Chile veers right in presidential primaries

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, July 7, 2017


On July 2, voters who showed up for the presidential primaries in Chile sent out a clear message in support of right-wing presidential candidate Sebastián Piñera. The former market-friendly president (who served from 2010-2014) received an overwhelming majority to capture the nomination of the right-wing Let’s Go Chile (Chile Vamos) coalition. Piñera confirmed himself as the favourite to replace Michelle Bachelet (who took office in 2014), the centre-left outgoing president. Unlike in 2010, when Piñera came in as the first right-wing president since the end of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) and replaced Bachelet (2006-2010) — who completed her first term with close to 80 percent approval — this time around it’s different: the outgoing president’s numbers stand at 30 percent and most Chileans seem convinced that it’s time for the country to change course.


The July 2 presidential primaries were unique in many ways. Only the Let’s Go Chile coalition had three candidates, while the ruling left-wing New Majority (Nueva Mayoría) coalition opted out entirely. An alternative left-wing coalition, the Broad Front (Frente Amplio, FA), positioned to the left of New Majority, also made its debut with two candidates. Because the leading coalition in the country did not participate, a low turnout was expected. Usually, turnout in primaries — where registration is automatic but participation is optional — is low. For July 2, in addition to having only one of the two dominant coalitions participating, the large advantage Piñera had in polls and the fact that the Chilean national soccer team was playing the finals in the Confederations Cup against Germany decreased expectations about turnout even further.


In 2013, turnout was higher than expected, at three million (21.4 percent of all eligible voters). Former president Bachelet won easily, taking 73 percent among those voting in the New Majority primaries. Her margin of victory was overwhelming, she got more votes than all the other candidates combined — including those running in primaries for the right-wing coalition.


When New Majority opted out most people expected a significantly lower turnout this time around. Let’s Go Chile, whose two candidates received a combined 800,000 votes in 2013, had declared a goal of one million votes. The left-wing coalition and newcomer, the Broad Front, was expecting 500,000 votes, an overly optimistic figure.


The big surprise on July 2 was the higher-than-expected turnout: 1.7 million people showed up to vote. Though that only represents 12 percent of eligible voters, it was far higher than expected. Piñera received 800,000 votes, 58 percent of those voting in his coalition’s primaries and almost half of all those who turned out to cast a ballot. Piñera received a higher number than the combined votes for the two candidates who ran in the Let’s Go Chile primaries in 2013. The runner-up, the conservative Senator Manuel José Ossandón — who campaigned fiercely against Piñera, accusing him of conflicts of interests and of blurring the line between his political and financial interests — received 26.2 percent. A third, market-friendly economist who serves in the Chamber of Deputies, Felipe Kast, received 15.4 percent. Since the 40-year-old Kast seems more interested in the 2021 presidential nomination, he quickly endorsed Piñera after the vote. Ossandón, who was far more critical of Piñera also announced his support timidly, though some of his voters might end up deserting the right-wing candidate in the presidential vote in November.


In the leftist Broad Front, journalist Beatriz Sánchez won with 67.6 percent of the vote, but the low turnout among leftists (327,000, four times fewer than the votes cast in the Let’s Go Chile primaries) soured her victory. The Broad Front seeks to challenge the New Majority for support among left-wing voters, but even in the absence of any New Majority presidential primaries, the Broad Front failed to appeal.


As an experienced politician — he has already run for the presidency twice before, in 2005 and 2009 — Piñera was gracious in his victory speech, quickly moving toward the centre in search of support among moderate voters in the presidential vote. Since the Broad Front did not capitalise on the New Majority’s lack of participation, Piñera is seizing on that opportunity to reach out to moderates. With Bachelet as a lame-duck president, New Majority risks splitting into two coalitions — one comprised of all the left-wing parties, whose presidential candidate is journalist-turned-Senator Alejandro Guillier, and another formed by the centrist Christian Democrats, whose candidate is Senator Carolina Goic. Neither Guillier nor Goic are doing particularly well in polls. The deadline to register candidates and legislative slates is on August 21. New Majority may still end up coalescing around a single candidate, but time is running out.


Regardless of what happens, Piñera remains the heavy favourite to win a majority of votes in the first round in November. The race has really turned into a contest for the second place and the opportunity to run against Piñera in the runoff, when all the leftist parties should unify against the frontrunner, whose negatives are worryingly high. Yet, given the divisions within New Majority and the Broad Front’s effort to challenge the ruling coalition among left-wing voters, the road ahead seems clear for Piñera, leaving him likely to win in the runoff in December and return to power in March of 2018, confirming the right-wing electoral trend taking hold across Latin America.