Bachelet returns to power in Chile with impressive victory, but what does low turnout mean for her mandate?

December 18, 2013
In this Dec. 12 photo, Presidential candidate Michelle smiles during a closing campaign rally in Santiago, Chile. (Luis Hidalgo, Associated Press)
Michelle Bachelet smiles during a closing campaign rally Dec. 12 in Santiago, Chile. (Luis Hidalgo/Associated Press)

Joshua Tucker: The following is a post-election report on the second round of the Chilean presidential elections from political scientists Peter M. Siavelis (Wake Forest University) and Kirsten Sehnbruch (University of Chile).  Their previous reports on this election can be found here and here. Their newest book is “Democratic Chile: The Politics and Policies of a Historic Coalition, 1990-2010 (Lynne Rienner, 2013).

*****

Chileans resoundingly returned former president Michelle Bachelet to office Dec. 15.  She had served as president from 2006-2010 but could not run as an incumbent, given Chile’s constitutional ban on immediate presidential reelection.  Election victories such as Bachelet’s are rare. Few presidents are voted into office with such a high share of the vote: 62.2 percent vs. her opponent Evelyn Matthei’s 37.9 percent. In some regions, Bachelet’s share of the vote was in the high 60s, even surpassing 70 percent in one region (Calama).

Bachelet’s hoped-for first-round victory a month ago did not come to pass. Though a first-round victory would have given her a clear and unquestionable mandate, such a large margin of victory in the second round achieves the same, though less definitively. The only shadow cast over this election result was the extremely low voter turnout at 42 percent.  While Bachelet did rack up the most decisive victory in contemporary Chilean history by polling 62 percent of the votes cast, she actually received fewer total votes than any of her predecessors since the return of democracy in 1990 (and fewer votes than when she was elected in 2006).  This leaves Bachelet without the magnitude of a mandate she was hoping for to move forward with an aggressive reform agenda.  People can argue forever as to whether this represents a real “mandate” or not. What it boils down to is perceptions. The right will surely use this low turnout as a political tool, as the far-right Independent Democratic Union party (UDI) has already begun to do. Perceptions in the center and left are also important.  Had she received as decisive a victory with higher turnout, her potentially fractious coalition would likely have been more solidly behind her.  It is going to take political acumen to build the coalition for deeper reforms she will need.

Both candidates had found it difficult to maintain the momentum gained before the first round. They made no significant changes to their campaign strategy except for including young and recently elected deputies in their teams to project an image of greater political renewal. On the right, several key figures were notoriously absent such as Andrés Allamand, Lawrence Golborne and Manuel José Osandón. The Chilean media struggled to find stories to write about, TV pundits engaged in lackluster discussions devoid of analytical content, and even opinion pollsters were relatively silent in a country that normally produces at least one election poll per week.

With one exception (the candidate of the Green party, Alfredo Sfeir), the defeated candidates from the first round did not end up supporting any of the two final candidates, even though many of their supporters joined the Bachelet camp.

Bachelet thus steered her campaign steadily towards the second round, without mishaps, but also without any highlights. Meanwhile, her opponent began to sound increasingly desperate, particularly when she likened her policies to Angela Merkel’s Germany and Bachelet’s to the former East Germany.

The predictable result of this election and the lack of enthusiasm displayed by voter turnout, however, belie its importance.  If Bachelet can overcome questions related to her mandate, her momentum, her majorities in both houses of Congress, and her political agenda that is significantly more progressive than those of previous governments, all create a genuine opportunity for her government finally to end Chile’s long and ongoing transition to democracy.

Only four years ago, when her Nueva Mayoría coalition (then called the Concertación) was voted out of office, the coalition had looked exhausted: governing on autopilot, burnt out and lacking in ideas. Voter dissatisfaction and demands for change clustered around the figure of leftist Marco Enríquez-Ominami (ME-O) who gained almost 20 percent of the first-round presidential election in 2009. His participation in the election cost the Concertación’s lackluster candidate the election and the coalition its fifth term in office.

