Obstacles ahead for Piñera bid

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, April 21, 2017


After Michelle Bachelet became the first woman president of Chile in March 2006, only two persons have alternated in the highest office. When Bachelet, a member of the Socialist Party, a centre-left coalition member, ended her term in 2010, her successor was right wing businessman Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014). Bachelet returned to power in 2014 and will step down in March of 2018. Unless a major political earthquake takes place, Piñera is likely to be elected, once again, to succeed Bachelet in office.


Though Chile has one of the strongest democracies in Latin America, the country has failed to renew its political leadership. Since 2009, every presidential election has had at least one former president running. For the November 2017 election, two former presidents announced their intention to run again. In addition to Piñera, Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), from Nueva Mayoría (the former Concertación coalition), entered the race. The field of presidential candidates got crowded, with more than 20 hopefuls. Because Piñera and Lagos have previous experience and name recognition, many anticipated that the election would turn into a two-man race. But after six months campaigning, Lagos withdrew from the race. Unlike Piñera, who leads in polls, Lagos struggled to gain popular support. He polled consistently below 5%. The former Socialist president also failed to get the left-wing parties in Nueva Mayoría behind his campaign. Though he was nominated by his own Party for Democracy for the presidential primaries scheduled for July 2, two other Nueva Mayoría parties, the powerful Socialist Party and the Radical Party nominated senator Alejandro Guillier. A former news anchorman who entered politics in 2013, Guillier is doing much better in polls. As a result of those setbacks, Lagos opted to withdraw from the race. Now, Piñera is the only former president left in the race. Polls show that, if the race were held this Sunday, he would finish atop a crowded list of competitors.


The last four presidential elections have needed a runoff between the top two vote-getters and voters have had to choose between a centre-right Chile Vamos (formerly Alianza) coalition candidate and a centre-left Nueva Mayoría candidate. The most likely scenario for the first-round vote in November is that Piñera and a centre-left candidate will qualify for the runoff. With Lagos out, the field is wide open for a centre-left candidate to make it into the runoff. For the time being, Senator Guillier is the favourite. But his lack of experience and his superficial approach to policies make many people wonder whether he will be able to sustain his popularity throughout the tough campaign. Since he entered the race in late 2016, Guillier’s most compelling argument has been that he is competitive against Piñera. He quickly rose in polls — just as Lagos tanked. Yet, in the last month, Guillier seems to have hit a ceiling. He continues to be the most popular leftwing candidate in the race, but he is 10 points behind Piñera. If the perception that he is not competitive against Piñera strengthens, Guillier is likely to fall further behind.


A number of protest candidates are slowly moving up in polls, including journalist (and Guillier’s former television sidekick) Beatriz Sánchez, who will likely get the nomination from the Broad Front, a loose organization of leftwing groups to the left of Nueva Mayoría. But neither Sánchez nor the other anti-establishment left-wing candidates in the race has any real chance of making it to the runoff or defeating Piñera.


Thus, with Lagos dropping out Piñera’s chances of becoming Chile’s next president have improved even further. It is true that campaigns matter and that, despite his lead in polls, Piñera is still short of the support he needs to win an absolute majority of votes. In his first term, Piñera struggled with his approval ratings. Though the economy expanded, many Chileans felt that Piñera governed for the wealthy, not for regular people. The current economic slowdown and Bachelet’s low approval should help Piñera, but the ruling coalition has never received less than 48 percent in a presidential election runoff. Thus, whoever runs against Piñera will have a fighting chance for the presidency.


The campaign is just getting started. On May 3, the coalitions will need to decide if they will hold presidential primaries or if they will negotiate among themselves before they register a candidate by the late August deadline. With Lagos out, Nueva Mayoría might opt to nominate Guillier without primaries. Chile Vamos will need to have primaries as there are two other rightwing presidential hopefuls challenging Piñera.


The race is Piñera’s to lose. As the most experienced politician in the crowded field and having ran for the presidency twice before, Piñera looks stronger than his rivals. He is also doing well in polls, but just as recent elections have resulted in major upsets around the world, the Chilean left hopes that the country will buck the trend and reject the early favourite in the November 19 first round vote.