The first round of Chile’s presidential elections has created the most unpredictable political constellation since the nation’s return to democracy in 1989. The cabals and intrigues materialising the run-up to the second round on December 17 could have long-term effects on the nation’s political culture, ideological identities and socio-economic development, write Roland Benedikter (EURAC Research, COHA, University of Wroclaw) and Miguel Zlosilo (Artool, Chile) in the third of a three-part series on Chile’s 2017 presidential election.
• Read parts I and II: The second Bachelet government and Forecasting the first round
The first round of the Chilean presidential elections on November 19 produced a very surprising result. Against most expectations, conservative favourite Sebastián Piñera did not achieve a sweeping victory, receiving just 37 per cent of the vote, with his main opponent Alejandro Guillier from the left gaining a respectable 23 per cent.
Yet the most notable result was the unheralded rise of the second leftist candidate Beatriz Sánchez, of the Broad Front. Tearing up the predictions of Chilean pollsters, she took just 3 per cent less than Guillier, receiving a share of 20 per cent.
The other two candidates, Carolina Goic of the Christian-Democrats and “the Chilean Trump” Jose-Antonio Kast, received 6 and 8 per cent, respectively.
This has created a stalemate between the left and the right, ensuring a tight race in the run-off between Piñera and Guillier on December 17.
Former president Piñera (2010-14) remains the favourite and pointed out after the vote that “the results are very like 2009, when we won”, but the race is far from over.
If the broad-left alliance can overcome chronic bickering and avoid splitting into countless micro-groups, it could reach out well beyond the 43 per cent achieved by its two main candidates, with Goic already having pledged support (7 per cent).
Piñera could reach 45 per cent with the support of Kast, who immediately declared his unconditioned loyalty and commitment “to avoid the repetition of a leftist government” like that of the outgoing Michelle Bachelet.
Possible coalitions and their chances
If Piñera and Kast manage to forge a stable coalition, a rightward shift is to be expected, especially if Kast takes up an ideological role like that of Steve Bannon in the US, promoting a supposedly “contemporary, consistent” Chilean conservatism.
That would, however, contradict the preferences of the moderate middle class who make up the majority of Chilean voters, for whom a social market economy approach along German lines would be preferable. It could also alienate Piñera’s centrist alliance partners.
Thus, the fate of the conservatives will depend on Piñera’s ability to negotiate his programme flexibly, essentially by managing the expectations of the populist right without scaring off the moderates.
In contrast, Alejandro Guillier will depend more on the surprise package of the first round: the Broad Front of Beatriz Sánchez. Mayor of Valparaíso Jorge Sharp, one of the party’s best-known figures, claims that the run-off could pave the way for a new ideological “identity” for Chile. This would break the traditional dichotomy between left and right and replace it with a “third way” more reminiscent of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair than of Marx and Engels.
According to Sharp, “if the Broad Front can consolidate itself as a truly new emerging political force, it will be able to achieve social mobilisation, and that could decide these elections [and] move toward greater popular participation in future democratic processes and elections.”
Yet, support from Broad Front could also have some painful side effects: it could put off the more moderate leftists within Guillier’s more traditional New Majority coalition, leading them to stay home for the second round. It could also shift the broad-left alliance’s centre of gravity away from the centre ground where Chilean elections are usually won.
The issue of turnout is also crucial, as the 46.7 per cent figure for the first round is likely to fall further, just as it did in previous elections. The elimination of various left-wing candidates could reduce participation of their supporters in the second round, thereby boosting Piñera’s chances. Yet, this could also be counterbalanced by an “anti Piñera” effect, sparking a wider campaign against the powerful billionaire’s return to power.
The final coalitions are all the more difficult to predict because in Chile mutual benefits are often provided behind the closed doors of institutions and parties, out of the public eye and in family circles that cross ideological and political borders, often without a long-term perspective aligned to the interests of the nation.
Piñera: trading horses, priming discourses
Overall, Piñera’s margin to seek agreements with new political forces before the run-off is limited. José Antonio Kast is Piñera’s best option to attract a hesitant conservative electorate, but any partnership could prove strained in the case of victory.
A second, related challenge for Piñera is to attract the voters of Manuel José Ossandón, a charismatic populist senator from the right wing of Piñera’s own party whose postures sometimes resemble those of Kast.
Ossandón will support Piñera, but with clear conditions, not least the introduction of free education and modifications to the Fisheries Law approved during Piñera’s first government (and later criticised as a vehicle for corruption). Ossandón also wants any new conservative government to extend the capital’s metro system to La Pintana, one of the poorest communities in the country. Ossandón has threatened to become Piñera’s worst enemy if these demands are not met, which puts extra pressure on Kast to follow his example.
