On Sunday, Chileans elected Sebastián Piñera president. The runoff election followed a first round on Nov. 19 for both the executive and legislative branches. Piñera, of the right-leaning National Renovation party, represents the conservative Let’s Go Chile coalition. The president-elect defeated center-left candidate Alejandro Guillier, of the ruling New Majority coalition, by 9 points, turning the current government out of office. This will be Piñera’s second term in office. He governed Chile between 2009 and 2014.
Turnout increased between the first and second round, but initial data suggests the growth heavily favored the right. While a large share of left voters who participated in November stayed home on Sunday, conservative voters who abstained in the first round showed up at much higher rates. During Piñera’s acceptance speech, supporters could be heard singing “Chile has been saved.”
Piñera, a businessman turned statesman, is ranked one of the world’s wealthiest politicians. He once owned the television channel Chilevision, a large share of Lan Chile airlines, and the Colo-Colo soccer team. Earlier this year, the billionaire was criticized in the media for his offshore holdings and use of tax havens.
The 67-year-old will succeed Socialist President Michelle Bachelet, whose New Majority coalition came to power in 2014 on a platform promising sweeping change. Her administration reformed Chile’s tax and education systems and legalized abortion in the event of rape, endangerment to the mother’s life, or an unviable pregnancy. Bachelet began reforming Chile’s constitution, submitting a bill to the Congress earlier this year that would allow for a constitutional convention.
Bachelet’s second term was clouded by accusations of corruption, including an incident involving her son and daughter-in-law. The media and opposition politicians condemned Bachelet’s family — and by extension, her — for having secured a loan days before her 2013 victory to purchase land that was resold shortly thereafter, generating millions of dollars in profit. At the same time, the right-wing Independent Democratic Union party was implicated in a campaign finance scandal, leading many Chileans to perceive the overall political system as corrupt. Bachelet leaves office with a dismal 23 percent approval rating.
1. Chile did not turn right. But the center is vanishing and the traditional parties have limited appeal.
Recent Latin American elections suggest the region’s “pink tide” of left-wing governments may be receding. Right-wing parties have won in Argentina and Peru. In Brazil, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff brought right-wing Michel Temer to office. As a result, some observers are asking whether Latin America is veering right.
Piñera represents a coalition of conservative parties, but his victory does not signal a right turn. In the first round, Piñera won 36.6 percent of the vote, while Guillier took 22.7 percent, and the further left Broad Front candidate, Beatriz Sánchez, won 20.27 percent. The Broad Front increased its seats from 3 to 20 in the lower house, surpassing expectations. The coalition’s strong performance shows support for leftist ideology and pushed Guillier to the left during the second-round campaign; he changed his position on student debt forgiveness and pension reform.
Piñera sought to woo centrist voters by shifting his position on education and pension policy, while also mobilizing the far-right, in part because far-right independent José Antonio Kast did well in the first round. Kast ran a nationalist campaign that called for the construction of a wall between Chile and Peru and won just under 8 percent of votes. Piñera attempted to attract these voters, accusing the center-left parties of moving Chile in the direction of Venezuela and hinted that voter fraud had helped the center-left in the first round. These appeals likely motivated increased conservative turnout in Sunday’s runoff election.
Divisions between Chile’s traditional center-left parties and the Broad Front also helped Piñera. In the first round, the Broad Front campaigned on a progressive agenda that sought to eliminate Chile’s private pension system by having the government take it over, change the constitution through a popularly-elected constituent assembly and promote marriage equality.
Chile’s traditional center-left parties ran on a more moderate platform, calling for piecemeal pension reforms without nationalization, constitutional reform through the Congress, and inclusive growth. This division between center-left and left made it hard to build a broader coalition, thus leading to Piñera’s victory.
But that doesn’t mean Chile is taking a right turn. Rather, Chile’s election suggests a vanishing center. In the first round, centrist Christian Democratic Party candidate Carolina Goic won only 5.88 percent of the vote. Guillier’s center-left appeal in the first round also failed to motivate voters. This, combined with the strong performance by Kast and the Broad Front, shows that centrist and establishment candidates have limited electoral appeal.
2. The Broad Front vote cannot be transferred to other left parties.
Sunday’s results confirm that votes for the Broad Front don’t transfer. Without exception, the center-left vote declined between the first and second round, due to low turnout among Broad Front voters. Even in left strongholds, such as the Santiago municipality of Puente Alto, the center-left share of the vote fell by 13.2 points.
The tepid support for Guillier from Broad Front voters is not surprising. The progressive coalition declined to endorse him. Though key leaders in the coalition said they intended to vote for Guillier, the support came late in the second round and the Broad Front’s base remained unconvinced.
That’s in part because Broad Front parties and movements are deeply anti-establishment. The organizations emerged, in part, because activists were frustrated with the traditional center-left parties’ oligarchic tendencies. Any cooperation with New Majority, then, would undermine the Broad Front’s message and credibility with its base, endangering the young coalition’s consolidation.
3. Discontent and anti-establishment voting is on the rise.
Turnout was low in both rounds, suggesting that many Chilean voters, especially those with lower incomes, feel alienated from politics. In the first round, 69.1 percent of the high-income Santiago municipality of Vitacura turned out to vote; only 36.9 percent in the low-income La Pintana municipality did so. While participation grew slightly in the second round, the increase was most notable in upper-income municipalities. Turnout in Vitacura was 73 percent in Sunday’s runoff, while it hardly shifted in La Pintana.
Polls also reveal discontent with the broader political system. Roughly 30 percent of Chileans believe the country’s democracy works poorly or very poorly, with between 65 to 70 percent feeling that the country is “stuck.” This fueled an anti-establishment vote in the first round and low turnout in both contests.
4. Governing will be difficult and reform is unlikely.
Piñera’s victory is unlikely to produce a shift in public policy. His coalition controls only 73 of the 155 seats in the lower house. The composition of congress means that the president will need support from the opposition to pass legislation. As the center vanishes, such support will be hard to find and governing may prove difficult.
Piñera’s first term in office continued the previous government’s economic and social policies, and on Sunday he called for national unity, dialogue and compromise. While he has promised to reform tax and education policies, it is unlikely that the president will find support for radical change outside of his own coalition. This may reinforce the electorate’s perception that Chile is “stuck,” generating further discontent.
Jennifer Pribble is associate professor of political science and international studies at the University of Richmond and author of Welfare and Party Politics in Latin America (Cambridge University Press, 2013). Find her on Twitter @PribbleJenny.
Juan Pablo Luna is professor of political science at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He is the author of Segmented Representation (Oxford University Press, 2014). Find him on Twitter @anulolbapnauj.