The presidential race is already well under way in Chile. Primaries to choose the country’s presidential candidates will take place on July 2nd, while general elections will be held on November 19th. If no candidate receives an absolute majority of votes, Chileans will cast a second-ballot on December 17th.
The ruling center-left New Majority (or Nueva Mayoría) coalition faces complex challenges as they pursue a second term in office. Weakened by a slow economy, an unpopular president, the mismanagement of key reforms, and series of political scandals, its electoral prospects are grim.
Across the aisle the electoral outlook is more optimistic. The center-right opposition coalition, Let’s Go Chile (or Chile Vamos), is rallying as a bloc behind former president Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014). Additionally, the emergence of a new leftist coalition, the Broad Front (or Frente Amplio), will challenge the New Majority among leftist voters, forcing a splintered left to compete against a unified right.
Meanwhile, an electoral reform aimed at ending the irregular financing of political campaigns has parties on edge. If parties fail to (re) register 18,500 party affiliates by April 14, then some candidates will not be able to run. This scenario could possible hurt the New Majority, since its most popular candidate could be banned from running, and give a further advantage to the center-right opposition.
New Majority beginnings and present unrest
The New Majority grew out of the Concertación coalition that successfully oversaw Chile’s transition to democracy in the early 1990s and ruled the country for 20 years. It emerged as a response to the 2009 electoral defeat by combining the Concertación’s traditional parties (Christian Democrats, Socialist Party, Party for Democracy, and Radical Party) with a set of smaller leftist parties, including the Communist Party.
But the coalition’s short time in power has left it weakened. Though the New Majority was elected by landslide in 2013, with former president Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010) as their leading candidate, the coalition has proven incapable of governing in a cohesive manner. Differences between political parties, particularly in regard to key reforms—including tax and higher education reforms—have exacerbated intra-coalition tensions and tested consensus, especially between conservative (led by Christian Democrats) and leftist (led by Communist) factions.
Meanwhile, Chile’s economic slowdown—prompted by the messy execution of a key tax reform, as well as the untimely fall in the price of the county’s main commodity export, copper—has limited fiscal spending and the ability to implement legislation. To make matters worse, the irregular financing of political campaigns, many involving pro-government legislators—who allegedly accepted funding from private companies in exchange for political favors—has raised public criticism of the ruling coalition. Michelle Bachelet’s record-low approval ratings (currently at 25%), partly triggered by the country’s macroeconomic woes, as well as an influence-peddling scandal involving her inner-family circle, have crystallized her presidential lame-duck status and dragged down the coalition.
As a result, competition within the ruling coalition has intensified. Currently, there are three candidates seeking the coalition’s nomination. Ricardo Lagos, former president of Chile (2000-2006), and senator Carolina Goic have gained the support of the social-democratic Party for Democracy (or Partido por la Democracia, PPD) and the Christian Democrats (or Partido Demócrata Cristiano, PDC), respectively. Yet, both are performing poorly in public opinion polls—together accounting for approximately 6% of support in a hypothetical first-round vote.
The surprise candidate has been Alejandro Guiller, an independent running with the support of the small Radical Party (or Partido Radical, PR). Guiller, a former radio and television journalist turned politician, was elected senator in 2013. Seen as an outsider untarnished by the scandals of unpopular party elites, Guiller currently lags second behind Piñera in the polls, with 16 percent of voter approval.
Now, with the emergence of a new leftist coalition, the Broad Front (or Frente Amplio), the New Majority faces internal battles with a potential split of its traditional bloc of leftist voters. The Broad Front comprises more than a dozen political parties and grassroots organizations, ranging from leftist groups to ecologists. What binds them is their critical assessment of the Concertación/New Majority policies—despite one of its largest parties, Democratic Revolution (or Revolución Democrática, RD), having formed an alliance with Bachelet’s government to play a key role in Chile’s educational reform. Though the Broad Front parties had a poor showing in last year’s local elections—running separately prior to the formation of the coalition earlier this year—their votes could end up being critical in a contested race. With few signs that the New Majority and Broad Front will successfully negotiate a coalition front, the Chilean left is likely to suffer from friendly fire and vote splitting in November that will likely benefit the rightist opposition.
