Chile’s Elections: A Guide

Santiago, Chile – For the first time in 20 years, Chile’s center-left coalition risks being pushed out of power.

Chileans go to the polls Sunday to decide who will replace President Michelle Bachelet. Along with the future president, Chileans will also elect 120 representatives of the lower house of Congress and half of the Senate.

Here’s what you need to know about the four candidates, the race and why it matters.

The Backdrop

Since the return to democracy in 1990, Chilean elections have been a choice between the right and the center-left, with a token left receiving minimal votes.

The governing Concertacion coalition has been steadily disintegrating over the years. Some of its members have been involved in high-profile corruption scandals, a wary electorate is tired of the same recycled politicians and leaders have begun breaking away to create new political organizations.

This year, the Concertacion allied with the Communist party in an attempt to help the left attain political representation in Congress. Chile’s electoral system excludes minority parties from political office.

The Frontrunner

The Concertacion may end up ceding power to none other than a right-wing billionaire who made his fortune under the military regime’s protective umbrella and whose base of support is founded on former military allies: Sebastian Pinera.

Pinero, 60, lost to Bachelet in the 2005 elections and has been campaigning practically ever since.

He likes to say he is a businessman who knows how to create jobs. In fact, he has devoted his life to investing in the right places, and is now owner of a major soccer team, Chile’s main airline and one of the four television channels in the country, among his many other assets.

Pinera has been reaping part of the Concertacion fallout with the message that it’s time for change and new faces in government. He has been reaching out to the more moderate Concertacion electorate in an effort to occupy the political center and has even pulled some Christian Democratic names out of his hat as possible ministers in his cabinet.

Polls have consistently put Pinera’s support at about 44 percent, which would easily propel him into the second round.

The Establishment Candidate

The Concertacion’s candidate, Eduardo Frei, isn’t getting much of a halo effect from Bachelet’s popularity.

Frei, a 67-year-old economist, was president between 1994 and 2000 and later a senator. He is vowing to continue Bachelet’s policies and is now appealing to more progressive voters by promising things he opposed or ignored during his own presidency and time in Congress: free distribution of the day after pill, civil unions for gays, an end to the amnesty law for human rights violators, a revision of the anti-terrorism law and a stronger role for the state.

But this reorientation largely hasn’t worked much, and he is now sweating it out for every possible vote, with about 31 percent of poll respondents favoring his candidacy.

A Fresh Face

Frei has to compete with the new enfant terrible in Chile’s political scene: 36-year old Marco Enriquez-Ominami, or MEO for short, who until June was a member of Bachelet’s Socialist party.

Congressman Enriquez-Ominami regularly blasts the political establishment. Allied with the Humanist and Ecologist parties and with a large base of support from independents, MEO has been sapping votes mainly from the Concertacion and normally apathetic voters.

A philosopher and filmmaker, Enriquez-Ominami is running on a platform of more effective civil rights and political reforms and has insinuated that his eventual government could include members of the left as well as the right. He has been polling at about 18 percent.

On the Left

Polling at less than 10 percent is the candidate from the left: 68-year-old attorney and economist Jorge Arrate.

Arrate has been calling for a new constitution, the re-nationalization of copper (which was nationalized in the early 1970s while he was minister of mining and largely re-privatized after dictatorship) and strengthening public education.

In the past, leftist candidates have been virtually ignored. But this year, Arrate has received fairly even media coverage and participated in televised debates, helping him rise in the polls.

The Logistics

Since it’s unlikely that anyone will win an absolute majority, Sunday’s elections will determine what two candidates move on to the runoff vote on Jan. 17.

In any case, it won’t be Chile’s young population that will decide. Ever since elections were restored in 1988, less and less of the potential electorate under 30 is registering to vote. Registration is voluntary, but once signed up, voting is mandatory.

In 1988, 35 percent of the electorate was under 30, but the number has dwindled to only 9.2 percent this year.

Pinera looks certain to make it through the first round. Arrate, Frei and Enriquez-Ominami are scrambling to reach an agreement to endorse his eventual challenger in an attempt to block the right from returning to power. But that agreement is no sure thing.

A Looming Legacy

Chile’s first female president is leaving office with almost an 80 percent approval rating, the highest ever for a departing president, in spite of the economic crisis that struck in the latter half of her term.

She started her presidency with two major problems: a disastrous overhaul of the public transportation system and major student protests demanding education reform.

Bachelet’s comeback largely resulted from two things: her emphasis on programs aimed at women, young children and the elderly, and her handling of the economic crisis.

Her government saved billions in revenues from copper exports, and when the global crisis reached Chile, it had almost $20 billion in reserve funds invested abroad. These rainy-day funds were then used to mitigate the effects of the crisis, in part through short-term employment programs, subsidies and incentives for hiring.

But they were also used to officially establish a social protection network, which included guaranteeing minimum pensions for the poor, increasing day care centers and expanding health care.

None of the candidates dares criticize what will probably be known as Bachelet’s main legacy, and in fact, they all promise to keep the network in place and expand it to the middle classes.

Up Next

If Pinera ultimately wins the election, it would be the first time since the late 1950s that the right is voted into office, and his opponents fear Chile would return to an era of moral conservatism and a shrinking role of the state.

Despite his liberal discourse during campaigning, his allied party UDI would make it difficult for Pinera to live up to his promise of respecting minorities or guaranteeing women’s rights.

In spite of the significant reforms (justice, health, education, transportation) and advances during the past 20 years of Concertacion, many more remain. No matter who is in office, reforming the electoral system, abolishing the secret copper law and strengthening labor rights are unlikely to succeed if the right in Congress blocks their approval, as has happened so far. With Pinera, however, the government may not even push very hard.

Urgent issues such as the indigenous conflict over lands, the protection of natural resources and stricter corporate regulations are not something the right-wing in Chile usually pays much attention to, and are likely not to be priorities for Pinera. In fact, there is still doubt about what Pinera would do with his investments if elected president, and if he would be able to separate his business interests from his duty of running a country.

But unlike other countries in the region, in Chile the essence of the economic model is not in question, at least not by the three leading candidates. The next president will see the country enter the OECD next year, and is unlikely to change the rules of the game.