Run-off votes for regional governors took place yesterday, 13 June, in 13 out of Chile’s 16 regions. Turnout was strikingly low at 19.6%, and well down on the “mega-elections” that took place in mid- May. Voter fatigue goes some way to explaining the low participation rate. While a caveat about drawing conclusions based on such low turnout is necessary, there are some important takeaways ahead of the November/December presidential elections.
A victory for the Christian Democrats (DC)’s Claudio Orrego in the Santiago Metropolitan Region (RM) gubernatorial race is a welcome relief for the center-left now grouped together as Unidad Constituyente (UC), and to which the DC belongs. The UC, which has governed in one form or another for most of the post-dictatorship period, performed poorly in the constituent assembly vote and then lost out, not only on the opportunity to form a broad left- leaning alliance with the more radical Broad Front (FA), but also failed to register for the presidential primaries.
Orrego’s victory – against the FA’s Karina Oliva – carries an important message. If the candidate of the governing center-right Chile Vamos (CV) coalition fails to progress to the December presidential run-off and there is a palatable enough UC candidate in that run-off, tactical voting from CV supporters would make the center-left candidate a favorite against any more radical leftist. This is what happened in the RM yesterday, when CV voters backed Orrego to keep out the FA’s Oliva. The FA is allied with the Communist Party (PC). Its two presidential pre-candidates will contest a primary in July. While the FA’s Gabriel Boric could in theory reach out to the center- left, his PC rival Daniel Jadue, a more polarizing figure, is likely to win the nomination.
This dynamic offers the UC some hope that it could still enter the presidential fray, albeit via an informal primary of its own design. The coalition’s two candidates are the Socialist Party (PS)’s Paula Narvaez and the DC’s Yasna Provoste. Both would be far more palatable to CV voters hoping to keep Boric or Jadue (or the wildcard populist Pamela Jiles) out of power. This is not to say the CV’s chances are nil. Joaquin Lavin continues to poll relatively strongly, and the coalition has four solid candidates to choose from in its July primary vote. However, the CV performed badly yesterday, following a disappointing result in the May elections. President Sebastian Pinera, meanwhile, remains politically toxic to the CV’s chances.
Nonetheless, there is still a way to go before the contours of the presidential race sharpen up. Apart from the July primaries, the constituent assembly debates are likely to influence the campaign. The assembly has not formally started its work to re-write the constitution (it should get going in early July), though there has already been some noise around the issue of the new constitution. The most significant recent development has been the creation of a new anti-establishment bloc within the assembly ( Voceria de los Pueblos ) comprising 34 assembly members. The new bloc has been highly critical of the rules that will govern the new assembly, while its members are also putting pressure on Congress (e.g. not to ratify the TPP11 Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement) in a sign of the awkward interplay between the body deliberating the future legal framework and existing authorities.