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September 8, 2020


CHILE: What lies beneath constitutional referendum positioning

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 5 mins)
  • The “yes” campaign remains on track for victory in next month’s referendum on a new constitution.
  • Political maneuvering on the Right points to how established political fault lines are in flux.
  • The constitutional campaign and vote will have reverberations on the race to succeed President Sebastian Pinera.

With just under seven weeks to go until the 25 October constitutional referendum, voting intentions have not changed significantly. Most polls show that support for a new constitution (the “yes” vote) remains steady around or above 70%, while the “no” vote is polling below 20%. Doubts over turnout will probably persist right up until the vote. However, polls indicate rising public support for the referendum taking place even amid the Covid-19 outbreak (which has eased considerably in recent weeks), while 69% of voters say that they intend to take part in the referendum. These numbers could go up or down slightly as the Covid-19 situation evolves. A flare-up of serious unrest in the lead-up to the referendum (the one-year anniversary of the start of last year’s protests falls on 18 October) could also alter voting intentions. However, neither eventuality is likely to seriously alter voting intentions.

If you can’t beat them, join them

Part of the explanation for the “yes” vote’s overwhelming majority is that key figures on the right have swung behind “yes” in recent days. The most high-profile has been the Independent Democratic Union (UDI)’s Joaquin Lavin, mayor of the Santiago district of Las Condes and the right’s early frontrunner to succeed President Sebastian Pinera in 2022. Lavin was followed by Pablo Longueira, one of the most controversial figures on the Chilean right, who it would have been safe to assume was firmly in the “no” camp. Meanwhile, UDI president Jacqueline Van Rysselberghe intimated that she might not vote at all. The other two main parties that comprise the governing Chile Vamos (CV) coalition – National Renovation (RN) and Evopoli – will not impose a party line, so supporters can vote however they wish.

The logic behind Lavin and Longueira’s positioning is partly about damage limitation. The UDI in particular wants to avoid the perception that the “no” vote represents the right, while “yes” represents the left and center-left. If this is the perception – and “no” obtains as little as 20% of the vote in October – it could weaken the right in two ways. First, it would undermine the right’s chances in the subsequent vote to elect members of the constituent convention, thereby weakening the built-in one-third veto vote. Second, it would reduce the right’s chances in the April 2021 municipal and gubernatorial elections and in the November/December 2021 legislative and presidential votes. The right was out of power for 20 years from 1990 even though a sizeable minority of 44% voted in the 1988 referendum for Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) to remain in power another eight years.

Lavin makes a play for the center-ground

Electoral considerations go deeper. Longueira has his sights set on getting elected to the constitutional convention that would be set up in the wake of a victory for “yes.” The constitutional convention elections will also take place next April. Lavin is playing a more strategic game; he wants to broaden his appeal to the center-ground. Conventional electoral strategy might suggest this is premature – that successful candidates pitch to their core constituencies first (in Lavin’s case, the Catholic, conservative electorate that is fearful of what a new constitution will bring), before widening their message to win the center later down the line.

However, Lavin could be working on the assumption that division, fear, and lack of leadership in the center-ground space offer an opportunity for his newly minted brand of moderation (e.g. describing himself as a social democrat). The old center-left Nueva Mayoria (NM) coalition that operated during Michelle Bachelet (2014-2018)’s presidency is divided and is at constant risk of being outflanked by the more left-leaning – though also internally divided – Broad Front (FA). Lavin appears to be betting that many centrist voters are mistrustful of, not just the FA, but also the Communists (PC), who have gained new prominence with the rise in the presidential polls of one of their mayors, Daniel Jadue. The question is whether voters see Lavin as genuine or an opportunist. Whether Lavin can sustain this position remains to be seen; the ex-NM parties will eventually come up with a presidential candidate, while the election clearly remains some way off – with other important votes in the interim.

A chance for Kast?

In parallel, Lavin’s move could be an opportunity for a relatively new force on the Right: the ultra-conservative populist Jose Antonio Kast, who since his 2017 presidential run has set up a new outfit – the Republican Party. The constitutional referendum campaign offers Kast opportunities to attract UDI voters who are disenchanted with Lavin and Longueira’s support for “yes,” and to gain prominence by pitching himself as the unflinching standard-bearer for “no.” This would provide Kast with the platform to build up a campaign based on criticism of the government’s handling of the economic fallout from the Covid-19 crisis; Pinera’s “capitulation” to violent left-wing extremism during last year’s unrest; and opposition to immigration.

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