Latin America Advisor -- Inter-American Dialogue
Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Q: Voters turned against the conservative bloc of President Sebastián Piñera in Chile's municipal elections on Oct. 28. The conservative Alianza bloc won 37 percent of the votes for mayoral and city council positions, while the leftist Concertación garnered 43 percent. Conservatives also lost control of areas including central Santiago, the capital's Providencia district and the city of Concepción. Turnout was only 41 percent in the election, which was the first in decades in which voting was not mandatory. Why have voters become disenchanted with conservatives despite the country's brisk economic growth? What do the local elections foreshadow for next year's presidential race? Did the repeal of obligatory voting affect the municipal election results, and does it have implications for
future elections?

“ The government is plagued by conflicts of interest, lack of direction and a lack of proposals on how to deal with Chile's high income inequality.” Jorge Heine

A: Peter Siavelis, professor of political science and director of the Latin American and Latino studies program at Wake Forest University: "The stunning defeat of Chile's conservative Alianza coalition in the Oct. 28 municipal elections has been cast in the press as simultaneously a blow to the Piñera government and a victory for the center-left Concertación. In reality, neither were winners and the results signal a more complex electoral landscape in Chile, replete with warning signs for both alliances. Dramatically diminished voter turnout in light of the change in voting laws indicates flagging interest and support for Chile's two major traditional political forces. Though clearly a more serious defeat for the right, the Concertación should also worry. The electoral outcome has been widely interpreted as a hopeful harbinger of the re-election of popular ex-President Bachelet. However, this extraordinarily low turnout may even point to future difficulties in mobilizing support for traditional parties, signaling trouble for the Concertación and Bachelet. In my view, the only absolute winners of this election were student protesters who have been occupying Chile's streets and educational institutions during the past few years. The particulars of the races sent a strong signal of support for student protesters, with the victory in central Santiago of Carolina Toha, a vocal proponent of the students, over Mayor Pablo Zalaquett, who ordered crackdowns on protesters. The even more dramatic defeat of hardline, anti-student Mayor Cristián Labbé in the wealthy and conservative community of Providencia demonstrates significant voter sympathy for the student movement. In essence, the electoral results suggest growing support among Chileans for non-traditional political movements, potentially injecting a good measure of unpredictability into the 2013 presidential race."

A: Jorge Heine, former Chilean ambassador and cabinet minister and CIGI chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: "After peaking at an approval rating of 70 percent in October 2010 in the aftermath of the miners' rescue operation, President Piñera and his government's ratings have gone downhill, at times reaching the lowest levels since 1990, in the low 20s. The economy and the price of copper are doing well, but Mr. Piñera promised 'a new way of governing.' This has not happened. The government is plagued by conflicts of interest, lack of direction and a lack of proposals on how to deal with Chile's high income inequality. The election results should put some order in the ranks of the opposition. The Concertación showed it can overcome its chronic factionalism, and that it is able to reach beyond its narrow confines (as did a number of successful mayoral candidates, such as Josefa Errázuriz in Providencia and Carolina Toha in Santiago). Former President Michelle Bachelet should thus be able to return to Chile from New York sometime in mid-2013 and be the candidate to beat in the November 2013 presidential election. Like many political scientists predicted, the repeal of mandatory voting drastically lowered voter turnout. The number of voters in these municipal elections was lower in absolute terms than in 2008, though the number of registered voters is almost twice as high now. Against conventional wisdom, the initial evidence seems to indicate that non-voting was more prevalent in higher-income neighborhoods than elsewhere."

A: Patricio Navia, master teacher of global studies at New York University: "The results of the election were a setback for the Piñera administration and his rightwing Alianza coalition. Turnout was low. It was lower than most people expected and certainly lower than in 2008, when voting was mandatory. In many places, especially well-to-do municipalities, incumbent mayors ran uncontested or against very weak challengers. Low turnout there should not be surprising. Yet, because turnout was lower than expected, the big news of the election was the 41 percent turnout. To be fair, the electoral registry overstates the number of eligible voters. Almost 800,000 Chileans who live abroad were also automatically registered to vote. Thousands of dead people, whose death certificates were not issued, were also registered. Among those eligible to vote was former President Salvador Allende, who died in the 1973 military coup. If turnout is measured counting only those actual eligible voters residing in Chile, abstention was probably around 53-55 percent. That number is not different from what is normally observed in most industrialized democracies. Low turnout favored the Concertación. In absolute numbers, the center-left coalition got marginally fewer votes than in 2008, but the Alianza lost a larger number. As a result, the Concertación won in several municipalities previously controlled by the Alianza, especially in the Santiago metropolitan region. The Concertación will now control 170 municipalities, out of 345 in the country. The Alianza will only govern in 120. The rest will be governed by independents or mayors from smaller parties. This will give the Concertación a better starting point for the November 2013 presidential and congressional elections. Former President Michelle Bachelet remains the favorite to become the Concertación candidate and to win the election. However, since more than half of Chilean voters did not bother to show for the municipal election, the 2013 remains an open race. Presidential hopefuls who aspire to deny Bachelet a second term will need to attract those voters who did not turnout on Oct. 28."