Election preview: Chile runoff

Chilean voters go the polls tonight to elect a new president, with a close race expected between the first-round leader, centre-right former president Sebastián Piñera, and his centre-left rival Alejandro Guillier.

In his previous term, from 2010 to 2014, Piñera was the first right-of-centre president since the dictatorship of General Pinochet. Presidents are limited to two terms, but they cannot be consecutive, so this is his first opportunity to run again. He was succeeded by the Socialist Party’s Michelle Bachelet, who was also his predecessor; in 2013 she defeated the centre-right’s Evelyn Matthei in a landslide, with 62.2% in the second round.

That was just about the last good news the left has had in South America. Since then, elections have recorded big swings to the right in Brazil (2014), Venezuela (2015), Argentina (2015), Peru (2016) and Ecuador (2017), plus surprise referendum defeats for the left in Bolivia and Colombia (both 2016). Only Uruguay (2014) has held out against the tide.

And sure enough, Chile’s first round, held four weeks ago, matched the pattern. Piñera led with 36.6%, 13.9% ahead of Guillier and 11.6% up on Mattei’s score from 2013. (Official results here.)

But the margin in the runoff will be a lot smaller. Third placegetter Beatriz Sánchez, who had 20.3%, represents the Broad Front, which is also on the left, although more populist than Guillier’s “Force of the Majority.” In addition, the Christian Democrat candidate had 5.9% and the Progressive Party 5.7%, while a right-wing independent attracted 7.9%.

The Christian Democrats have in the past formed part of the centre-left coalition, but this year they decided to go it alone. Even if a number of Christian Democrat voters stay home, however, there are clearly enough votes on the left for Guillier to overtake Piñera.

But voters don’t always display ideological consistency, and momentum favors Piñera as the first-round leader. So do the opinion polls, although only narrowly. If he does make it home it will be a striking reversal of fortune.

It will also leave the continent’s remaining left-of-centre leaders looking very isolated. One, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, has already given up on democracy, while another, Lenín Moreno in Ecuador, has gone rogue and been disowned by his own party. And Bachelet was already on bad terms with Evo Morales in neighboring Bolivia: expect that to worsen under the centre-right.

Piñera if he wins will face a hostile legislature; the centre-left retained a majority in both houses, despite gains to the centre-right. But the Christian Democrats will hold the balance of power, so there will undoubtedly be opportunities for deal-making.

The chaos in much of the continent draws further attention to Chile’s remarkable record of political stability, and neither candidate looks likely to take the country into extremist territory this time. It’s nice to be able to end the year on a positive note for democracy.

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