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December 15, 2020

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CHILE: Presidential election outlook

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 5 mins)
  • The governing Chile Vamos (CV) coalition appears relatively well positioned ahead of the 2021 presidential race despite President Sebastian Pinera’s tribulations.
  • The Center-Left lacks strong candidates, while the out-and-out Left is fragmented and in flux.
  • The current popularity of a Communist and an erratic populist legislator is a reminder of public frustration with politics-as-usual, which next year’s constitutional debate could oxygenate.

Electoral calendar

The first round of the presidential election takes place on 21 November 2021, with a run-off vote scheduled for 19 December. Before then, in April 2021, there will be an election for the constituent assembly, regional governors, and municipal authorities, the outcome of which will surely resonate in the subsequent presidential campaign.

Although it may be some way off, the 2021 presidential election will have special significance, and not just because it will be the first time in 15 years that neither Sebastian Pinera nor Michelle Bachelet will be on the ballot. The election will take place against the politically unsettled backdrop of the constitutional debate that arose out of 2019’s political crisis – which the Covid-19 pandemic has arguably exacerbated.

Who’s who

At this preliminary stage of the race – with candidacies not officially confirmed (until at least January) and most voters undecided – there are a handful of putative candidates making the early running. What is striking is that these figures are highly polarizing, representing opposite ends of the political spectrum. They are:

Joaquin Lavin of the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI), who is a veteran ex-minister and former presidential candidate and currently mayor of the Santiago district of Las Condes.

Daniel Jadue of the Communist Party (PC), who is mayor of another Santiago district, Recoleta.

Pamela Jiles, a lower house deputy from the Humanist Party (PH), which used to belong to the left-wing Broad Front (FA). Although her erratic voting record makes her politics difficult to pin down neatly, Jiles is an irreverent populist whose support for allowing people to tap their pension savings has made her the most popular politician in Chile.

Evelyn Matthei, another ex-minister who is also from the UDI and is currently mayor of Providencia; Matthei lost to Bachelet in the 2013 presidential election.

Options from the Right…

The Right-of-Center currently looks less strong than the UDI, notwithstanding Lavin’s attempts to recast himself as a social-democrat. The UDI’s coalition partner, National Renovation (RN), will put forward current Defense Minister Mario Desbordes, while the popular former Social Development Minister Sebastian Sichel could also join the race. If the UDI opts to avoid its own internal primary, the governing Chile Vamos (CV) coalition could end up staging a broad primary pitting Lavin, Matthei, Desbordes, and Sichel against each other.

…and from the Left

The Center-Left’s options are much more limited – a reflection of internal divisions as much as a lack of strong candidates. The most viable candidate is the Party for Democracy (PPD)’s Heraldo Munoz, though he has hardly lit up the polls since announcing his candidacy. A major reason for the Center-Left’s predicament is its difficulties with the much newer FA, which criticizes the likes of the PPD, Socialists (PS), and others as pro-establishment and gradualist. The FA has in recent days gravitated towards the Communists (PC). In the first instance, elections for regional governors will test this new left-wing FA-PC alliance. If the alliance works, the FA would likely back the PC (i.e. Jadue) in the presidential vote, especially if the FA’s 2017 presidential candidate, Beatriz Sanchez, opts not to run again next year (as seems likely).

The FA-PC alliance makes a full-spectrum left-leaning coalition appear improbable precisely because the Center-Left lacks presidential candidates who can go the distance. The price of a broad alliance would be that the Center-Left would have to accept whoever comes out on top in a primary. At the moment, that looks like being Jadue, or possibly Jiles (though she has not confirmed her intentions), which many on the Center-Left find a deeply unpalatable choice. Nor does it help the Left’s cause that the FA is increasingly fragmented, having suffered several defections recently; the FA’s lower house bloc now stands at 12, down from 20 originally.

Considerations for 2021

Deep divisions across the Left obviously benefit Chile Vamos despite the current administration’s difficulties; Pinera’s approval rating stands at just 14%. A November Cadem poll suggested that Lavin would beat any of Jadue, Munoz, or Sanchez – and would tie with Jiles – in hypothetical head-to-head scenarios. Meanwhile, a Criteria poll from early December suggests that Lavin is seen as best able to reactivate the economy post-pandemic. The prospect of Jadue or Jiles in a run-off vote would also generate the rejection of many centrist voters, boosting the chances of whoever represents the CV.

However, the same polls also point to signs of considerable voter dissatisfaction that traditional parties are failing to channel. For example, in a Lavin versus Jadue head-to-head, 26% say they would not vote for either; the number rises to 38% in the scenario of a Lavin versus Munoz run-off. Frustration with politics-as-usual explains Jiles’s rise in the polls since August; the Cadem poll has Jiles beating all her putative rivals except Lavin (with whom she is tied). Jiles is seen by voters as best placed to reach political agreements (despite having a reputation for not being a team player); she is also seen as best able to respond to social demands, which will dominate the political debate once the constituent assembly begins its work from April/May 2021. Jiles may prove to be a fleeting phenomenon but her popularity is a symptom of a deeper political and social malaise – and new populist impulses – that will continue to play out over the course of 2021.

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