Discounted by analysts as a political novice whose hard-left platform would prove too extreme for Chile’s voters, Beatriz Sánchez suddenly finds herself in a powerful position.
On Sunday, Sánchez and her leftist Frente Amplio coalition earned over 20 percent of votes in Chile’s first-round presidential election – more than double what some polls predicted. Coupled with dismally low turnout and strong support for other fringe candidates, Sánchez’s performance suggests Chileans are not as ready to submit to the center as many had assumed.
“It makes sense that Chile would not be immune from the wave of anti-incumbent sentiment in Latin America,” said Bruno Binetti, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue. “Sánchez’s voters appreciate (President Michelle) Bachelet’s efforts to change Chile, but want to go further.”
Though she narrowly missed out on reaching the second round, Sánchez’s supporters could prove decisive when the two frontrunners – the center-left candidate Alejandro Guillier and the center-right former President Sebastián Piñera – face off on Dec. 17.
Either way, Sánchez’s coalition, founded earlier this year by congressmen and former student leaders Gabriel Boric and Giorgio Jackson, will play an important role in the next president’s ability to implement his agenda. Both Boric and Jackson, whose rise was chronicled by AQ, were re-elected Sunday, and in total the Frente Amplio won 21 seats in the Lower House, making it the third largest force in the legislative body.
“The Frente Amplio is here to stay,” Sánchez, a journalist-turned-politician, told supporters in her concession speech Sunday night.
Sánchez’s strong performance wasn’t the election’s only surprise. José Antonio Kast, a far-right candidate with personal ties to former dictator Augusto Pinochet’s military regime, earned eight percent of the votes after polls suggested he’d win just two or three percent. Altogether, an unprecedented share of voters – about a third – voted for a candidate from outside the two principal coalitions that have dominated Chilean politics since its return to democracy.
“This shows that there’s a bit of exhaustion with Chile’s very centrist model of governance and that some people want a more extreme change,” said Mark Keller, a Latin America analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
This dissatisfaction was also apparent in the turnout. Just 46 percent of eligible voters cast ballots on Sunday, lower than the 49 percent that voted in general elections four years ago, and consistent with a steady fall in turnout since Chile’s return to democracy.
For his part, Piñera may move right to court supporters of Kast, though the far-right independent already offered the former president an unconditional endorsement. Meanwhile, a lingering question is who voters of center-right candidate Carolina Goic, who finished fifth with just over five percent, will decide to back. Goic, the leader of the Christian Democratic Party, split from the Nueva Mayoría coalition in order to launch her own campaign.
Whoever ultimately wins the presidency will have his work cut out for him. Sunday’s low turnout leaves questions over the kind of a mandate the next leader will have, and a fragmented congress means any reforms will be hard won. But first either Guillier or Piñera have to win; after the run-up to an election many predicted would verge on boring, Chile’s second round is shaping up to be a nail biter after all.
O’Boyle is an editor for AQ.