Chile: Between Stability and Uncertainty

By Eduardo Silva and Kenneth Roberts*

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Students protest in Santiago, May 2016. A highly-mobilized Chilean civil society has beset Michelle Bachelet’s second term as president. / Francisco Osorio / Flickr / Creative Commons

With national elections looming at the end of 2017, President Michelle Bachelet’s startling reversal of fortune raises the question of whether the traditional parties’ failure to win broad popular support could give rise to an anti-establishment populist leader.  At the end of her first government in 2010, Bachelet was the most popular president in post-democratic transition Chile.  This go-around, high-profile corruption scandals involving party financing and real estate deals implicating her family (along with both governing and opposition parties) have cut into her support.  Irregularities in the electoral registry before the 2016 municipal elections, an ineffective response to devastating forest fires, concessions over major reforms, and a slowing economy have also hurt her approval ratings, which are hovering near 20 percent, the lowest of any president since 1990.  Her administration has been beset by protests over education reform, labor relations reform, and the private pension system that the military government established in the 1980s.  Tensions and violence flare up continuously over land rights in the south between Mapuche communities and extractive industries.  All of this is occurring in a context of marked secular decline in voter participation and political party identification.

The trend of volatile approval ratings and a mobilized civil society now spans three administrations – Bachelet, Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014), and Bachelet again – from 2006 to 2017.  Unlike in Brazil and Argentina, where “middle class” revolts demanding clean, efficient government and economic growth signified a rightward turn after prolonged center-left rule, most of the protests in Chile come from the left flank, rather than the right.  Moreover, the mainstream parties appear seriously detached from the most active groups in civil society and, as seen in declining levels of party identification, from the citizenry at large.  This raises questions about the future of Chile’s party system, whether its center-left and center-right coalitions can hold together, and the chances for outsider populists.

All things considered, Chile has been a case of exceptional partisan and electoral stability in Latin America since 1990.  The dominant parties and coalitions have won all the elections, without the rise of a major “outsider” populist or a major new “movement party.”  But the next elections may provide a sort of “in between” outcome.  Ex-President Piñera, who has independent tendencies on the right, and a center-left alternative, Alejandro Guillier, are the current frontrunners in presidential primaries scheduled for July.  Guillier is a type of insider, nominated by a small party in a large coalition, with outsider credentials who does not really belong to Chile’s traditional casta política.  At this early point, if Piñera and Guillier win their respective primaries, both would appear to have a shot at winning in November or in December’s runoff – with neither outcome representing a breakdown of the system, nor a widespread electoral protest against mainstream parties.  This suggests, for now, the continuation of a system that is on the surface highly stable in institutional terms, but in reality highly detached from society at large and in particular from youth and the more active, mobilized sectors of civil society.  Neither political coalition shows many signs of significant internal renovation, although Guillier represents at least some change in leadership of the Nueva Mayoría.  However, political systems have been known to limp along under these conditions in the absence of major economic meltdowns, and that may be the most likely outcome of the next electoral cycle in Chile.

February 13, 2017

*Eduardo Silva is Professor of Political Science at Tulane University, and Kenneth Roberts is Professor of Government at Cornell University.