Why victory for Bachelet in Chile is undeniable but bittersweet

Michelle Bachelet voting in Chile’s general elections. (Luis Hidalgo/AP)

November 25 th 2013, for The Washington Post by Kirsten Sehnbruch and Peter M. Siavelis 

As expected by virtually everyone, Michelle Bachelet swept to victory in Chile’s Nov. 17 presidential election, garnering 47 percent of the vote and besting her center-right Alianza coalition competitor Evelyn Matthei, who polled an anemic 25 percent. The rest of the vote was split among seven other competitors, two of whom, Marco Enríquez Ominami and Franco Parisi, each obtained roughly 10 percent of the vote. However, despite this triumph, Bachelet failed to win an outright victory by polling over 50 percent, meaning she will face off against Matthei in a Dec. 15 runoff.

Data: Servicio Electoral de Chile; Figure: Kirsten Sehnbruch and Peter M. Siavelis/The Monkey Cage  Data: Servicio Electoral de Chile; Figure: Kirsten Sehnbruch and Peter M. Siavelis/The Monkey Cage 





Whether Bachelet would win in the first round was always touch-and-go. Though capturing 50 percent of the vote with so many candidates was a tall order, most polls had her victorious in the first round. This result, then, is disappointing for Bachelet, who hoped to cruise to victory in a single round. While she will easily beat Matthei on Dec. 15, a first-round triumph would have given Bachelet a clear mandate for her reform agenda, including the adoption of a new constitution. On the other hand, in some senses Bachelet faces a win-win situation: while a victory in the first round would have been a resounding endorsement, the second round may provide an even bigger one if the gap between the women’s vote shares substantially widens.

Four stories emerge from last Sunday’s elections: the first is that Bachelet and her coalition achieved not only a stunning presidential victory, but also impressive results in the parliamentary elections. Though also falling short of 50 percent in the legislative elections, Bachelet’s Nueva Mayoria alliance increased its vote share by almost 4 percent from the 2009 elections.  Chamber results also show that the Matthei’s Alianza coalition did substantially better than she did.

Data: Servicio Electoral de Chile; Figure: Kirsten Sehnbruch and Peter M. Siavelis/The Monkey Cage  Data: Servicio Electoral de Chile; Figure: Kirsten Sehnbruch and Peter M. Siavelis/The Monkey Cage

Most importantly, in terms of the final composition of congress, Bachelet’s Nueva Mayoría coalition picked up 10 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and one in the Senate. Bachelet will be able to pass her education reform agenda, which requires a 4/7 majority, if she can pick up two votes in the Chamber and one vote in the Senate from likely sympathetic independents. However, her coalition falls short of the 3/5 quorum required for the reform of Chile’s controversial binomial election system, and of the 2/3 required for constitutional reforms.

Data: Servicio Electoral de Chile; Figure: Kirsten Sehnbruch and Peter M. Siavelis/The Monkey Cage   Data: Servicio Electoral de Chile; Figure: Kirsten Sehnbruch and Peter M. Siavelis/The Monkey Cage 





Data: Servicio Electoral de Chile; Figure: Kirsten Sehnbruch and Peter M. Siavelis/The Monkey Cage

 Data: Servicio Electoral de Chile; Figure: Kirsten Sehnbruch and Peter M. Siavelis/The Monkey Cage 




This outcome has led some political analysts to question whether she will be able to make good on her promised proposals for structural reforms for which the electorate is clamoring. Some have doubted whether she will be able to muster the votes necessary by combining those from her fractious coalition with some from the opposition.  However, the reform of the binomial electoral system and even constitutional reforms may be feasible with votes from the center-right National Renewal Party (RN). A consensus for reform has emerged among politicians—many of whom have suffered unjust defeats at the hands of the binomial system (having garnered more votes than their competitors and still losing the election). In fact, RN has already proposed ending the binomial system under the current sitting government, while a civil campaign and social movement is gathering strength to push for a constituent assembly. So consensus on the need for political reform exists. The dispute will be about what shape these reforms will take in practice, and whether Bachelet’s future government has the political acumen to cobble together majorities for reform.

