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Could an “Alternative” Candidate Win the Chilean Election?

Turmoil on the Right may open the door for a third party or independent presidential candidate—or pave the way for a Bachelet tsunami.

A turbulent few weeks in Chilean politics have made for a seismic shift in the race for La Moneda. And with the debut of primary elections, voluntary voting and a clamor for change unprecedented in the country’s modern democratic era, Chile’s November 17 presidential vote has the potential to make history.

Last month, weeks after claiming a surprise victory in primary elections, conservative candidate Pablo Longueira abruptly resigned, citing clinical depression. After days of barely concealed infighting, party brass appointed Evelyn Matthei—also of the Unión Demócrata Independiente (Independent Democratic Union—UDI)—as his replacement.

The dramatic nature of Longueira’s resignation and Matthei’s ascension captured worldwide media attention, with the international press focusing on two themes: gender and history.

The decision, it was reported, seemingly ensured that Chile’s next leader would be a woman, with Matthei taking on former president and overwhelming favorite Michelle Bachelet.

The second factor to give the story international traction was the two candidates’ intriguing personal history. Both are daughters of military officers and were childhood playmates, but their family friendship was ruptured by the coup of September 11, 1973, when Matthei’s father sided with the military junta and Bachelet’s father fell victim to it.

The fallout from the change in leadership, however, may extend beyond the two women in the international spotlight.

Matthei’s appointment made her the third UDI presidential candidate in as many months—first pick Laurence Golborne was forced to step down in April amid multiple financial scandals. This revolving door of candidates in the party that will carry the conservative banner to the next election has left many wondering whether the Alianza coalition may have ruled itself out of consecutive terms in office.

A romp to La Moneda?

The consensus of many pundits both in Chile and abroad was that recent events have made Bachelet’s predicted resumption of office all but inevitable—and the evidence is compelling.

She swept the presidential primaries, capturing more than a third of the 3 million votes cast for all six candidates, not just her three competitors for the Nueva Mayoría (New Majority) ticket.

In June, a study by the Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Contemporánea (CERC) found that Bachelet would have won the election in the first round if held that month. That scenario would make the 2013 election the first to be decided without a runoff since 1993, when the nation’s left-leaning Concertación coalition was still in its post-dictatorship honeymoon period.

Early indicators, it would seem, point toward an electoral tsunami for Bachelet. But does turmoil on the Right really make an emphatic reelection inevitable?

The clamoring hordes

If a weakened Alianza has strengthened the established Left, it may also have opened the door for challenges from a new breed of candidates coming from outside the two main coalitions that are looking to capitalize on simmering discontent.

In the last presidential election in 2009, Marco Enríquez-Ominamibroke away from the Concertación—which at that point had won every election since the return to democracy in 1990—to run as a market-friendly social progressive.

Fresh-faced and railing against corruption in the political establishment, he won 20 percent of the first-round vote. That same year, Eduardo Frei, former president and Concertación candidate, won just 30 percent of the first round vote.

In the four years since, Enríquez-Ominami—or “MEO,” as he is known in Chile—has formed his own party, the Partido Progresista (Progressive Party—PRO), and campaigned for the kind of grassroots support he hopes will help build on his 2009 tilt.

Prominent columnist and academic Patricio Navia, who publicly backed MEO in 2009, attributes his success to a “protest vote” against the Concertación, enabled by an Alianza candidate with a more centrist appeal: current President Sebastián Piñera.

“Many people voted for Marco Enríquez as a protest vote, to a large extent, because they didn't really fear a victory by Piñera,” Navia said.

And while Matthei is a far more conservative a candidate, Navia argues, her slim chance of electoral triumph means the same logic applies in 2013. This time around, however, MEO will be competing for the protest vote with at least one other serious contender from outside the political establishment.

“The fact that there are a several independent candidates that, I think, will do fairly well, probably means that Marco Enríquez did see an opening [in 2009],” Navia said. “And that opening has become wider.”

A race for second place

The candidate perhaps best positioned to absorb votes lost on the Right is Franco Parisi, the self-styled “economist of the people.”

Parisi made his name on television and radio explaining economic events in colloquial terms. Though he shrugs off ideological labels, he is generally considered to straddle the line between fiscal conservative and social progressive.

Facing a weakened Right and widespread discontent with the political establishment, Navia predicts that Parisi and MEO will engage with Matthei in a “race for second place,” which is to say that they will compete against one another to enter a run-off, or second round of voting, against Bachelet.

Parisi and MEO are reformists, but should either one enter the run-off— regardless of the final result—it would send shockwaves through the political establishment. And there are other candidates in the 11-person race who are campaigning on much more than just reworking the model.

Running on the Partido Humanista (Humanist Party—PH) ticket, Marcel Claude is not only calling for nationalization of natural resources and free education, he would convene a constitutional assembly to rewrite the country’s founding document.

In a recent interview with The Santiago Times, Claude said he isn’t running in the election to “capture Rome,” but to “burn it to down” and “build a new city.”

Claude, who is popularly known for his role as an intellectual advisor to student protesters at the height of the movement for education reform, faces major obstacles in his effort to make history—not the least of which will be convincing the very students he champions to exercise their right to vote now that they have the legal ability not to vote.

With no way to definitively gauge the impact that the country’s newly-awakened social movements will have on the election, nor any history of voluntary voting to base predictions on, Claude will enter the race as a dark horse. But his potential to influence it should not be ignored.

Nor should the Alianza be written off entirely. If the UDI proved anything from its surprise victory in the primaries, it was that they have one of the largest bases of any political party in the country—coupled with considerable financial backing. And for all the clamor for reform, Chile’s conservative demographic is considerable: In the last three presidential elections, the Alianza candidate has won 51, 47 and 48 percent, respectively, of the second round vote. To predict that that this demographic will entirely evaporate with the launch of Chile’s voluntary voting system may turn out to be a considerable leap of faith.

The presidential primaries provided an insight into how 3 million Chileans might vote, but 7 million eligible voters did not participate in the primary elections of the two coalitions. Which way they will vote and whether they will vote at all remain an enigma. Chilean politics is heading into uncharted waters.

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

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Chile, Chile Presidential Elections, Michelle Bachelet, Evelyn Matthei

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