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Chilean Presidential Election; First Round Sunday

 Campaigning for the election of Chile’s next President has ended. On Sunday, as many as six million voters will decide whether one of the candidates is to be elected in this first round of voting.

For this to come about, one of the eight official candidates must receive more than 50% of the votes. If one doesn’t get that portion, and with so many candidates it will not be easy, nor is it widely predicted, the two top vote-getters must campaign for and win a second round election later in the year.

Some reforms in the election procedures have made the outcome of this election somewhat more difficult to predict than in the past. Chileans living outside Chile can vote by registering and voting at Chilean representations throughout the world. This was tested in the recent municipal elections and seems to have worked quite well. Also, the rules now prohibit the publication of opinion poll results within the last two weeks before voting day. The legal campaign period was shortened to a little over two months and private campaign contributions were strictly limited. What’s not new is that voting is held on a Sunday, when most voters have time to spend in line waiting to cast their pencil and paper vote.

I was tempted to wait until the outcome is clear sometime late Sunday night, November 19, to comment on the election, but instead let me take a riskier approach and project (maybe even predict) what seems to be happening. I’ll update, and probably correct some of my erroneous ideas, in another posting to this blog next week. But hopefully if you are interested in the future of Chile, but not keeping up on what’s going on there, this posting will be helpful to understanding some of the present political goings-on. I absorb most of this from the local Santiago press and discussions with Chilean friends.

Sebastian Piñera (see prior posting on this blog) led the last opinion poll by enough for his followers to be tempted to believe he might win in the first round. His pitch throughout the campaign has been that he will bring investment and economic growth back to pre-Bachelet levels, as well as slow down some of her more ambitious reforms that he criticizes for relying too heavily on public institutions and subsidies. Clearly, he favors more private sector led market solutions. Realistic projections in the press give him about 40%. But, for him to be confident to win a second round observers claim he should win over 45% of the vote and be at least 15% points ahead of the second candidate. If the gap is less than 10% points, the second round could be difficut for him.

This potential difficulty stems from the fact that there are three, maybe four, candidates who more or less represent the “center left” which made up the governing “Nueva Mayoría” of Michelle Bachelet (immediate re-election is proscribed in Chile). Had these parties been able to agree on a single candidate to represent the governing coalition, the voting in the first round would be closer and more difficult for the challenger. However, such is Chilean politics, so there are at least two candidates who throughout the campaign have acted as though they are going to be second in the voting on Sunday and move on to the second round: Alejandro Guillier (La Fuerza de la Mayoría) and Beatriz Sánchez (Frente Amplio).

Guillier at the end of the day is presenting himself as the continuation of Bachelet’s government, reforms and all. And the public sees him as just that, for better or for worse. He never detailed much of a plan of his own. He is supported by the principle parties of Bachelet’s coalition. Guillier’s focus in the last days of the campaign has been to convince enough voters not to waste their vote on candidates unlikely to be in the top two, so as to keep his vote count within 10% points of Piñera and prepare for round two. This involves negotiating alliances with those candidates and parties most likely to be left out of the next round, while working to abscond with some of their voters. Guillier’s vote count could fluctuate between 20-25%, depending pretty much on how frantic the center left becomes at the prospect of a Piñera win in the first round.

Beatriz Sánchez has waged a campaign situated further left of the Nueva Mayoría. Supported by the new wave of young politicians emanating from the student and other civil protest movements active mostly under Bachelet’s first and Piñera’s administration (2006-2014). She and her movement have longer view ambitions to, in their words, present a new horizon in national development. Were she able to displace, or at least come close to, Guillier in this first round, her movement would seem to be catching on with the people and have a future. A vote count of over 15% while not enough to move into second place, would give her influence over Guillier if she supports him in the second round, pulling him to the left. If she has coattails with the Frente Amplio candidates for parliament, and this new party holds as many as 12 seats, she and the party could be well on their way to creating a new “left”, rather than “center left” force.

The most important party presently in the governing coalition “Nueva Mayoría” that did not join in support of the de facto candidate for that coalition is the Christian Democrat Party, They have broken ranks, finally distancing themselves from the coalition that bound them in uncomfortable partnership with, among others, the Communist Party, They have their own candidate, Carolina Goic. Her candidacy is difficult, for several reasons too convoluted and detailed to cover here, but in a nutshell, she is trying to save the most traditional centrist party in Chile. The PDC name  represents the heart and soul of the party, especially the past of Presidents Frei Montalva and Patricio Alywin. But the trajectory since those two men were party leaders has revealed a party still popular enough within certain strata of the populace to elect representative at the local and regional level, but increasingly debilitated  to the point of potential irrelevance. Goic’s candidacy is a test of whether or not the country will look again to the Christian Democrats for National leadership. The pundits suggest that for her to claim some form of success in this endeavor, she must receive more votes than the party’s list of candidates for Parliament. She will probably receive between 5 and 15% of the vote, most likely towards the lower end of that range.

