The center-right ruling Alianza coalition led by President Sebastián Piñera suffered a setback in the municipal elections held on October 28. A year before the presidential election, prospects for the Alianza look grimmer. The Piñera administration—inaugurated two weeks after the devastating February 2010 earthquake—is now confronting the political aftershocks of his coalition’s losses and hoping to avoid the inevitable end next year of the first rightwing government in Chile since the restoration of democracy in 1990.
There was plenty of uncertainty surrounding the recent election. A sweeping electoral reform increased the registered voting population from 8.4 million in 2009 to 13.5 million in 2012. The old system required people to register before they could vote. Though almost all eligible Chileans registered before the 1988 plebiscite, after democracy was restored, only a small percentage of those who turned 18 bother to register. Thus, though the eligible population increased, the registered population remained flat. After President Michelle Bachelet (2006–2010) championed a constitutional reform in 2009 to make voting voluntary, President Piñera complemented the change with a new reform that made registration automatic. All Chileans aged 18 or older—and all permanent residents who have lived in Chile for more than 5 years—are now automatically eligible to vote.
No one knew how many Chileans would vote. For one, there was no reason to believe that those who did not register before—a simple but time-inconvenient process—would vote now that they were automatically registered. For example, up to 800,000 people who reside abroad were registered even though votes can only be cast in Chile. A smaller number of former resident foreigners who have kept their residency status were also registered. Even some killed by the military dictatorship were automatically registered since many of the disappeared are legally “kidnapped” until their bodies are found (a way devised by human rights lawyers to bypass the amnesty law of 1978 that did not include kidnappings). The most telling evidence that the new electoral rolls overestimate the number of “actual” eligible people is that former President Salvador Allende—who died in the 1973 military coup—showed up as an eligible voter in the new registry.
Turnout disappointed everyone. Some 5.5 million Chileans showed up to vote, which is equivalent to 40 percent of those eligible. Even if turnout is adjusted to only include “real” eligible voters, it was still only 44 percent. Still, although turnout was the lowest in Chilean history, the percentage of voters who went to the polls is not uncommon in local elections in industrialized democracies. Further, since mayors in several municipalities were practically unchallenged, lower turnout was expected.
Ahead of the elections, several leftwing politicians warned that voluntary voting will further depress participation among the poor; but the old system already hindered registration among the poor. Others feared that moderate voters would stay away from the polls and the weight of polarized and highly ideological voters would increase. Another concern was that voluntary voting would give candidates the incentives to develop patronage schemes to organize get-out-the-vote campaigns.