Never before have the primary elections in Chile been politically so insignificant. The people’s lack of trust in politics shakes up the old political structures. In this year’s presidential race having no affiliation to a party or alliance could be the key to win.
With a sense of irony, the political struggles in the run-up of the Chilean general presidential election could be interpreted as political maturity. In contrast to the silence during dictatorship the heated debates of today could be a sign that the democratic transition process in this young OECD member state is nearly completed. A more cynical view of the recent political scenario, however, is that this process has barely begun.
Strongly agitated by several far-reaching corruption scandals that involved both, right-wing as well as left-wing politicians and parties, Chile’s traditional political camp pattern seems to break for the first time since the return to democracy in 1990.Some severe cases of corruption involved representatives of important state institutions, including the national tax authority, the police and sections of the military, which have been evaluated in public opinion polls during the past twenty years as among the most trusted institutions.
Strongly polarized political discourses and positions, which are still marked by an ideological division inherited from the Cold War and Augusto Pinochet’s military regime, in combination with high constitutional barriers to implement structural changes led urgent reforms of the pension system and higher and secondary education system as well as decentralization not to have advanced significantly during the past twenty years, as Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) project points out alike. Besides this, neither poverty nor the high income inequality have been reduced significantly during the past decade.
Political institutions have a bad reputation because it is widely known that many of the current influential political and economic actors are interrelated due to direct family bonds or business relations. All these aspects explain the growing discontent with national politicians and politics in general, especially among the younger population and in middle-income households – a development that is notably influencing current political campaigns and old alliances.
Traditional coalitions are changing, new political players emerge
Against that background of generalized discontent and frustration regarding the lack of political progress and an apparently overall corruption within the political sphere, it isn’t surprising that there are more independent candidates running for presidency than ever before as well as candidates who represent parties that do not belong to traditional coalitions. Nobody wants to be associated with reprehensible affairs of certain political parties or some of their directly involved members.
According to the latest electoral surveys, former president Sebastian Piñera seems to be ahead, followed by Senator Alejandro Guillier. Both are formally running for presidency as independent candidates. Interestingly, whereas Piñera was one of three candidates who run for presidency within the conservative alliance of Let’s Go Chile (Spanish: Chile Vamos) and therefore had to take part in its primaries on July 2, Guillier is racing for presidency without official backup of an alliance.
Although the Socialist Party of current President Michelle Bachelet as well as some other center-left parties announced their support for the Senator in the presidential elections, this backup seems to be born out of necessity and is regarded as faltering and half-hearted.
Following national media reports and public discussions, Guillier´s candidateship as an independent aspirant for presidency tends to be perceived as more credible compared to Piñera, who has been counting on the support of the traditional allies of the current opposition Chile Vamos since the beginning of the electoral campaigns.
The former center-left coalition New Majority (Spanish: Nueva Mayoría), originally composed by President Bachelet´s Socialist Party, the Christian Democratic Party, different social democratic parties and the Communist Party, seems to have fallen apart, as the Christian Democrats presented their own candidate, Carolina Goic. As a direct result of this breakup, there were no internal primary elections within the former New Majority alliance, a decision, which has caused a variety of reactions in the public.
In this scenario, the new alliance Broad Front (Spanish: Frente Amplio) might turn out to be the main game changer. Founded in January 2017 by the two youngest parliamentarians of the National Congress of Chile, this coalition of nine smaller political parties with different backgrounds, ranging from social democratic to ecological to humanist, is on a rise. They also held their primaries on July 2 with journalist Beatriz Sanchez beating sociologist Alberto Mayol as expected. Independent of whether she reaches the final elections in December, without doubt the increasing popularity of the new alliance Broad Front, especially among younger Chileans and academics, contributed significantly to an essential change in Chile´s political constellation.
Unlike the previous presidential elections, in the present scenario the primary elections were much less important. Opinion polling and public debates rather focused on the first electoral round than the internal primary elections.
Election forecasts have become more difficult
At the moment, thirteen candidates are standing for the first round of the presidential election held on November 19, 2017. The election rules require the absolute majority of the vote in the first round in order to win outright. Therefore it is likely that the two candidates with the most votes will encounter each other in a final round on December 17.
As a result of the recent changes in the Chilean political scene with a new set-up of political parties and candidates and due to the fact that compulsory voting was abolished in 2012, electoral behavior today is less predictable. Thus, public opinion polls are not as accurate as they used to be in the past, which was confirmed in last year’s municipal elections. Besides the bad forecast quality of the polls a new negative record overshadowed those elections: Just about one third of the population entitled to vote finally made their way to the ballot boxes, representing the lowest participation rate ever registered in the country´s history.
It remains the hope that this year, despite the political discontent and widespread distrust in political parties and politicians in general, Chilean citizens find their way to the polling stations and actively take part in the general presidential election.
Fabian Klein is Senior Advisor at the German International Cooperation (GIZ) GmbH for triangular cooperation in Chile. He co-authored the SGI 2016 Chile Report.