Marco Enríquez-Ominami, of the PRO party and perpetual presidential candidate, is attractive enough to get attention. He would like to get enough votes, hopefully over 10%, to be able to influence whomever goes to the second round against Piñera. His party is most interested in winning several seats in the Parliament. He will most likely get about the same size vote Goic will get; maybe 10%.

Three final candidates who will each borrow votes from the leaders in this round are José Antonio Kast (Independent), Alejandro Navarro (Partido País), and Eduardo Artés (Unión Patriótica). Kast is a newcomer from the far right. He is not the candidate of the farthest right party, UDI. They are supporting Piñera. So he is looking to make a name for himself in national politics. He will do that if he can get more than 5% of the vote (doubtful) in which case he will try to pull Piñera to the right. Navarro is strong in the Central rural part of Chile, and will continue to advocate for greater indigenous people’s rights, recognition, and representation. Artés professes a long term view towards a complete re-founding of Chile’s economic and political system. The initials of his party’s name, UP, cleverly engender memories, and promises, of that divisive period in Chile’s history that ended so tragically. Of the three, Kast may get 5%. If he gets that or more, his voters will probably be called upon to help Piñera in the second round. Navarro and Artés will be in the also ran category. All three will find a way, no matter the outcome, to declare victory of a sort, and will not fade away.

So what has Bachelet been doing to weigh in on this election? She certainly sees a clear and present danger to her legacy if Piñera wins, especially if he wins in the first round with a grand margin of victory, a clear mandate for his program, not hers. She is especially concerned about survival of her social reforms of the educational sector, tax reforms, and the new labor laws. While most would agree that Chile was in need of attention to these sectors, plus health care, water and other natural resources ownership, and indigenous peoples rights, her government has pretty much stumbled through this four-year period, doing some good, over promising what they were capable of accomplishing, and as such she departs with low ratings from the public.

Hence, she is pulling out all the stops to support the “continuation candidate”, Alejandro Guillier. In the last few months she has inaugurated new infrastructure including hospitals, and including him in those events. This is not uncommon in Chile, but a sitting president has not had the inclination in the past to do much of that type of direct campaign support.  In Guillier’s last public appearance before the campaign came to a close on Thursday, it is reported that at least half of Bachelet’s Ministers attended, as well as a huge representation of government officers. This event was strategically located in the plaza in front of the Moneda Presidential Palace and very close to most of the Ministry offices; those officials who want to keep their jobs flowed out of their offices, reportedly in great numbers, to show their support for Guillier.

Beatriz Sánchez Characteristically differentiated herself from the Guillier approach, and spent her last day of the campaign strolling around the city of Concepción, a place always sympathetic to more leftist ideology and candidates. She ended the public appearance stating that she was the candidate with “clean hands”, supposedly free of corruption, and then danced the cueca with her husband. Only thing lacking was the nostalgic link to the past, and the “people”,  the empanada and vino tinto.

So Sunday we shall see. I am not predicting the outcome. (I have a favorite, but she won’t win.) My last predictions for the US presidential election were flawed, disturbingly so. I’m not sure I dare provide the kiss of death to any of these Chilean candidates. The voters will decide, and I’ll weigh in after.  What is clear is that Chile is having what should prove to be an exemplary demonstration of South American democracy. They are to be commended. And I am envious.

Posted on November 17, 2017, in Leesburg, Virginia.


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David Joslyn
David Joslyn, after a 45-year career in international development with USAID, Peace Corps, The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and private sector consulting firms, divides his time between his homes in Virginia and Chile. Since 2010, David has been writing about Chile and Chileans, often based upon his experience with the Peace Corps in Chile and his many travels throughout the country with family and friends.
David Joslyn

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6 thoughts on “Chilean Presidential Election; First Round Sunday”

  1. Avatar
    Carl Gallegos says:

    Gustazo recibir noticias tuyas! Thanks for the information about the candidates in Chile’s upcoming elections. Hopefully their elections won’t have the disastrous results that occurred in the US.
    Saludos a la familia, and Happy Holidays to all.

  2. Avatar
    Ron Bodinson says:

    What a sane election process: curtailed campaign period, limitation on contributions while promoting turnout If only…

  3. Avatar
    Albert Howlett says:

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for the update. Oh for the days of Eduardo Frei Montalva, the father. I tried to appear neutral, but most people in Yumbel used to call me a “platano” — wasn’t that they called us supporters of the Democrata Cristiana?

    Re Ron’s comments, another thing that make sense to me is voting on Sunday, as they are in Yumbel today and so they did 50 yrs ago!


    1. David Joslyn
      David Joslyn says:

      Al, I don’t remember the “platano” tag, but seem to recall something about “tontos útiles”!! Oh well. We were young and optimistic. What happened?

  4. Avatar
    Lee Baker says:

    Early voting by overseas Chileans from about 25% of polling stations that have closed: Guillier (33.6%), Sanchez (31.1%), Pinera (21.4%), but heavily weighted from voting in France, Spain and Australia.

  5. Avatar
    Lila Castillo says:

    I’m looking forward to your comments on our election results.

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