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Socialist Candidate Holds Dominant Position in Chile’s Runoff Election

By: Joel Fensch - Dec 13, 2013, 7:41 am

EspañolThis Sunday, Chileans will head to the polls for the final round of voting in this year’s presidential elections. Constituents choosing to participate will vote for the second time in less than a month, in a runoff election between socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet and the recent minister of labor and social security, Evelyn Matthei.

The runoff comes after none of the nine initial candidates could muster more than 50 percent of the vote on November 17, necessitating the second round for a clear victor.

While Bachelet had a far stronger showing during the first round, with 46.7 percent of votes against 25.0 percent for Matthei, the election was marred by a dramatically low voter turnout. Only 49 percent of registered voters participated in the first round, compared to 87 percent during the first round of Chile’s last presidential election in 2010.

Though Bachelet maintained an image as a moderate in her first term as president, from 2006 to 2010, she has drawn much of her support this election cycle from more radical and anti-market elements within Chile’s political spectrum. She represents the electoral Nueva Mayoría (New Majority) coalition, which includes forthright communist and socialist parties, such as the Movimiento Amplio Social (Broad Social Movement), Partido Socialista, and Partido Comunista. This development has clouded the extent to which her reelection would represent a continuation of her previous centrist administrative orientation or a more extreme turn towards collectivism.

Bachelet has promised to pursue an aggressive agenda, if elected as president for the second time, including higher education at no cost to students — paid for by higher taxes on professionals — and legalization of abortion in certain circumstances. Her campaign has even promised to completely rewrite Chile’s constitution, given sufficient electoral support.

Patricio Navia, professor of political science at Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, notes that Bachelet’s coalition did not win a supermajority in congress, so she will still need to win bipartisan support to implement her entire platform. Navia acknowledged that there is an expectation, based on Bachelet’s campaign, that her administration would function further to the left than her first administration. However, he noted that while “Bachelet herself has seemed to imply that she will [make a hard turn to the left], she has also been very careful to stay away from specifics.” For example, she has not explained how exactly she would achieve a new constitution.

“As a moderate, she ended her tenure with 80 percent approval. I don’t see why she would do it differently now,” added Navia.

Evelyn Matthei, on the other hand, represents the moderate, market-oriented Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI), and her campaign has largely promised to continue on the success seen during the past decade in Chile — including a growing economy and declining poverty. Her campaign has proposed a more centrist alternative to Bachelet and has promised a continuation of the policies of sitting President Sebastián Piñera. Matthei has stated that her policies would attempt to emulate the relative social and economic success that “​​countries like Germany and the Scandinavian nations have already achieved.” On Thursday, Matthei said to supporters, “we have built a country together, and it doesn’t make sense to destroy everything we’ve built, if we are proud of what we have” — presumably referring to Bachelet’s aggressive campaign promises, including her bid to rewrite the nation’s constitution.

The two candidates faced off on a televised debate on Tuesday night, in which Bachelet reiterated her insistence on completely rewriting Chile’s constitution, stating, “We will evaluate all mechanisms to create a new one.” Despite running on a more market-oriented platform than that of Bachelet’s coalition, Matthei promised an increase in minimum pensions for “current and future retirees,” which prompted Bachelet to counter with a promise of higher minimum wages.

Bachelet provided a vague clarification of her proposal for “free” education as well, noting that universities would be required to sign an agreement with the Ministry of Education, as well as comply with certain prerequisites: verification that the school is not for-profit, mandatory accreditation, and other quality and program controls.

While a new poll released this Wednesday shows Bachelet with a substantial lead, the poll was conducted between November 21 and December 2 and cannot reflect the impact of the televised debate between the two women on Tuesday night and a previous radio debate on December 6 (shown below). The poll shows the former president with a projected 63.7-66.3 percent of the vote this Sunday. While this indicates that Matthei may narrow the gap from the first round of voting, she is currently still lagging at 33.7-36.3 percent.

Ironically, the two rivals were playmates and neighbors as children, while their fathers were both stationed at the Cerro Moreno airbase in the Atacama desert in Northern Chile, according to the book, Hijas de General, by Nancy Castillo and Rocío Montes.

Joel Fensch Joel Fensch

Editor of InsightSur, Fensch covers geopolitical and historical events in Latin America with the PanAm Post.