Unpopular Populism in Chile

Chile’s former president Michelle Bachelet won in a runoff election this Sunday, after failing to obtain a majority of votes in November’s first round. She has now cleared the path to a second term as president of Chile, with 62 percent of the vote, bettering the 37 percent garnered by her childhood playmate, economist, and recent minister of labor and social security, Evelyn Matthei.

Bachelet’s entire campaign has been centered around a “New Majority” (Nueva Mayoría), which is supposed to reflect a consensus of Chileans — despite being composed of some of Chile’s more radical political parties, such as the Movimiento Amplio Social (Broad Social Movement), the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party.

She did win a majority of votes on Sunday, but that’s only half the story. As US author and humorist Mark Twain famously mused, “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

The reality is that her campaign only managed to solicit the support of 20.4 percent of eligible voters on Sunday.

On Sunday, only 41.96 percent of registered voters showed up to vote; 5.69 million Chileans voted, out of 13.5 million registered to do so. Of those voters, Bachelet’s campaign earned 62.16 percent — a total of 3.46 million. By comparison, 57.5 percent of eligible voters went to the polls during the 2012 presidential elections in the United States.

Prior to electoral reforms in January, 2012, Chileans who were registered to vote were obligated to vote under penalty of law. Once passed, the reforms implemented automated voter registration for eligible citizens, and removed all penalties for not participating in elections. Voting in Chile is intentionally held on Sundays to allow for easier access to the polls.

During Chile’s last presidential election, in 2009 and 2010, fully 87.68 percent of eligible voters participated in the first round, and 86.94 percent participated in the runoff election between Eduardo Frei and sitting president, Sebastián Piñera.

Bachelet commented on the significance of such a poor showing of support after the election results were clear, saying, “what’s clear is clear: these are the rules of democracy, and whoever wins, wins under these rules. The rules themselves legitimize the election.”

It has been noted that Bachelet’s coalition also failed to win a super-majority for her “New Majority” in congress, and will still need to win bipartisan support to implement her entire platform.

Whatever the election means, the extent to which 20 percent of eligible voters can actually represent a radical “New Majority” in Chile is questionable.

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