On October 23rd, Chile held local elections. Though the road leading up to the election was marked by uncertainty (both the incumbent and opposition coalitions are not in good standing with voters, due to a series of corruption scandals), the results provided clear winners and losers. The ruling center-left Nueva Mayoría coalition emerged as the loser, while the center-right opposition coalition Chile Vamos scored surprisingly good results.
With the end of an electoral cycle in Chile a new one begins. Sunday’s elections started paving the road for the November 2017 general elections. Although the governing coalition came in second to the conservative opposition, the unprecedented low-levels of voter turnout indicated that the real loser may have been the country’s political establishment. Voter disenchantment and apathy will represent the greatest challenge for the presidential candidates and their parties next year.
Various conclusions can be drawn from Sunday’s elections. First, voters punished the ruling center-left coalition. President Bachelet was elected on a platform that promised ambitious reforms, from changes in the tax code to access to free higher education for lower-income families, as well as a new constitution to replace the one inherited from the military dictatorship. But fiscal constraints—sharpened by Chile’s economic slowdown—and internal divisions within her ideologically diverse Nueva Mayoria limited the president’s capacity to deliver on many of those promises. At the same time, accusations of influence peddling and property price speculation among members of her family—currently under investigation—have severely decreased Bachelet’s personal popularity. The combined effect has dented the popularity of the president and her government and dragged down the coalition’s candidates for local offices.
Second, the election reinvigorated the forces of the conservative center-right opposition, Chile Vamos. Many had thought that the coalition’s brand was damaged after a series of its key leaders had been sentenced or investigated for irregular financing of political campaigns, bribery and corruption. Chile Vamos won 144 of 345 mayoral races (41.7 percent), even increasing their share from the 121 they achieved in the 2012 local election. Despite the overall win, the Nueva Mayoría was not far behind with 141 mayoral wins. Yet, the opposition gained key municipalities, including Santiago.
Third, with Chile’s traditional parties suffering from the growing voter discontent across the board, the local elections were a test for emerging political parties. The results were mixed. While new parties, such as the center-right EVÓPOLI, gained a respectable share of votes, others, such as the center-left Revolución Democrática, failed to takeoff. At the same time, Marco Enriquez-Ominami’s Partido Progresista had a catastrophic showing at the ballot box, reflecting voter hostility toward party leaders’ ongoing judicial problems. The biggest surprise took place in Valparaiso, where 31-year old Jorge Sharp was elected mayor. Sharp ran on the platform of the Movimiento Autonomista, a radical-left political movement, and comfortably defeated the candidates of the traditional coalitions with 53.8 percent of valid votes. As impressive as his triumph is, Sharp was running against Jorge Castro, an unpopular incumbent mayor, and Leopoldo Méndez, a famous DJ/singer-turned-politician that represented the Nueva Mayoría.
Yet, what really stands out from the elections is the low-levels of voter turnout. Abstention rates were the highest recorded since Chile’s transition to democracy in the early 1990s. Barely 35 percent of eligible voters (4,931,041 voters) headed to the polls. Part of the blame lies with political parties and their inability to appeal to voters; the other part lies with the government. A series of errors in the country’s electoral registry were found barely weeks before Election Day; approximately 460,000 Chileans had their voting places changed without their knowing. Many were forced to vote hundreds of kilometers from their original voting place—some even sent to Antarctica. The Civil Registry (Registro Electoral) and Electoral Service (Servicio Electoral) each blamed the other for this foreseeable and embarrassing mix-up. The government tried to pass a law to solve the issue, but dropped it after failing to receive majority support from its senators—yet another impasse within the coalition just days before Election Day.
With local elections out of the way, political parties and candidates are now getting ready for next year’s general election. In perhaps the best example of how Chile’s political parties are failing to provide voters with fresh alternatives, it looks like the main contenders for the general election will be two former presidents: Ricardo Lagos (2000-2005) and Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014). Sunday’s elections benefited Piñera, who celebrated with the newly elected mayors of Chile Vamos. Ricardo Lagos, on the other hand, not only had to comfort the losing candidates (he had personally campaigned for them), but he now faces the challenge of uniting and injecting energy into a worn and divided coalition. Though there is still a long road ahead for next year’s general elections, the results from Sunday’s local elections indicate that Chile is closer to joining its neighbors in Argentina (Mauricio Macri) and Peru (Pedro Pablo Kuczynski) in turning right in the near future, rather than continuing its current course.
Lucas Perelló is a Ph.D. student in politics at the New School for Social Research in New York.