Volatility and change of cycle: Chile’s presidential elections

Until a few years ago, Chilean politics was predictable. In presidential elections, from 1989 to date, we have known without major shocks who would occupy the first and second place. However, after the social mobilizations of 2019, volatility has become present in such a way that, even with a few days before the elections, any prediction about who will compete in a second round (particularly who will occupy the second place) is risky.

Leading the race is Gabriel Boric of the coalition Apruebo Dignidad (formed by the Frente Amplio and the Communist Party). The current congressman defeated his communist competitor in the July primaries, surprisingly by the size of his victory (60 vs. 40%) after Daniel Jadue had been leading the polls for months (which have been highly criticized lately). Riding the wave of the Apruebo victory in the October 2020 constitutional plebiscite and the success of the leftist lists in the May constituent elections this year, Boric has been leading the race ever since. 

His campaign seeks to reflect part of the ethos of the constituent process: moving towards a country with greater security for the population, with the inclusion of historically excluded sectors, with an emphasis on environmental sustainability and the end to neoliberalism. In a complex economic moment of high inflation and fiscal deficit after the large expenditures produced during the pandemic, Boric has sought to calm the markets through the gradualism of the program and by incorporating technocrats associated with the government of the former Concertación

The right-wing primary was won by Sebastián Sichel, who appeared to be Boric’s main competitor. With his origins in the center-left, Sichel has based his campaign on his personal attributes, being independent of political parties and appealing to a centrist voter. This profile has left him an open flank on the right. As soon as Sichel began to fall in the polls due to a series of errors related to the answers of questions about his trajectory—that he had worked as a lobbyist or that his 2009 parliamentary campaign received illegal donations from businessmen—the support he has been losing in the last weeks was transferred to the extreme right candidate, who now disputes the first place with Boric. 

José Antonio Kast, leader of the recently-created Republican Party, competes for the presidency for the second time. He obtained 8% of the vote in 2017. Like many other populists, the improvised and unrealizable platform that he is offering, as well as the lack of preparation of his team, suggest that he never expected having the option of disputing the second round. His program focuses on generalized tax cuts, a series of authoritarian measures on public order and immigration, and the promotion of a conservative vision of the family and gender relations, eliminating the Ministry of Women and Gender Equity, limiting the application of the abortion law and favoring married families through social policy. Now that he has risen in the polls, his team will seek to introduce some changes to the program and, in general, deny that the candidate is extreme. 

To Sichel’s mistakes were added the migratory crisis and the installation of the violence-order axis as a campaign theme—largely due to government action—and in favor of Kast. Violence has been a recurring theme since the social mobilizations that began in October 2019 were accompanied by episodes of violence orchestrated by small groups: looting, clashes with Carabineros and destruction of the public space. Added to this is the conflict between the State and the Mapuche people. And without any relevant reforms two years after the social outburst, sectors of the population show a certain exhaustion with the axes of the public debate and may turn to other concerns, such as those raised by Kast.

Kast’s rise has put the moderate right-wing coalition in a dilemma (as it happens everywhere in the face of the rise of the radical right), which has been resolved surprisingly quickly nonetheless. Several representatives of right-wing parties, especially the UDI, have expressed their support for Kast and it is clear that in an eventual second round they will have no problem in backing him. This shows that both rightists have a root in common—Kast was a UDI congressman for several periods and maintains relations with various members of the party—and that attempts to renew a modern and liberal right have been limited. Sichel opted for a frontal strategy, giving freedom of action to the parties that supported him, and has been one of Kast’s main critics, maintaining the support of more moderate right-wing sectors, which seem to be in a minority.

The support of a good part of the right wing may consolidate Kast in second place. Alternatively, the increased scrutiny of Kast’s candidacy and the fear of a more polarized campaign may lead more moderate sectors to mobilize in support of Yasna Provoste, the candidate of the former Concertación, who is currently third in the polls. So far this has not happened, but in the primaries many voters likely have decided their choice in the last two weeks of campaigning. There are still many undecided voters as well. 

Beyond the results of the election, there are three elements that are key for the years to come. First, the extreme right is establishing itself as a relevant actor in Chilean politics. A probable outcome of that would be a high polarization in the plebiscite to ratify the new constitution that should take place in 2022. We will see, then, a rejection movement that may well exceed the 22% obtained in the first plebiscite. Second, a highly fractionated congress is likely to appear. The three main blocks at the moment (left, center-left and right, each one internally stressed) will possibly be joined by representatives of Kast’s list and other minor conglomerates. Bringing forward any reform, then, will not be an easy matter. 

Third, and as we have seen in other countries in the region, it is likely that a pendulum politics will be installed. This means greater alternating governments and the predominance of centrifugal tendencies. A new cycle of two decades led by a coalition—as were the years of the Concertación—is out of the question.

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