However, the center-right coalition, brought in by Sebastián Piñera through this electoral defeat, was hampered by its lack of vision and agenda. It therefore simply continued the political course set by the Concertación. In addition, the center-right coalition was riven with internal strife which became more and more obvious during its period in office as it washed much of its dirty laundry in public.

The student protests that began in 2011 — and which continue to this day — put voter demands for change on the political agenda more clearly than ME-O did during the previous election. While the Piñera government seemed incapable of responding to public demands for progressive policies, the Concertación received and incorporated these demands for change and produced a new vision for the country. Students articulated and demanded reforms that the center-left political elite had not dared to address during its 20 years in office for fears of reprisals from the right and its military allies. In this new environment transformed political boundaries for possible reforms were set, Chile’s existing model of socioeconomic development was questioned, along with the political elite’s almost ideological commitment to consensus. Genuinely challenging the Pinochet legacy has now not only became possible, but a necessity.

Bachelet, then, will assume office with high expectations, prompting questions of what she realistically will be able to achieve. The answer lies in the majorities that proposed reforms need to obtain. Reforms that require simple majorities, such as tax reform, are likely to score home runs. In turn, these reforms are necessary to fund the promised educational reforms for which a 4/7 majority is required. It is likely that some deputies and senators from the center-right as well as independent representatives will back this reform without demanding too much compromise in return.

The scenario becomes more complicated when it comes to political and constitutional reform. While a broad-based consensus now exists that Chile’s justly maligned binomial legislative election system and the constitution that represents the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship must be reformed, the question is what shape reforms will take. The perceived lack of a mandate associated with low turnout might make a new constitution or deep constitutional reforms more contested.

Bachelet’s personal legacy is clearly at stake in this negotiation.  So far she has entered the annals of history as the first female president of Chile whose government placed a strong emphasis on social policy, and who left office with very high levels of personal popularity. However, her first government was also plagued by a bungled transportation reform (Transantiago), and an earthquake that cost more lives than necessary due to the government’s failure to warn of impending tsunamis.

Despite these fumbles and difficulty managing her cabinet and coalition at the beginning of her first presidency, Bachelet is entering her second period of government as a much more able, experienced and popular politician. Bachelet’s new government gives her the opportunity to shape the country’s future: political and constitutional reform could lay the foundation for a new Chile, as well is for a new development model that better addresses the country’s nagging inequalities which are at the root of much of the public discontent. The greater the extent of this political reform, and the greater citizen participation in the reform process (e.g. through a constituent assembly), the greater her legacy will be, not just in Chile, but in Latin America as a whole.

Another important question that emerges from this election is the future of the center-right Alianza coalition after such a damning defeat. The Chilean center-right has been extremely unsuccessful in electoral terms. With only one exception, the presidential elections of 2009, it has lost every national election since 1990, despite an electoral system stacked heavily in its favor.

For the sake of Chile’s democratic future, one can only hope that the right can regroup and redefine itself. The old clique of politicians closely linked to the Pinochet dictatorship will have to disappear from public view and refrain from pulling the strings behind the scenes.  The right must devise a genuine, center-right, liberal policy agenda that aligns with a country in which a burgeoning middle class aspires to developed-country status. Whether the old guard is prepared to do this is another question.

If the right does not recognize and accept its failings and the dissonance between its values and an increasingly diversified country in which over 50 percent of babies are born out of wedlock, and where traditional family and religious values have fallen by the wayside, it is condemning itself to future irrelevance.  It could face another 20 years in opposition until the Nueva Mayoría again buckles under the political stresses of any coalition that remains in power for too long. In this context, the extreme right-wing UDI’s loss of leadership through electoral defeats or participation in the outgoing government will likely be a source of regeneration on the right.

Second terms are notoriously perilous.  For Michelle Bachelet herself, a second period in office represents the biggest challenge, but also the biggest opportunity, of her life.  Her legacy now rides on her ability to craft a coalition for far-reaching structural and particularly political reform.

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Andrew Gelman | December 18, 2013