the next presidential election in Chile, the field of hopefuls keeps growing in Chile. Though several among the 20 declared candidates will probably not make it to the ballot, the 2017 election already has the highest number of contenders since the return of democracy in 1990. With outgoing president Michelle Bachelet leading an unpopular administration, early polls indicate that former right-wing president Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014) and a former television anchorman, Alejandro Guillier, are heading the running for the first-round vote on November 17.


When she came into office in early 2014, as the first person to be elected twice as president of Chile, Bachelet had a comfortable majority in Congress to help advance her ambitious reform agenda. Now in her last year, Bachelet is on her way to become the least popular president since the restoration of democracy. Though she delivered on campaign promises and passed some controversial legislation — including tax reform, an elementary and secondary educational reform bill, a new electoral law and new labour laws — people think, overwhelmingly, that the country is moving in the wrong direction. The economy is barely growing and expectations about the future have worsened drastically. The government has been paralysed by a influence-trafficking scandal affecting the president’s son and his wife. Given the growing discontent at the lame-duck government, presidential contenders have wasted no time, jumping into the succession race.


Former president Piñera, a market-friendly leader who left office in 2014 as the most unpopular president so far, has seen his fortunes improve, thanks to the evident contrast with his successor. Though Piñera also struggled with approval ratings as president, the economic growth he registered and the strong amount of job creation during his term in office have now become a big selling-point for him. While Bachelet is likeable, her government is considered inefficient and ineffective. Piñera is leading the polls with a simple message: he might not be likeable, but he delivered as president and the country was better off after his four years in office. To be sure, external conditions were favourable when Piñera was in office, but the first right-wing president since the end of the dictatorship also focused extensively on promoting job creation and economic growth. If the election were held this weekend, Piñera would win.


Still some way to go

Fortunately for the left-wing ruling New Majority coalition, the election is still 11 months away. Unfortunately for the coalition, the lack of presidential leadership has emboldened many hopefuls to throw their hats into the ring, making the selection process a headache for the multiparty coalition. Former president Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) — a 78-year lawyer with a PhD in economics who was the first left-wing president elected after the dictatorship, implementing market-friendly policies — was expected to be a shoo-in for the nomination. But Lagos has failed to attract left-wing voters who see him as out of touch with the new Chile and believe he has a cozy relationship with the business elite. Former secretary general of the Organisation of American States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza, has also failed to build popular support. Having declined to run in 2009, when he was more popular, today the 73-year old also seems to be out of touch with the new empowered and entitled Chilean voter.


The most popular candidate for the New Majority is former television anchorman and affable 63-year-old Alejandro Guillier. Elected to the Senate in 2013, Guillier has quickly risen in polls and is now neck-and-neck in polls with Piñera. Far more popular than Lagos or Insulza, Guillier’s success reminds people of Bachelet’s success in 2013. The candidate has refrained from offering specifics as to what he would do as president, however. He makes vague and general promises that resemble the promises of deep transformations and envisage a much stronger role for the state in health, education and the economy, the same route that helped Bachelet to win in 2013. Though he has sought to distance himself from the current president, Guillier makes no apologies for advocating some of the transformations Bachelet also championed.


Because half of Chileans are still undecided — and many of those might not vote either — other declared or new candidates might end up attracting support and becoming competitive. It is also true that candidates who experience such big surges early in the campaign, as Guillier has, might end up losing support equally as fast later on in the race. But if the election were held today, Piñera and Guillier would make it to the runoff.


In the past few weeks, no less than 10 candidates have thrown their hats into the race. Many of them will not even be nominated by any party and will fail to collect the minimum number of required signatures to register as independents. Yet, even if only half of those in the race make it onto the ballot, the 2017 election would set a record high for the number of presidential candidates in Chile running in a race. As the government continues to sink deeper into its lame-duck hole, presidential hopefuls in Chile are jumping into what will likely be the longest and most crowded presidential race since democracy was restored.