The second story of these elections is, of course, the humiliating defeat suffered by the right-wing Alianza coalition in both the presidential and parliamentary elections. Not only was Matthei’s 25 percent close to the sector’s historical lows, but the left gained significant power in both houses of Congress. Within the Alianza, power shifted from the far right Independent Democratic Union (UDI) towards the center-right National Renewal (RN) party. RN’s senators Manuel José Ossandón and Andrés Allamand won two key races in Santiago, and the UDI has been left rudderless. Not only did the party lose these two important senatorial elections (Pablo Zalaquett and Lawrence Golborne), but it is likely to be politically debilitated moving forward. Several of its leaders served in outgoing Alianza president Piñera’s cabinet and will not occupy political offices from which they can launch presidential campaigns for 2017. These include UDI members with the highest name recognition like defeated presidential hopeful Matthei as well as Joaquín Lavín and Pablo Longueira.

The election’s third big story relates to voter participation, which fell below 50 percent. This was the first presidential election held in Chile under the new regime of voluntary voting. While elections that are a foregone conclusion like this one generally produce lower turnout, the fact that barely 1,000,000 more voters participated in these than in the 2012 municipal elections points to voter dissatisfaction and indifference. This dissatisfaction is also suggested by the 28 percent of “protest votes” obtained by the seven other candidates, none of whom stood a realistic chance of winning.

Finally, and more encouraging from the perspective of democratic development, there has been significant political turnover in both coalitions. A group of young Nueva Mayoría deputies was elected, several of whom had led the student movement of 2011 (they include international “rock stars” Camila Vallejo and Giorgio Jackson as well as Karol Cariola, and Gabriel Boric). In addition, a number of new senators were elected, replacing long standing incumbents vying for reelection. Within the Alianza, a number of new deputies and senators also have been elected who will likely inject much-needed new blood into the coalition including Felipe Kast and Manuel José Ossandón.

A more interesting question is how many votes Bachelet and Matthei can pick up from other first-round candidates. It is here that Bachelet holds the upper hand, with votes from five left-wing candidates amounting to 17 percent, while the votes that went to center-right wing candidates (mainly Parisi) totaled only 11 percent. None of the defeated candidates threw support to either of the victors on election night. Nonetheless, Bachelet will surely negotiate behind closed doors to gain the support of defeated left-wing candidates.  Matthei’s ability to negotiate a similar agreement on the right with Parisi will be stymied by their virulent disparagement of each other during the final stages of the campaign and Parisi’s harsh criticisms of Matthei on election night.

Even more worrisome for Matthei, the Enríquez-Ominami and Parisi vote combined constitutes a 20 percent protest bloc against the established coalitions. While it is feasible that some Parisi votes may swing toward Matthei, Bachelet might also pick them up, given Parisi’s brand of right-wing populism that attacked inequality in the country and his self-described social liberalism. On the other hand, it is almost inconceivable that leftist voters will be attracted by the right-wing Matthei.


It is clear that both candidates will move toward the political center to capture as many independents as possible. Bachelet faces the challenge of attracting the votes from the center, while also reaching out to the left.  Voters on the far left and center of her coalition are often at odds.  Matthei will also have to move toward the center without alienating her right-wing base, making for a fair amount of political acrobatics on both sides before Dec. 15.

The political dynamic of the second round is complex for Matthei in other ways.  Attacking president Bachelet personally has been a strategy that has failed resoundingly for the right. The only way Matthei can gain any traction by criticizing Bachelet is to attack her for including the Communist Party in the Nueva Mayoría coalition.

Despite the lopsided likely result, the Dec. 15 second round is significant to Chile’s political future.  A very strong mandate for Bachelet (over 65 percent) will position her well, helping her claim legitimacy for her reform agenda — something which extremely low turnout could undermine. However, neither would a complete shellacking of the right be healthy for Chile, as a strong opposition alternative is crucial for a dynamic democracy.  The best outcome for all would be a significant mandate for Bachelet combined with necessary and negotiated support from at least a portion of the right for her reform agenda. Given the outcome of these elections, promoting that agenda will take skill, leadership and political acumen.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly listed Luciano Cruz-Coke as a newly elected lawmaker from Alianza. This version has been corrected to reflect the fact that she was not elected.