May 17, 2021

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CHILE: Highly uncertain horizon following weekend mega-vote

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 4 mins)
  • The mayoral, municipal council, gubernatorial, and constituent assembly elections held on 15-16 May delivered a major political shock.
  • Establishment parties that have governed the country over the past three decades performed poorly.
  • Radical sectors with a re-foundational agenda will have sway in the 155-seat body that will write the country’s new constitution, though the assembly will be fragmented.
  • The presidential race is wide open and will take shape in more detail over the next couple of months.

Chile Vamos

The Right and Center-Right were the biggest losers from the weekend’s votes. The governing Chile Vamos (CV) coalition failed to even come close to its target of winning one-third of the constituent assembly seats and will instead have a 37-strong bloc. Parties that make up the CV also lost key mayoralties and failed to make it to the run-off vote for governor of the Metropolitan Region (RM) of Santiago (to be held in June).

Center-Left

The Center-Left – currently grouped together as Unidad Constituyente but which in earlier incarnations has governed for much of the post-dictatorship period – also fared badly in the constituent assembly vote, winning under 15% of the vote, which leaves it with 25 seats. In the wake of the vote, one of Unidad Constituyente’s presidential aspirants, Heraldo Munoz, declared that the coalition was finished. While it is true that the coalition was eclipsed by the more radical Left, one of its members, the Socialist Party (PS), also did relatively well, not just in the constituent assembly vote but in the gubernatorial and municipal elections as well. As a result, the PS’s Paula Narvaez may be the coalition’s only presidential hopeful left standing.

A new force on the Left

The Broad Front (FA) and Communist Party (PC), which joined forces for the constituent assembly vote, won 28 seats with a vote share of 18.5%. The two parties can legitimately claim that they are now the main standard bearer for the Chilean Left. The FA’s performance was particularly noteworthy given its recent divisions and defections. The vote seems to have had a political defibrillating impact on the group as FA candidates performed well in several municipal races, while its candidate made it through to the RM’s gubernatorial run-off vote. The PC also landed a historic victory – against the Right – in the symbolically important Santiago commune.

The power of independents

Independent candidates for the constituent assembly were the other winners of the weekend vote. Most, though by no means all, independents were voted via the Lista del Pueblo (People’s List), a bloc that arose out of the 2019 protests, which won 24 seats in the assembly. This is a left-leaning, anti-status quo bloc with no clear leadership structure that will push root-and-branch reform over gradualism.

The constituent assembly

All this leaves the constituent assembly, which should take up its functions within the next few weeks, looking heterogeneous and fragmented. Some independents could prove to be unbending in their convictions, making it difficult to reach consensus positions. However, contrary to what might seem logical given their anti-establishment credentials, the Lista del Apruebo and the FA-PC alliance are not automatic bedfellows, though together they are close to a one-third bloc, which would increase if other independents plus some or all indigenous representatives (of which there are 17) are added. Another question is whether the PS shifts leftwards and/or whether other members of Unidad Constituyente vote together with the CV on certain issues. In this context, any analysis of the assembly’s positions will have to be on an issue-by-issue basis.

Presidential dynamics

The presidential race is still at a relatively early stage. The deadline for registering candidacies for the July presidential primaries falls on 19 May. There are two immediate issues worth watching this week:

1) Can the FA’s Gabriel Boric obtain the necessary signatures before Wednesday’s deadline? If he can, the FA-PC primary would pit Boric against the PC’s Daniel Jadue, who continues to ride high in the polls (and who was re-elected easily as Recoleta mayor) even though the PC did not originally back the agreement that led to the new constitutional process. It would also potentially weaken the putative candidacy of the populist outsider Pamela Jiles.

2) Will the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) abandon Evelyn Matthei in favor of Joaquin Lavin or allow both to proceed to the CV primary? If both advance, the CV will have five candidates competing for the presidential nomination. While the weekend’s results look bad for the CV’s chances, they could also strengthen the case for the independent Sebastian Sichel, who argues that only he can reach across party divisions, particularly if the CV reaches a presidential run-off against a radical leftist such as Boric, Jadue, or even Jiles.

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