Chile – Presidential Election to be Decided in Run-off

On Sunday, Chile held concurrent presidential and legislative elections, producing one of the least surprising results in recent Latin American electoral history.[1] Michelle Bachelet of the Partido Socialista (PS) and Nueva Mayoría alliance, received 46.7 of the vote, just short of the 50 per cent threshold needed for outright victory and so will compete in a run-off election on December 14th with the second place candidate, Evelyn Matthei, of the Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI), who received 25.01 per cent.

This election signals important changes ahead in Chilean politics. Firstly, the election, occurring against the backdrop of the 40th anniversary of the military coup in Chile, which ousted Salvador Allende and installed the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, was widely considered to be the most ideologically polarized in the country since the return to democracy.

It also highlights the disorientation of the right in Chile. From the outset of the campaign, the right was in disarray and fell foul to in fighting over their choice of presidential candidate. Evelyn Matthei, a former labour minister under the current right incumbent, Sebastián Piñera, was only the third choice candidate for the right-wing alliance, Alianza por Chile. Alianza has also suffered in the legislative elections held on Sunday, winning only 48 of the 120 seats in the lower house and 7 in the senate.

However, this does not mean it will all be plain sailing for Michelle Bachelet if (and when) she wins the run-off election in December. During the campaign, Bachelet promised to change the constitution, raise corporate tax rates, and oversee significant education reform. While the Nueva Mayoría alliance won 68 seats in the lower house and 12 in the Senate (giving them 21 of 38 senate seats), this still falls far short of the 60 per cent needed to change the electoral system, or the 67 per cent supermajority needed to change the constitution. The two-third requirement for constitutional change is a legacy of the Pinochet era dictatorship, together with Chile’s rather unique binomial electoral system, which ensures that it is virtually impossible to ever win such a majority in the house.

Nonetheless, this majority should be sufficient for tax reform, and if Bachelet can meet the demands of at least one of the four newly elected independent candidates linked to the highly mobilized and militant student movement, it should also be enough for the 57 per cent majority needed to reform the education system.

This election also recorded a total turnout of 6,691,840, by far the lowest turnout in a presidential election since the return to democracy in Chile. This is particularly interesting given that this was the first Chilean election to be held without compulsory participation and penalties for not voting.

It is widely expected that Bachelet will win the run-off election on December 14th.

[1] All 120 lower house seats were up for election, and 20 of 38 senate seats.

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