Update on Chilean Politics. November 1999.

Patricio Navia


During the 1990's Chileans came to see elections as rubber stamp procedures for the Concertación government.  Since 1988, the Concertación has won 6 consecutive presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections with overwhelming majorities.  However, the 1999 presidential elections have already marked a departure from that tradition. With less than 35 days to go before the 1999 presidential elections, many analysts are predicting a runoff between the Concertación candidate Ricardo Lagos and the conservative challenger Joaquin Lavín.  Although Lagos is expected to come ahead of Lavín--and even win in the first round, as Concertación analysts believe--recent polls are pointing towards a runoff as Lagos might just fall short of the absolute majority required to secure the presidency on December 12.   If necessary, the run-off election will be held on January 12, 2000.


The impressive victory obtained by the Lagos in the Concertación primaries in May (the first held in Chile's history) led some observers to call the election too early, including many of in the Lagos camp.  The impressive, well-financed and better-organized presidential campaign mounted by Lavín caught Lagos off-guard.  Although some polls in late August and September showed some gains made by the Lavín, most analysts discounted those polls.  However, a more recent poll released in late October by the prestigious CEP made it clear that Lagos and Lavín were running neck and neck, with almost 40% of the vote each. The remaining 20% were undecided voters and a minimal support for Communist Party candidate Gladys Marin and other alternative presidential candidates. The CEP poll confirmed Lavín's strength and radically transformed the expectations of most analysts.  The possibility of a run-off election led the president and congress to pass legislation to regulate run-off elections (it would be the first time since the return of democracy in 1990). The remaining weeks in the campaign will determine if Lagos can secure a first-place finish in the first round and if his support will be sufficient to avoid a run-off with conservative Joaquín Lavín.


Analysts had discounted non-CEP polls on two grounds. First, some polls were conducted in Santiago rather than in the entire country.  Because of the economic crisis and the high unemployment rates, Lavín was expected to do well in the capital city where one-third of Chileans resides. A virtual tie in the metropolitan region reported by an early Feedback poll was rapidly disregarded by the Lagos camp and understandably over emphasized by the Lavin camp.  Yet, a strong showing by Lavin in Santiago is not sufficient to defeat Lagos at the national level. 


A second argument used to discount those polls was the reputation of the companies conducting them.  Feedback is a private company that has traditionally underestimated the support for the Socialist and PPD parties. Feedback's reputation is good when conducting polls in Santiago, but they have little experience with national polls. Feedback first reported a virtual tie, in Santiago and at the national level, between both candidates in late August.  Fundación Futuro is a company owned by former conservative senator and successful entrepreneur Sebastián Piñera. In addition to its reported conservative bias, Fundación Futuro conducts telephone interviews. As a result, upper and middle-income voters are overestimated and poor urban and rural voters are significantly underestimated.  Both Feedback and Futuro have reported death heat race between both campaigns at the national level.  CERC is the only polling firm associated with the Concertación.  They reported a Lagos victory in the first round in October but their results were questioned on technical and political grounds as well. CERC has traditionally overestimated the support for Concertación candidates.


CEP is the most respected polling firm in the country. Associated with the center-right Centro de Estudios Públicos think tank, CEP has been conducting polls since 1988 and has developed a reputation of accuracy, professionalism and political party-blindness. Their latest poll reported a significant increase in Lavín support as compared to their May’99 poll, when Lagos had a 2-1 advantage. CEP reported that some 20% of voters were still undecided. Many of them were leaning towards Lagos--some were disenchanted former supporters of the Concertación--but a sufficiently good showing by Lavín among those undecided voters would force a run-off election. 


Shortly after the CEP poll was released, Lavín and Lagos faced each other in the first and only televised presidential debate scheduled for the campaign. Held on November 2, the debate scored high in the ratings, signaling the intense level of the presidential campaign. Polls and surveys conducted after the event along with the opinions of most analysts did not identify a clear winner.  Lagos consolidated his image of a statesman and Lavín carefully maneuver to link Lagos with the Frei government and the economic crisis. Although Lagos did not come out as presidential as some of his supporters hoped, he did not fall into directly attacking Lavín who has avoided personal confrontation. On the other hand, Lavín was not successful in courting the support of traditional centrist and Christian Democratic voters who supported the Concertación during the 1990s.


The final step in the campaign is the daily 30-minute nationally televised presidential campaign ads. The six presidential candidates (Lagos, Lavín, Marín, two leftist independent and one conservative) will share the time allotted by law to all candidates. Although the law only mandates non-cable TV channels to broadcast the candidates’ messages during primetime at no cost, the so-called Franja Televisiva has been a crucial component of all campaigns since it was first created for the 1988 plebiscite. For 1999, undecided voters will be the target of Lavín and Lagos.


Because a majority of the undecided voters are former Concertación voters who feel more identified with Christian Democratic candidates than with socialists and the PPD, Lagos is expected to rely heavily on key Christian Democratic figures, particularly women, to convince them of his commitment to centrist values.  Lavín will attempt to convince undecided voters of his promise to bring about change.  The other candidates are expected to mount lesser-organized T.V. campaigns and are not expected to have a significant effect on undecided voters.


There are three likely scenarios that can unfold in late 1999.  First, the story of the 1990s repeats itself.  The improvements in the economic situation and the good record of the two consecutive Concertación governments lead most undecided voters to support Lagos, even if some of them would have preferred a Christian Democratic president rather than a Socialist. Lavín, despite his impressive electoral campaign, cannot go above the historic electoral ceiling of the conservative parties in Chile and obtains close to the 44% of the vote received by Pinochet in 1988. As a result, Lagos wins in the first round and becomes the third consecutive Concertación president.


A second possible outcome is that Lagos falls short of the fifty-per-cent-plus-one majority required to avoid a run-off election.  By forcing a run-off election, Lavín can claim an electoral victory, the most important achieved by conservative parties since 1988. In the second round, the support for alternative leftist candidates will likely go to Lagos and he should defeat Lavín. Lagos will become the president, but his leverage will be significantly reduced and he will take office as the Concertación president with the weakest electoral mandate since the restoration of democracy.


The third possible outcome, the least likely to occur, is that Lavín forces a run-off election and defeats Lagos to become the first conservative president since the restoration of democracy. Most analysts do not see this as happening, but few analysts predicted that Lavín would mount such a strong campaign as he did. History tells us that conservative candidates have not been able to obtain a majority of votes in Chile since 1927. The most recent CEP poll confirms that Lagos would win in a run-off election, but Lavín counts on a snow-ball effect for a run-off if he can pull a sufficiently strong showing in the first round.


Notwithstanding a major surprise in the 30-day televised presidential ads campaign, Lagos should become the next president of Chile, either in a close first-round win or a hotly contested run-off election in January.  Like in the movies, towards the end the hero seems to be defeated but ends up winning. Lagos has enough reasons to believe that Chile’99 will not depart from the Hollywood tradition, but after the elections he will probably have wished that his run to the presidency had fewer bumps.