As Chileans wake up tomorrow for municipal elections throughout the country, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera has urged his citizens to investigate their local candidates online before arriving to the polling stations.
If his advice is heeded, it may well be a first in a day of many firsts. Given that a center-right government is in place for the first time in two decades, dark tales from the Augusto Pinochet-era dictatorship have appeared in the press smearing some prominent politicians from the center-right—including Cristián Labbé, former mayor of the Providencia commune in Santiago and a current candidate in this year’s elections.
A profile of Labbé published in El Mostrador just days ago is a reminder that, while Chile may now have a functioning democracy, many of its politicians, laws and constitution still survive from the dictatorship.
Sunday will also be the first trial of a new, non-compulsory voting system. Previously Chileans had to register themselves on the electorate roll, and a failure to appear to vote would result in a heavy fine. This election is the first in which Chileans have had compulsory inscription but voluntary voting. According to AS/COA, this could raise the number of voters by 5.2 million, half of whom are under age 29.
While this change in the voting procedure involves more youth, many doubt whether this new generation—many of them students enraged by the political system that has impeded education reform—will vote at all. For this reason a group of NGOs has started a campaign to encourage younger citizens to go to the polling stations even if only to spoil their ballot.
“After seven months of analyzing the situation, we realized that young people generally do not feel represented by the political class or don’t identify with them,” campaign producer María Luisa Sotomayor told the Santiago Times. “But we believe the best way to express that discontent, or content for some, is in the polls.”
Many students have eschewed Sotomayor’s advice. This past Thursday, protests swept the country in support of a campaign organized by the Asamblea Coordinadora de Estudiantes Secundarios (Coordinating Assembly of Secondary Students—ACES) to boycott the municipal elections this weekend. “Democracy isn’t produced by voting once every four years,” ACES spokesperson Eloísa González said. “Transformation in Chile comes about thanks to these student and social movements.”
Thursday’s marches were anticipated by Chile's national police force who, according to ACES, surrounded a handful of schools in Santiago and prevented students from participating in the protests by bringing them to police stations for "identity control”—a Pinochet-era law that allows police to legally detain anyone and bring them to a police station to verify their identity.
Heavy police presence will also be in place during tomororw’s election, with some 12,000 police and armed forces deployed in the central Región Metropolitana, in which Santiago is located, in an attempt to ensure the elections run as smoothly as possible. It has not been uncommon during elections in the past for gangs, covertly employed by candidates, to destroy opponents’ publicity materials and intimidate voters on the day of elections.
Those hoping to find a shred of premonition as to the prospects for Chile’s presidential and parliamentary elections next year are perhaps already reading into the decision of former President Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010) not to return to Chile to vote in these elections. Senator Carlos Larraín, president of the conservative Renovación Nacional (National Renewal) party, considered this “alarming.” He also suggested that Bachelet’s decision is a sign that she is distancing herself from the center-left Concertación (Coordination) coalition that she governed.
Sunday will also see the appearance of many new coalitions looking to create alliances and pacts ahead of the 2013 elections. The La Segunda daily featured extensive interviews with some of these coalitions, many of which are embarking on new alliances such as Alianza DC-PS—a collaboration between Christian Democrats and the Socialist Party—and the liberal PPD-PR-PC coalition all looking to reaffirm their identities.
For many Chileans, a politician is a politician—and the elections still do not inspire much enthusiasm on the whole. 41 percent of Chileans consider these elections irrelevant, while 39 percent believe that the incumbent mayors in their neighborhoods or cities will simply be re-elected.
This weekend also marks another first: residents who have lived in Chile for more than five years are now eligible to votewith the presentation of their Chilean identity card. That novelty may just inspire some enthusiasm yet.
*Olivia Crellin is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. She is freelance journalist currently based in Santiago, Chile, who also works for Reuters. Her Twitter account is @OliviaCrellin.