Chilean politics on a knife edge

Chilean politics have taken a dramatic turn, with all presidential candidates falling short of a majority and an unexpected boost for a new left coalition. Luis Hernán Vargas Faulbaum assesses the balance of forces

Chilean elections take a dramatic turn
Chile elections: Beatriz Sanchez, leader of the insurgent leftwing coalition, Broad Front. Photo: Ministerio Secretaría General de Gobierno

Chile is experiencing one of the most exciting general elections since the summer of 1999-2000.

Back then, centre-left candidate Ricardo Lagos of the centre-left Concertación coalition won a tight run-off against the rightwing candidate Joaquin Lavín, after being ahead by just 30,000 votes in the first round.

Fast forward to November 2017: most polls were showing rightwing billionaire businessman and former president Sebastián Piñera ahead, with a solid lead of 42 to 47 per cent of the vote.

Instead, the race was tight, the country headed for a presidential run-off, and a radical leftwing candidate surged to 20 per cent of the vote, consolidating a new political coalition, the Broad Front (or Frente Amplio) in the country’s bi-cameral senate (for which elections were also held simultaneously).

Piñera, of the rightwing coalition Chile Let’s Go (Chile Vamos) still came first, but with 36.6 per cent of the vote, falling short of the 50 per cent required to avoid a run-off. Alejandro Guillier of the centre-left coalition New Majority (Nueva Mayoría) followed with 22.7 per cent, and will run against him in the 17 December run-off.

The winner will take office in March 2018, and will replace the Socialist Party President Michelle Bachelet.

Third came Beatriz Sánchez (20.2 per cent), who has been a radio and TV presenter, of the new radical leftwing coalition Broad Front. Defying every expectation, the Broad Front, which some analysts have likened to Spain’s Podemos, have emerged with clear gains, electing 20 deputies and one senator – as opposed to the three deputies they had prior to the election.

The Broad Front now has more representatives in the Chamber of Deputies than the historically powerful Christian Democratic Party, while independent far-right candidate José Antonio Kast reached 7.9 per cent.

Piñera has publicly said he wants to overturn these reforms: reducing corporate taxes and introducing modifications to higher education funding

The election produced a hung parliament, and if elected, neither Piñera nor Guillier would have a clear majority in the Parliament – any important policies would need to support from opposition parties, which are aligned into a number of parliamentary coalitions.

The agenda ahead of the run-off has been dominated by their approach to the legacy of outgoing president Bachelet, whose approval ratings have dropped in her last years in power. Bachelet pushed a leftwing reform agenda, especially around social security, that has faced strong opposition by the business community.

She enacted a tax reform, new funding for education including free schooling, a progressive higher education scholarship which covers 60 per cent of tuition for poor students, and a reform restoring trade union rights. The election is seen as a crossroad for Chile: will the country approve or reject the progressive agenda?

Piñera has publicly said he wants to overturn these reforms: reducing corporate taxes, introducing modifications to higher education funding, for example by pausing the implementation of university scholarships, and pushing conservative policies on issues including abortion and gay marriage. He has also tried to trade on anti-immigration sentiment.

Guillier has been more opaque about his programme and about setting the priorities for the next government, but has expressed support for reforms to healthcare and pensions, and partial debt forgiveness for the poorest 40% of professionals that are still paying back state loans for their university tuition fees.

Both candidates’ campaigns have been a mix of accusations, fraud allegations, scaremongering and contradictory approaches to attract voters across the ideological spectrum.

There has been a strong campaign to persuade leftwing supporters to vote for Guiller to avoid a rightwing government.

Meanwhile, rightwing voters for their part have even claimed Chile would become the next Venezuela (branded  ‘Chilezuela’) if Guiller won the presidency, and warn about a catastrophic future if the centre-right loses power.

Overall, the result so far is important for consolidating the parties and movements of the Broad Front, which will enable the coalition to raise issues in the political agenda that do not have much traction within New Majority. Hopefully this will result in support for debate on a broader range of issues in the new parliament.

However, the Broad Front needs to work to build coherence and unity – scarce attributes on the Chilean left – among its own parliamentarians, as well as to develop mutual understanding and dialogue with the New Majority coalition. This will help it avoid political isolation and is a route to assembling a new progressive agenda, expanding the social rights initiated by President Bachelet.

Chilean politics is on a tightrope and it is yet to be seen whether the two left coalitions will pull together – whichever way the 17 December vote goes.