Bachelet to be elected president of Chile, but then what?

Michelle Bachlet (Roberto Candia/AP)

November 11th 2013, for The Washington Post by Kirsten Sehnbruch and Peter M. Siavelis 

Two generals.  Neighbors, in fact. And close friends. Their daughters played together when they were little. One terrifying military coup later finds the generals on opposing political sides of a dictatorship. The first general, Fernando Matthei, as part of the governing junta, ends up presiding over an institution that tortures and kills his former friend, Gen. Alberto Bachelet. Now, their two little girls, Evelyn Matthei and Michelle Bachelet, have ended up vying for the presidency in Chile. Together they symbolize a defining political and cultural divide over the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship. Shakespeare himself could not have set a better scene.


This ancient grudge is playing out on the electoral stage as Chileans head to the polls Nov. 17, 2013, for presidential, congressional and regional elections. Many on the right hoped to sweep this past under the rug. Yet the accident of fate described above, combined with the 40-year commemoration of the 1973 military coup, has caused the past to explode in everyone’s faces.

Despite the drama and symbolism, the outcome is clear for virtually all analysts: Michelle Bachelet will be elected president of Chile. An astonishing 47 percent of the electorate intends to vote for her, which contrasts with the feeble 14 percent  support that Evelyn Matthei polls. The remaining vote is split between eight other candidates and a number of undecided voters. If only a few of the undecided end up voting for Bachelet, she will win this election in the first round (a second round is required if a candidate receives less than 50 percent). Even if she faces a second round, she far outpolls all competitors in head-to-head matchups.

Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s first woman president, who served from 2006-2010, left office as the most popular politician in Chilean history, with an approval rating of over 84 percent. However, since immediate reelection is proscribed by Chile’s constitution, she could not pass on this popularity to her successor as her coalition, the center-left Concertación, had been stripped of its popularity by 20 years in office, a sense of governing hubris and the lack of an imaginative policy agenda. Bachelet’s presidency was followed by a four-year interlude of center-right government presided over by Sebastián Piñera and his Alianza coalition.


With the final result a foregone conclusion, the more interesting electoral story and most of the discussion in Chile centers on three questions: Will Michelle Bachelet capture a sufficient plurality to avoid a runoff? Linked to this, will the Concertación, a now-expanded coalition that includes the Communist Party and that has been repackaged as the “Nueva Mayoría,” obtain a parliamentary majority strong enough to help Bachelet carry off the structural reforms that she has promised? And, finally, just how weakened will the center-right wing Alianza emerge from these elections?

The answer to these questions depends on the level of voter turnout: For the first time, Chileans are no longer obliged to vote in presidential and congressional elections. The outcome largely depends on which candidate can better motivate her voters to show up. Preceding municipal and primary elections have shown that, contrary to voter logic in the United States, wealthy (and presumably more right wing) voters in Chile are not necessarily more likely to vote than low-income voters. This trend was clear during the primary elections, where twice as many voters turned out to vote for the Nueva Mayoría coalition than for the Alianza. However, voter turnout remains the most unpredictable ingredient in the electoral cauldron and is strongly linked to the personal appeal of the candidates. Turnout estimates essentially boil down to pure conjecture.

The primaries that led to the current electoral panorama said a lot about the state of Chilean democracy. On the left, Bachelet led early and her victory was never in doubt. She ultimately swept the June 2013 primaries with 73 percent of the vote, besting her three competitors in Nueva Mayoría. The only surprise was that Andrés Velasco, Bachelet’s former finance minister, who ran as an independent candidate, beat Claudio Orrego from the traditional Christian Democratic Party.


