Is Chile leaning to the right again?

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Those who showed up to vote on Sunday in Chile's municipal elections made it clear they were displeased with the current direction of the country. The governing center-left coalition, the Nueva Mayoría, lost significant ground to the conservative Chile Vamos alliance, including in several key battles for mayor in capital Santiago.

Does this mean Chile is set to elect another center-right government in next year's presidential election, in line with the general trend seen throughout Latin America in recent years? It's too early to predict, but it does look increasingly likely.

One telling trend was that voter abstention was high. Only about 35% of people showed up to cast their ballots, the worst figure since Chile returned to democracy. I voted in my first-ever election in Chile and found no lines at the table I had been assigned. Turnout was so poor it restarted debate about whether the country should return to mandatory voting, abolished in 2012.

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The election was also a significant victory for parties not aligned with the two major coalitions, with 78 winning mayors (out of 346) falling outside the traditional powerhouses. One of these was independent Jorge Sharp, a 31-year-old former student leader and lawyer who gained attention for his door-to-door campaigning up and down the steep hills of Valparaíso – where he won the election with over 50% of the vote.

Combined, it shows a population frustrated by the political class. And yet, the main candidates for next year's election at this stage are former presidents Ricardo Lagos and Sebastián Piñera, meaning politics as usual at least for the next election cycle.

Given these two candidates, Piñera is probably the one best positioned to win in 2017, mainly because the current government of President Michelle Bachelet is in disarray.

Once one of the most popular leaders in the region, over the past two years the president has seen her approval rating languish at about 25%. Her government has been embroiled in corruption scandals, her promised reforms have failed to gain the support needed, and jobs and growth have suffered. This past week was particularly disastrous for the Bachelet government – her most popular minister, Máximo Pacheco, resigned, and in the election on Sunday former members of her cabinet Carolina Tohá (Santiago), Helia Molina (Ñuñoa) and Soledad Barría (Puente Alto) all lost key mayoral races.

At this stage, it looks like the pink tide will keep ebbing in Latin America in 2017.