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March 17, 2021

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CHILE: Reflections on April’s mega-vote

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 5 mins)
  • Mayoral, municipal council, gubernatorial, and constituent assembly elections are scheduled for 10-11 April.
  • Forecasting outcomes is unusually difficult because there is virtually no precedent for the constitutional or gubernatorial elections, while polling for the former is almost non-existent.
  • However, in the key constitutional vote, fragmentation on the Left is likely to weaken the emergence of a two-thirds bloc championing radical change and/or populism.

Timings

There have been calls for the government to consider postponing the elections. The head of the influential Colmed medical union, Dr Izkia Siches, has called for the voting to be postponed if Intensive Care Unit (ICU) occupancy reaches 95% of capacity. Amid rising infections, occupancy is already a hair’s breadth from that marker. However, the government is resisting a postponement. Extra ICU capacity is being readied. The vote has been extended over two days to reduce crowding at voting centers. Authorities are also implementing new control measures; from tomorrow, 18 March, one third of the population will be under lockdown.

At the same time, the vaccination campaign is ahead of schedule; more than 5mn people (over 26% of the population) have now received at least one dose, while next week vaccines will start being applied to the under 60s. Health authorities have been clear that any herd immunity effect will not be visible before the end of June. However, positive signs could be in evidence by 10-11 April.

Constitutional considerations

There is no precedent for the constitutional vote beyond the October 2020 referendum, which produced a landslide in favor of a new constitution. Voters also opted overwhelmingly in favor of a constitutional assembly comprising 155 representatives specially elected to draft the new constitution. However, it is possible that some older, more conservative voters stayed away from the 2020 referendum because of public health concerns and because they saw the result as a foregone conclusion. By contrast, those same voters should have been vaccinated by the time of the April vote, while they may see this vote as more consequential as it represents an opportunity to preserve aspects of the Chilean model they see as successful.

While there is a dearth of polling on constitutional voting, the fragmentation of the vote for change is clear. The Right and Center-Right, which largely defends the status quo and will resist sweeping changes that undermine Chile’s macroeconomic fundamentals, are running as a united bloc (Vamos por Chile). The Left is divided between the centrist bloc (Lista del Apruebo) and the more radical Broad Front (FA), Communists (PC), and others (under the banner of Apruebo Dignidad), while there will also be candidates from social movements and independents running for seats in the constituent assembly.

Crucially, voter dispersion means that Vamos por Chile has a good chance of obtaining one third of the seats in the constituent assembly even if it does not succeed in winning one third of the vote. The election expert (and independent lower house deputy) Pepe Auth has carried out a study that reaches this same conclusion. Auth projects that Vamos por Chile could win 43% of the assembly seats based on 32% of the vote. There are a couple of caveats. First, this assumes that left-leaning voters do not vote tactically. Second, 17 out of the 155 seats are reserved for indigenous representatives who will be elected by indigenous communities; predicting what positions these eventual assembly members adopt beyond land and indigenous rights issues is difficult. Either way, the crucial one-third veto number in the assembly will be 52; Auth’s projection has Vamos por Chilewinning 60 seats.

Mayors matter

The vote for mayors and municipal councils could be the most important indicator of public sentiment and parties’ standing ahead of the November/December presidential elections, which will be preceded by party primaries in July. However, forecasting results is more challenging than usual since the parallel constituent assembly vote is likely to swell turnout with voters who would not normally participate in a municipal vote (turnout was only 35% in the 2016 municipals). The FA in particular will be hoping that it benefits from any surge in participation from younger voters; the coalition has had a difficult few months, and its putative presidential candidate, the student protest leader-turned-deputy Gabriel Boric, will want a good showing in April to boost any presidential run.

Specifically, there are some important races whose outcomes will have a bearing on competition for the presidency. Joaquin Lavin of the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) is not running for re-election as mayor of the Santiago district of Las Condes but to progress in a highly competitive race for the Right/Center-Right presidential nomination, Lavin needs his handpicked candidate to win. Evelyn Matthei, Lavin’s UDI competitor, is running for re-election as mayor of Providencia; she needs to win convincingly to stay in the presidential race. At the other end of the spectrum, the PC’s Daniel Jadue needs to do well in Recoleta if he wants to stay in contention ahead of the July primaries, when he could go up against the FA’s Boric.

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