Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Direction of a Nation at Stake as Chileans Go to Polls

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Not every election sparks debate on issues which define individual lives nor offers voters the chance to fundamentally shape the direction of a nation.

This Sunday Chileans will vote for 120 deputies, 20 senators and one president, bringing an end—to the first chapter at least—of a campaign race which has witnessed both the best and worst of the democratic process and vacillated from enthralling to infuriatingly dull to down-right bizarre.

A historic nine presidential candidates and campaign issues ranging from a new constitution to the right of rape victims to abort have made for an engaging spectacle and led to public discussions on topics which, for more than 20 years, have either been considered too divisive or too inconvenient to consider.

Symptomatic of a country at last free of the fear of dictatorship, whose emerging middle class has found its voice or whose historic struggle against exploitation has once again resurfaced—depending on which analysis one ascribes to, and which according to opinion polls, no longer trusts the political establishment——the 2013 school of presidential hopefuls are a motley crew. Among the nine is vegan, spiritual leader and former World Bank economist Alfredo Sfeir; seamstress-turned-activist Roxana Miranda; porsche-driving professor and celebrity economist Franco Parisi, and the combative intellectual who seeks to unite student, labor and environmental movements, Marcel Claude.

Such an array of candidates has not only engendered debate on the formerly taboo, but it has also lent color and personality to the campaign, opening the door to the endearing, the embarrassing and the eccentric—from cartoon campaign ads likening the relationship between politicians and the public to that between cats and mice to an embarrassing bicycle tumble.

But despite all the candidates, the outcome of this election has seemed as close to a foregone conclusion as they come since Michelle Bachelet stood down from her position as head of U.N. Women, returned to Chile, and for the second time in her life, announced her intention to run for La Moneda, the Chilean presidential palace.

And for all the rhetoric of change, many voters remain unconvinced that another term in office for the former president will result in anything significantly different from the 20 years during which the Concertación coalition (1990-2010), now lead by Bachelet under the expanded Nueva Mayoría (New Majority) pact, ushered the country into democracy and—according to critics on both sides of the spectrum—deepened the country’s commitment to free-market capitalism and to state institutions established under the dictatorship.

Should she win this election, Bachelet will inherit a different country than the one she left three years ago. She has heard the clamor for change and tailored her message toward it. Her critics are right to question her intentions, given a campaign-long tactic of avoiding specifics, shying from debate­­­­ and hoping her charisma, slogans and an unmatched advertising budget will carry her to victory.

But amid vague statements of intent, there have been a handful of concrete and measurable campaign pledges, notably: a new constitution; a state-run pension alternative to the country’s mandatory private system, and free university education for all.

For foreign observers, these proposals are far from trivial. They do not represent, however, the foundations of a new Cuba or Venezuela, as portrayed by some hysterical voices in the international media, fueled in part by the far-right in Chile.

Is it radical for a country to wish to rewrite a constitution written in the modern-era under a bloody tyrant or follow the advice of groups such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—hardly a bastion of socialist revolutionary thought—and address glaring economic inequality?

Bachelet’s policy platform proposes raising the corporate tax rate from 20 percent to 25 percent over a four-year period and softens this with a reduction of the maximum rate of personal taxes from 40 percent to 35 percent. In contrast, the U.S. corporate tax rate is closer to 40 percent—and although loopholes and tax breaks mean very few big firms actually pay the statutory rate, even the conservative estimates of aggregate tax rate for S&P 500 firms is higher than Bachelet’s proposed hike.

For better or worse, the fundamental change in tack for the ship of state, predicted by some of Bachelet’s opponents, is hardly likely were she to resume her former position at its helm.

If the polls are to be believed, and a Bachelet victory is assured, perhaps the biggest shake-up to the political class to come out of this election would be in the race for second place­.

If Bachelet fails to secure more than 50 percent of the first-round vote—and most, though not all, recent polls indicate that she will fall short of this mark—the race will proceed to a run-off election between the top two candidates. Tradition says this would be her opponent from the right-leaning Alianza coalition, Evelyn Matthei. The polls, however, are not so unequivocal.

Matthei sits at second place in the polls, and though a blistering campaign to target her nearest competitor , Parisi, may well have taken the wind from the independent’s sails, she will also face stiff competition from the Concertación defector and creator of the Partido Progresista (Progressive Party—PRO), Marco Enríquez-Ominami. Running as an independent four years ago, Enríquez-Ominami secured 20 percent of the first round vote, a figure which, if repeated, could see the reformer go through to the second round in this year’s more open race.

A second round berth for any candidate outside of the two major coalitions would rewrite Chile’s modern political history and, though it remains an outside chance, it is still entirely possible at this late stage in the race.

Add the uncertainties arising from recent electoral reforms which make registration automatic but voting voluntary and an intriguing Congressional race—in which Bachelet is hoping to gain a significant majority and a wave of former student leaders aim to break into Congress—and Chile’s 2013 elections may remain an engaging and meaningful spectacle to the end.


Joseph Hinchliffe is a Chilean-based journalist and editor-in-chief of The Santiago Times. Follow him on Twitter: @joe_hinchliffe.

Tags: Chile Presidential Elections, Evelyn Matthei, Michelle Bachelet
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