The benefits of unity
On the other side, the center-right opposition is showing voters that the grass may be greener on the other side. On March 21, Sebastián Piñera publicly announced his bid for the presidency. Piñera was the first center-right candidate to be elected as president after Chile’s transition to democracy. Although his presidency oversaw years of macroeconomic stability (GDP growth averaged 5.3%, while inflation and unemployment were 2.4% and 6.9%, respectively), and a successful reconstruction from an 8.8 Richter-magnitude earthquake, Piñera’s term was marked by massive student protests that demanded educational reform. As a result, Piñera’s popularity fell to a low of 26% that dragged down his coalition (AKA Alianza or Coalición por el Cambio, currently Chile Vamos), and led to its defeat in the 2012 local elections, as well as the 2013 presidential and legislative elections.
Times have changed since 2013. The two major parties of Chile Vamos, the Democratic Independent Union (or Unión Demócrata Independiente, UDI) and National Renewal (or Renovación Nacional, RN), quickly proclaimed Piñera as their candidate. Despite being the most popular candidate (currently with 24% approval), Piñera still needs to gain his coalition’s nomination—which includes two other smaller parties, the conservative Independent Regionalist Party (or Partido Regionalista Independiente, PRI) and the liberal Political Evolution (or Evolución Política, EVÓPOLI). The former already supports Piñera, while the latter is challenging him with their won nominee Felipe Kast, a former cabinet member under Piñera’s presidency and deputy of EVÓPOLI—a party that performed surprisingly well in last year’s local elections.
To add to the complexity, Deputy José Antonio Kast (Felipe’s uncle)—who quit UDI—and senator Manuel José Ossandón—who quit RN—are considering running as independents (only 35,000 signatures are required). Nevertheless, Chile Vamos is hoping to bring them into the coalition’s primaries to avoid vote splitting. As it stands, Ossandón has agreed to participate, while José Antonio Kast has been more hesitant. Regardless of who is on the primary/first-round ballot in the right, Piñera will likely defeat his sectors’ contenders (who jointly have 4% support).
Behind the scenes
There lies a growing concern among political elites regarding the future of political parties in Chile. The irregular funding of political campaigns that took the country by storm have resulted in stringent reforms that now prohibit private funding. Parties now depend solely on public resources to fund their campaigns. To get access to those funds, each party must (re) register 18,500 party affiliates. Although the parties agreed to the task, its completion has proven more difficult than originally expected—shedding light on voter apprehension with political parties. To this day, only a handful of parties have gathered the signatures.
With the April 14th deadline looming, some of Chile’s biggest parties face dissolution. The social-democratic Radical Party (PR) and Party for Democracy (PPD)—both from the ruling New Majority—and the conservative Independent Democratic Union (UDI) are amongst those facing political extinction, if they fail to collect the necessary signatures. Popular discontent has centered on the PPD and UDI, since a large portion of the campaign financing scandals have involved their party members.
The dissolution of the scandal-driven PPD and the smaller PR could have greater implications for the primaries and the general election. If neither party can comply with the new regulations, then Lagos and Guiller would be prevented from running for the presidency. If the New Majority’s best-known candidates, Guiller and Lagos, are unable to run it will shift the balance in favor of lesser-known Christian Democrats candidate. On the other side, Piñera has an ace up his sleeve—if the UDI is dissolved, he can still run as the nominee of National Renewal (RN) or the Independent Regionalist Party (PRI).
The following weeks will be decisive for candidates and the political parties—and may possibly determine the outcome of this year’s general election. If the PPD and PR succeed in registering enough party members, then the New Majority will hold competitive primaries. If not, the coalition can end up nominating a less popular candidate. Either way, the trend points toward the re-election of a former president—though this time, a candidate from the right.