Simultaneous primaries were held on the right, with less propitious results and presaging the coalition’s eventual unraveling. Its leading candidate, former minister of mining and energy Laurence Golborne, who represented the far right Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI), rose rapidly in the polls for having spearheaded the rescue of the 33 miners trapped underground in the Atacama Desert in 2010. He was dramatically forced to resign from the primary race following a Supreme Court ruling against him in a credit card scandal, which coincided with the discovery of  $30 million that he had squirreled away in a tax-exempt offshore account. The UDI rushed to replace Golborne with Pablo Longueira, a more traditional candidate closely associated with the dictatorship. He obtained a surprising 51.4 percent in the primary, narrowly defeating Andrés Allamand, the candidate of the more moderate Renovación Nacional (RN) party.

Following Golborne’s unexpected resignation and Longueira’s even less expected election success, came the biggest surprise of all: Within three weeks of his primary victory, Longueira’s family announced that he would bow out of the race citing his struggle with depression. This left the Alianza with the unhappy task of nominating a new candidate after the primaries and with the presidential race well underway. Lingering tensions from the primary led the UDI to reject Allamand as the new candidate, and instead push Evelyn Matthei into the presidential race. RN took 20 days to back the new candidate who had been foisted upon it.

Unwittingly, the right set the stage for re-waging the same battle that has marked Chile’s contemporary history and that it had hoped to leave behind. The airing of political divisions on the right during the commemoration of the 40-year anniversary of the coup weakened the coalition further. To win an election, the right-wing coalition must position itself in the political center. However, this is impossible to do while politicians associated with the dictatorship from the right wing UDI are pathologically incapable of refraining from publicly defending Pinochet’s legacy. Evelyn Matthei has been caught in the crossfire of recriminations and conflict since she accepted her party’s nomination. By contrast, Bachelet’s clear and decisive primary election victory makes the right look even more chaotic and unelectable.


Despite Bachelet’s assured victory, the question of the extent of this victory remains. Recent elections in Chile have been marked by the success of strong independent candidates who have challenged traditional leaders. This was already the case in the 2009 presidential election, in which leftist Marco Enríquez Ominami garnered 20 percent of the vote in the first round, paving the way for Piñera’s victory in the second round. Recent municipal elections saw several new candidates sweep away traditional incumbents. Similarly during Nueva Mayoría’s  primary, Andrés Velasco captured a significant share of the ballot, even pulling away votes from the right-wing primary. During this presidential election, another right wing populist, independent newcomer, Franco Parisi, is polling at 10 percent, which further weakens Matthei’s position.

The question of whether Bachelet’s Nueva Mayoria can garner a large enough legislative contingent to engage in needed structural reforms is equally important. Chile’s legislative electoral system is still governed by the 1980 Constitution, which was penned by the Pinochet dictatorship. The electoral system essentially forces Chile’s politicians into two big coalitions and structurally distorts votes to underrepresent coalitions unless they reach majorities of 66.7 percent in each district — otherwise the two coalitions each simply take one of the two seats available in each district, leading to what some analysts have called a “perpetual tie.” Generating a majority large enough for reform is difficult. In addition, though Bachelet is extraordinarily popular, her coalition is not, underscoring the growing personalism of Chilean politics. This will leave Bachelet in an uncomfortable position. Continuous and widespread social mobilization has been aimed at dismantling the institutional, political and policy vestiges of the dictatorship. However, Bachelet will only be able to undertake reforms requiring a simple majority (such as tax or labor reform).  She will have to negotiate political, constitutional and much-demanded educational reforms that require more than a simple majority with the opposition — a difficult, if not impossible, task.

At least as important is whether the Chilean right will be able to recover from its impending electoral shellacking. The Alianza is historically stronger than most of the right in Latin America, and its current travails will certainly not cause it to disappear. Still, the results from the upcoming elections will oblige it to redefine itself, force it to renew its political leadership and overcome its association with the Pinochet dictatorship. Failing to do so has the potential to transform it into a politically irrelevant actor.

While few will be surprised with the ultimate outcome of the election, what is certain is that the results will hold profound meaning for Chile’s future political constellation and whether the country’s politicians can respond to widespread and popular demands for deep reforms. What is also certain is that Chile’s reputation as the most politically boring country in Latin America has been transformed, as the next four years will undoubtedly hold more political drama of the Shakespearean variety.