The left/right and new/old electoral divides in Chile

As President Michelle Bachelet enters her last year in office, presidential hopefuls in Chile are aligning along a left-right and a new-old divide to attract indifferent voters who suspect that the political elite is as cozy with the business elite as it is unwilling to bring about the gradual changes Chile needs to regain a path of inclusive economic growth.

In her fourth year in office, President Bachelet seems eager to see the end of her term. After having won in a landslide with more than 60 percent of the votes in late 2013, Bachelet was inaugurated in March of 2014 for a second four-year term. She had successfully completed a first term from 2006 to 2010, and later served as Chair of UN-Women in New York. She returned to Chile to run for president in 2013, with an ambitious platform that sought to extend the benefits of economic growth to the emerging, yet still vulnerable, middle class. Having won majority in both chambers of Congress, Bachelet planned to implement radical transformations. However, declining prices for Chile’s exports hindered growth and shifted people’s focus from redistribution efforts to restoring economic growth and generating employment. Tax and labor reforms further contributed to the economic slowdown.

Bachelet rose to power promising Chileans speedy access to the promised land. However, it was not long before Chileans felt disillusioned. A series of corruption and campaign financing scandals in 2015 hurt the reputation of the entire political class, while an influence-trafficking scandal hit Bachelet’s son and daughter-in-law. Bachelet never recovered. She twice shuffled her cabinet, but the magic touch that had made her the first person to win a fully democratic presidential election twice in Chile’s history was gone. Since then, Bachelet’s approval has fluctuated from high teens to the low 20s.

With Bachelet as a lame duck, several presidential hopefuls are looking for opportunities to get their names out, gain name recognition and increase their numbers in vote-intention surveys. As has happened in every election since democracy was restored in 1989, two coalitions will likely dominate the presidential election field.

The center-right Chile Vamos opposition seems to have its work already cut out. With a sluggish economy and an outgoing unpopular leftwing president, almost any right-wing candidate would start with an advantage. Former President Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014), who replaced Bachelet when she completed her first term, is running well ahead in the polls. Yet, his position atop the polls reflects the weaknesses of other candidates more than his strength. Less than a third of voters would like for Piñera to return to power.

Other rightwing presidential hopefuls are challenging Piñera, but with little success so far. Senator Manuel José Ossandón, a former mayor of a populous municipality in southern Santiago, happens to be popular among low income voters (a rarity for right wingers), and generates more enthusiasm among independents and centrists than among core rightwing voters. Thirty-nine year old Congressman Felipe Kast is too much of a technocrat and upper class to be attractive for the emerging middle class. If Piñera runs (he is expected to make an announcement in March), he will probably win the nomination of his coalition.

The center-left Nueva Mayoría coalition (formerly Concertación) has several candidates vying to replace Bachelet. Former President Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), a 78-year old market-friendly social democrat, wants to restore the old gradual and pragmatic approach of the early Concertación years. But running 12 years after he left power has proved difficult of a challenge for Lagos. The country has been radically transformed—partially due to many of the liberal policies Lagos first implemented. Young political and social leaders were not old enough to vote for Lagos in 1999, but they do remember two of Lagos’ most controversial legacies: the failed transportation system in Santiago and an un-subsidized tertiary education loan system that benefits banks more than it does college students. Six months after he announced his intention to run, Lagos’ support remains in the single digits. Other Nueva Mayoría experienced leaders are also having a difficult time. Former Secretary General of the Organization of American States, José Miguel Insulza, is trailing Lagos. And Senator Ignacio Walker already abandoned the race.

The prospects looked dire for the left-wing coalition until Senator Alejandro Guillier, a 63-year old former television news anchorman who first ran for office in 2013, started to climb in polls. Though his positions are little known—and his legislative record is unimpressive—Guillier enjoys political momentum. He is running neck and neck with Piñera, but his negatives are lower. Though he has been criticized for ducking questions, lacking specifics and having superficial knowledge of policy issues, Guillier is personable and trusted by people who grew accustomed to seeing him on television for more than 20 years. If the presidential primaries were held today, Guillier would easily clinch the Nueva Mayoría nomination.

Since primaries are scheduled for July 2nd, and the presidential election will take place on November 19th (and a runoff on December 17th if needed), there is still time for Guillier to slip (candidates who climb rapidly often also fall equally fast) or for other candidates to emerge. But as of now, Guillier has the momentum against former presidents Lagos and Piñera.

Since the return of democracy, Chilean politics could be easily understood as comprising two moderate coalitions aligned on a left-right continuum. Since 35-year old former leftwing legislator Marco Enriquez-Ominami ran as an independent presidential candidate in 2009, receiving 20 percent of the vote, a new divide has emerged, separating those who were active during the transition to democracy from politicians who entered the arena after democracy was restored.

In 2017, the left-right divide seems to be clearly represented by former presidents Lagos and Piñera. Though they differ on their politics, Lagos and Piñera share the old label. Guillier, on the other hand, and a handful of presidential candidates who are attempting to run outside the realm of the two dominant coalitions, share the growingly attractive label of being new. Since Bachelet’s effort to drastically change society failed and Chilean voters have regained a preference for gradualism and pragmatism, the differences between the left and right are now more difficult to discern. Voters now seem to be inclined to make their decisions on who to vote for based on the new versus old divide, with those who represent change enjoying a clear advantage. The end result: Chile’s democracy and electoral system has opened up with uncertain consequences for the 2017 elections.

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