Low turnout mars Chilean elections

Leftist coalition may surprise in December runoff

The first round of Chile’s presidential election on Sunday 19 November has set up a final contest just before Christmas that will turn on contrasting visions of the future of Latin America’s most progressive economy. The result could add Chile to the growing band of regional players led by pro-business pragmatists.

The man most likely to win, former President Sebastián Piñera, is a billionaire with a conservative, right-wing agenda. He is promising growth, jobs and lower taxes. His rival is former news anchor Alejandro Guillier, leader of the centre-left New Majority coalition of outgoing President Michelle Bachelet. His manifesto focuses on tackling high inequality and poverty through greater access to healthcare, education and vocational training.

‘The battle lines have been drawn,’ to quote one of Piñera’s economic advisers. ‘We will win because Chileans want a return to growth, not a replay of the age-old debate over haves and have-nots.’

Piñera’s lead in the first round was substantial, but not conclusive. He scored around 36% of the vote again Guillier’s 22%. And the surprising support – around one fifth of votes cast – for the far-left Broad Front coalition, led by Beatriz Sánchez, another former journalist, leaves open the possibility for a surprise in December’s runoff if her supporters turn to Guillier. Low turnout, reflecting Chile’s growing indifference to democracy, is another critical feature of this election cycle; only 47% of eligible voters participated in Sunday’s poll.

Both Piñera and Guillier are committed to the free market policies that have guided Chile, the world’s largest copper producer, since its return to democracy in 1990 after 17 years of military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. The collapse in copper prices curtailed the country’s growth to an anaemic 0.5% in the first half of this year from an average of 5.3% during Piñera’s first term between 2010-2014.

Bachelet, who ended her first presidency in 2010 as the most popular leader on record, will retire as one of the least popular. Her attempts to overhaul everything from the tax code, to pensions, to education were unpopular and divisive. A corruption scandal involving her son and daughter-in-law was similarly damaging.

‘We on the left have not delivered on our promises,’ said one of Bachelet’s advisers as results came in last Sunday. ‘Piñera is another Latin American business mogul-turned-politician, “Donald Trump-lite”, but he looks like a credible alternative because of our failure to meet expectations.’

Piñera’s qualifications are more substantial than his critics would like to accredit – an economics doctorate from Harvard University, experience consulting with the World Bank and United Nations, and running regional giant LAN Airlines. His return to power would represent a growing coalition of centre-right leadership in Argentina, Brazil, and Peru.

Piñera’s agenda mirrors those of his peers in Latin America, not least that of Argentine President Mauricio Macri. Piñera wants add 1m jobs in Chile, spend $20bn on infrastructure, and make Codelco, the state-run copper company, more independent and self-sufficient.

‘There will be a meeting of minds in leadership across a huge, developing swathe of Latin America if Piñera wins,’ to quote a Macri confidant in Buenos Aires. ‘The region is turning away from populism and debt to pragmatism and solvency much more quickly than many of us thought possible.’

David Smith is a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board and represented the United Nations Secretary-General in the Americas between 2004-14.

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