Closer to the centre of the political spectrum, there are fewer chips to play for Piñera. His best chance would be a loose alliance with Bachelet’s former Minister of Finance Andrés Velasco, but he has already instructed supporters to vote in line with their own consciences, pledging to cast a blank vote himself in the second round.
Irrespective of the makeup of Piñera’s alliance, one of his main weapons will undoubtedly be discursive attacks on Guillier as a “Chilean Maduro”, whose potential victory would have catastrophic effects and undo the country’s economic achievements. Along the same lines, Piñera’s camp alleges that previous terror attacks carried out mainly by leftist groups would worsen under a Guillier government, as would the “rule of the street”.
Elsewhere, Juan Andrés Camus, President of the Santiago Stock Exchange, claimed that a Guillier government would seriously hurt the country’s key IPSA index, which fell sharply after the first round of the elections. This perspective could be shared by many ordinary middle-class citizens, who tend to expect a right-wing government to increase employment via economic growth, as occurred during Piñera’s first term.
Guillier: broad enough for the Broad Front?
In contrast to Piñera, Guillier seems to have numerous ways to win the second round. All of the centre-left forces have declared their support for Guillier, creating the possibility of a big-tent alliance for the run-off.
His main challenge will be to reach out to the bases of the Broad Front: educated, postmodern, critical segments of Chile’s urban populace that are sceptical of traditional left-right candidates and programmes. Yet, there are signs that these voters can be convinced.
Here, it is crucial to understand – as Guillier has – that Broad Front voters are millennials. This generation tends to behave pragmatically, aiming to achieve short-term objectives without adopting dogmatic positions, and keeping their options open at all times.
Paradoxically, they are able to inhabit and project class-struggle discourse without really being part of it. Like the bourgeois sectors of other generations, Broad Front voters have been able to emerge as spokespeople for a class to which they do not belong. Its main leaders also manage to maintain a uniformity of tone and a consistent preference for dialogue, albeit with a degree of ideological obduracy.
One of the Broad Front’s main aims is to have any new government commit to a constitutional plebiscite that would open the way towards the writing of a new constitution via a constituent assembly. This might then introduce – amongst other measures – free education and free healthcare for all.
It is striking that these requests are not new. Indeed, they are longstanding demands of the traditional left and were supported ideologically by the second government of Michelle Bachelet. Yet, given that the run-off will shape the fate of the nation for the coming four years, the rhetoric can quickly become simplified into messages about the struggle between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the vulnerable, or even good and evil, despite the fact that its proponents are well aware that such titanic struggles bear little relation to everyday political realities in Chile.
The future of Chile post-2017
One main outcome of Chile’s 2017 elections will be a new ideological polarisation akin to that which has occurred in other global democracies. Over the past decade there has already been a similar rhetoric in Chile about centrist coalitions of left and the right being barely distinguishable, making for a flat democratic landscape devoid of real alternatives. But like recent elections in the US and across Europe, the first round of Chile’s presidential elections has proven that this is no longer true.
Differences between potential coalitions on paths to socio-economic development are considerable. If the left succeeds in renewing its mandate, Chile will reinforce its social-democratic identity, with a strong focus on inequality, class, and gender emancipation — that is, the as yet unfulfilled promises of Bachelet’s second term. This could serve as a counterweight to the declining influence of social-democratic parties in the so-called “developed” world. If the conservative right wins, there will be a focus on a social market economy with hints of Trump-style populism, with an orientation towards competition rather than cooperation between social actors. This would mirror rather than challenge the general trend in Western democracies.
This Sunday, 17 December 2017, Chilean democracy will decide which of these paths the country should take.
• The views expressed here are of the authors and do not reflect the position of the Centre or of the LSE
• This post was modified on 13 Dec. 2017 to better distinguish the postures of Ossandón and Kast
• A preliminary version of this article was published in modified form by the journal Global-e on 7 Dec. 2017
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Roland Benedikter – EURAC Research, COHA, University of Wroclaw
Roland Benedikter, Dr. Dr. Dr., is Co-Director of the Center for Advanced Studies of Eurac Research, Senior Research Affiliate of the Center for Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) Washington DC, and Research Professor of Multidisciplinary Political Analysis in residence at the Willy Brandt Centre of the University of Wroclaw. He is co-author of Chile in Transition: Prospects and Challenges of Latin America’s Forerunner of Development (Springer International, 2015). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Miguel Zlosilo – Artool (Chile)
Miguel Zlosilo, MA, is Partner of leading big-data company Artool in Santiago de Chile. He is co-author of Chile in Transition: Prospects and Challenges of Latin America’s Forerunner of Development (Springer International, 2015). Contact: email@example.com