Update on Chilean Politics. December 1999.

Patricio Navia


During the last weeks of campaigning, it became clear that the December 12 election would be the most contested since 1970.  Yet, not even the most enthusiastic supporters of opposition candidate Joaquín Lavín expected the terrific performance of their candidate.  With more than 7 million Chileans casting ballots, Concertación’s Ricardo Lagos edged conservative Joaquín Lavín by only 30,000 votes. Lagos obtained 47.96% to Lavín’s 47.52%, with Communist Party’s Gladys Marín collecting 3.19% and the other three presidential candidates combining to get 1.33%.  A run-off election between Lagos and Lavín will take place on January 16, 2000.


Three important conclusions can be drawn from the election results. First and foremost, Joaquín Lavín’s strategy was successful in attracting former Concertación voters. Be it because of the economic crisis that hit Chile in 1999, because of the disorganization in Lagos’ campaign or because Christian Democratic sympathizers did not back the socialist Concertación candidate as enthusiastically as they had back Patricio Aylwin in 1989 and Eduardo Frei in 1993, Joaquín Lavín has a reason to feel upbeat.  For the first time since 1970, a conservative candidate stands a clear chance of winning a presidential election in Chile. Contrary to most early predictions, Lavín has forced a run-off election and, on election night, he clearly appeared more confident in a second round victory than Concertación’s Ricardo Lagos.


The second conclusion is that the Concertación found it difficult to keep voters from deflecting to the right.  Nowhere was this more evident than among women.  Joaquín Lavín edged Ricardo Lagos 50.6% to 46.4% among women voters. Women constitute 52.7% of Chile’s electorate. Lagos won among men voters by a 50.9% to 44.1% margin, but because he lost among women, he could not avoid a run-off election.  Lavín also won in southern Chile, In Valparaíso and the affluent districts of Santiago.  Yet, Lavín’s most impressive victory was among women.  If the incumbent Concertación coalition wants to retain the presidential chair, it must cater women’s votes rather than anybody else.


The third conclusion to be drawn has to do with the support for alternative candidates. Contrary to the predictions of some survey companies—most notably MORI, that two weeks ago predicted alternatives candidates to obtain more than 15% of the combined vote —candidates Marín, Frei Bolívar, Larraín and Hirsch combined to get 4.52% of the national vote.  The combined votes of Lavín and Lagos constituted 95.5% of those casting valid votes. And although Lagos came marginally closer to reach the required 50% + 1 majority to win the election avoiding a run-off, Lavín’s was only 2.48% short of becoming the next president of Chile. 


Chileans went out to vote in large numbers, more than 89% of registered voters went to the polls. They mostly chose between the two leading contenders, giving Lagos a narrow margin of victory—which was perceived more as a defeat—and sending the presidential race into a run-off in 5 weeks. The distance between Lagos and Lavín on December 12 was slightly over 30,000 votes.


The strategies Lavín and Lagos will use in the campaign for the run-off will be centered on those who supported smaller candidates (some 300,000 voters), those who voted null and blank (215,000 voters) and those who did not participate in the election (around 800,000 people). If Lagos and Lavín voters stay with their first round choice, the decision about Chile’s next president will be left to those 515,000 who went to the polls on Decmeber 12 but cast ballots for other candidates, nullified or left their ballots blank. Those who abstained from going to the polls—voting in Chile is mandatory, but penalties are rarely enforced—will be targeted by political campaigning. 


In addition, Lavín will attempt to link Lagos to the Communist Party and attract Christian Democratic sympathizers away from Lagos camp.  Lagos, on the other hand, will attempt to improve his support among women voters in order to position himself over the 50% threshold that prevented him from becoming Chile’s third Concertación president in a decade.


In his first speech after the results were announced, Lavín called on those who did not vote and those who nullified their ballots to join him and bring about change to the country.  Lagos carefully worded his message to acknowledge a protest vote against the Concertación and to call on supporters of alternative leftist candidates (Marín, Hirsch and Larraín) to join him for the January 16 vote.


The campaign for the run-off election was launched as soon as the final results were announced.  Lavín and his supporters were celebrating the results. Lagos and his supporters were far from euphoric. But the remaining weeks of the campaign will likely be marked by intense campaigning. Lavín will take advantage of his larger campaign war chest, aided by Chile’s flexible and lax campaign spending laws. Lagos will most likely seek support from government officials and hope that the improving economic situation dissuades voters from Lavín’s camp and brings them back to the Concertación.


Lagos needs to secure the support of those who voted for Communist candidate Gladys Marín, Humanist Tomás Hirsch and ecologist Sara Larraín, the latter two being more likely allies than the first.  Lavín needs to strategically link Lagos with Communist Marín—to dissuade Christian Democrats away from Lagos—and at the same time avoid being identified with negative campaigning.


After the December 12 results, Lavín certainly enjoys a better political momentum than Lagos. Yet, Lagos did edge Lavín in the first round, so technically Lagos is the man to beat, although by a slim margin, in the run-off.


Whatever the end result is on January 16—and by no means should anybody suggest that the outcome on January 16 is anything but uncertain—Chileans will have much more than millennium-related thoughts in their minds in the next two weeks.  Public opinion polls will, once again, flood printed and televised media, campaign rallies will continue and the dead heat race between the two candidates will continue to mark Chilean politics. Today, it is anybody’s guess who will be sworn as Chile’s president on March 11, 2000. Chileans will have to wait until January 16, 2000 when, as one analyst suggested, the one who gets more votes wins. The process is simple and straightforward, but the final outcome is far from predictable.