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Chile Votes for (Steady) Change

If the Nov. 19 elections are a guide, Chileans want a leader who can deliver on their unpopular president’s vision for reform.
Nicolas Kovarik/IP3

The surprise result of Chile’s first-round presidential election on Nov. 19 carried a clear message: Voters are ready to say goodbye to President Michelle Bachelet, but they aren’t quite prepared to do the same to her proposals for reform.

For the two candidates who will proceed to the second round on Dec. 17, that message will likely mean different things. For the rightest former President Sebastian Piñera, who came in first but with far fewer votes than expected, it should mean pulling back on pledges to reverse course on the economic and social progress of the last four years. For the leftist Senator Alejandro Guillier, who scratched his way to the second round with the lowest vote percentage in Chile’s democratic history, it means learning from what Bachelet did right – and wrong – in her second term in office.

The legacy of Bachelet’s last four years in office will ultimately be one of unfulfilled ambitions. She set out to implement wide-ranging economic and social changes that included a new constitution, tuition free university education, elementary and secondary school reform, a tax, pensions and labor reform, same sex marriage and decriminalization of abortion. Not all of those came to fruition.

Due to a sluggish economy and a series of political mistakes – including a traffic of influence scandal that affected her son and daughter-in-law – Bachelet saw her approval rating decline and her agenda lose traction. Her coalition suffered a setback in 2016 municipal elections, and by January of this year, Piñera was already the frontrunner to replace her. A business leader and one of Chile's wealthiest people, Piñera has promised to undo some of Bachelet’s reforms and introduce market-friendly alternatives to jump-start the economy.

After cruising to an easy victory in July primaries for the right-wing Chile Vamos coalition, Piñera looked like a shoe-in for the presidency. Divisions within the Nueva Mayoría ruling coalition led to its break up: While the left-wing parties nominated Guillier as their candidate, the centrist Christian Democratic Party nominated Senator Carolina Goic. A third Nueva Mayoría senator, Alejandro Navarro, also entered the race. Deepening this division, an alternative far-left coalition, the Frente Amplio (Broad Front), organized its own presidential primaries and nominated journalist Beatriz Sánchez, a political newcomer, as its standard bearer. Altogether, there were six leftist presidential candidates running in the first round on Nov. 19. 

But Sunday’s election brought surprises. Polls overestimated support for Piñera, who instead of earning more than 40 percent of the vote finished with just 36.7 percent. Even assuming that in the second round he can add all 8 percent of the vote that went to far-right legislator José Antonio Kast, Piñera would still be short of the 50 percent needed to win. By contrast, left-wing candidates earned a combined 55 percent of the vote. If Guillier can rally the left around his candidacy in the second round, he seems to have a clear path to victory.

Granted, some voters who cast ballots for alternative left-wing candidates might abstain in the runoff – especially those who voted for Sánchez and believe the Nueva Mayoría is not sufficiently leftist. But many of them particularly dislike Piñera and the thought of having him back in power should be enough to get them to the polls – even if they aren’t enthusiastic about Guillier.

That’s not to say that Guilller’s path will be easy. Uncharismatic and prone to campaign errors, he will have to improve as a candidate – and learn from Bachelet’s mistakes – if he is to win in December. Bachelet won in 2013 by promising voters the moon. Now that her term is ending, her reform agenda has run out of steam halfway to its destination. Chileans know that Bachelet promised too much – Nueva Mayoría legislators were indeed punished at the ballot box. But by supporting other left-wing candidates and staying away from Piñera, they also appear to support her vision: expanded economic opportunities, better pensions, equal access to education and tuition-free education for those in the lower 60 percent of the income scale.

Guillier can coalesce left-wing support around him if he embraces the notion that Chileans want to move forward, not back. Voters want somebody who can deliver on Bachelet's promises. If he puts together a program and a team of capable technocrats who can present a credible plan to do that, he stands a good chance of winning the runoff. But he must move quickly. After all, Guillier only got 22.7 percent in the first round. He needs to do in four weeks what he failed to do in the previous nine months as a presidential candidate: convince a majority of voters that he can deliver. 

Piñera, by contrast, had already signaled his intent to reverse Bachelet’s gains and take Chileans back to the starting block: a new set of economic and social policies that can be fully implemented and will be sustainable in the long run. His plan is reasonable and, according to most economists, doable. But Chileans proved on Sunday that they are not fully sold on his ideas, especially as they would mean reversing some of the reforms that Bachelet implemented that have expanded rights, including free tertiary education. In fact, 55 percent of votes on Sunday went to candidates who say they would to move forward with Bachelet's promises.

Given the unexpectedly low support he received in the first-round vote, Piñera may soon update his campaign pledges to attract moderate voters who liked Bachelet's objectives, but weren’t convinced with her execution. If Piñera adjusts his message, he will move closer to the 50 percent vote threshold he needs to win. If he insists on the message that got him 36.7 percent of the vote in the first round, he might lose the election for which he was once the overwhelming favorite.

Unexpectedly, the runoff for the Chile presidential election is now an open race. That is big news. But it is even bigger news that Chileans did not follow other Latin Americans in making a right-wing turn in the presidential election, and instead voted to stay the course on the ambitious reform agenda that Bachelet put in place. Chile was already more market-friendly than most other countries in the region, so it would be unfair to say that Chileans have voted for the same radical left that has suffered setbacks elsewhere in Latin America. But on Sunday Chileans – not for the first time – voted for gradual and pragmatic change to move forward. Both of the candidates still in the running would be wise to take that message to heart.

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Navia is a contributing columnist for Americas Quarterly, professor of liberal studies at NYU and professor of political science at Diego Portales University in Chile.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.


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