Chile Elections: Bachelet’s Partial Victory

By Maribel Vasquez and Eric Hershberg

President Michelle Bachelet / Photo credit: Chile Ayuda a Chile / Flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND

President Michelle Bachelet / Photo credit: Chile Ayuda a Chile / Flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND

Elections last Sunday didn’t give former President Michelle Bachelet the strong mandate that she wanted but she appears well positioned to win the second round and the honor of serving a tough second four-year term. An underwhelming number of Chileans headed to the polls to cast their votes for the president of the republic, parliamentarians, and for the regional councilors. Polls had indicated that Bachelet would win convincingly in the first round but, with 46.7 percent of the ballots cast, she fell just short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off election on December 15. Conservative Evelyn Matthei, from the governing right wing Alliance Party, received 25 percent of the vote in the first round and has little chance of winning the run-off: another 17 percent of Chileans voting in the first round opted for candidates running to the left of Bachelet, and observers predict they will either stay home in December or select the former president as a second best option.

A 2012 change in voting law appears to have hurt Bachelet’s percentages. Under the new norm, Chileans for the first time were automatically registered to vote in presidential and congressional elections upon reaching 18 years of age, instantly expanding the electorate from eight to 13 million potential voters. But also for the first time, voting was not compulsory, and that proved consequential. In a country where public opinion polls have long shown high levels of alienation from the political system, particularly among younger segments of the population, abstention reached unprecedented heights. Fewer than seven million Chileans turned out to vote on Sunday, representing only around half of those eligible to do so. Turnout was undoubtedly suppressed by the stubborn persistence of Chile’s binomial electoral system, a holdover from the Pinochet dictatorship’s 1980 Constitution that gives the losing party a bloated presence in Congress (in order to receive both seats in any given district, the winning party or coalition must win double the percentage of the vote received by the runner-up, so frequently even a wide margin between the two top vote getters generates an equal allocation of seats). Bachelet’s center-left coalition, the New Majority, has proposed amending the constitution to make the electoral system more reflective of public preferences. But the newly-elected Congress, selected according to the rules of the authoritarian regime, is unlikely to generate the super-majorities needed to achieve constitutional changes that would alter the system so as to democratize congressional representation.

Getting elected to a second four-year term as Chile’s president might prove to be the easy part for Bachelet.  Harder still will be pushing forward the ambitious policy reforms she has promised. An especially prominent issue in the campaign was the demand of a growing student movement to reform Chile’s privatized education system, and Bachelet responded with a pledge to guarantee free, quality higher education to all Chileans, to be funded by a proposed increase in corporate tax rates and elimination of tax deferrals used widely by Chilean companies. Yet while Bachelet’s bloc secured the simple majority needed to secure modest tax reform, it fell short of the super majorities needed to secure education reform or change the electoral system or constitution, and the rightist opposition is loath to cede ground on either of these issues, which are also legacies of the Pinochet constitution. To enact the key pillars of her agenda, Bachelet’s second presidency will need to calibrate difficult negotiations with Congress with popular pressures to fulfill democratic aspirations for political representation and a more social democratic approach to public services than has been possible to achieve during the first 23 years of post-authoritarian rule.

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