August 26, 2021

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CHILE: Examining the presidential line-up and scenarios

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 5 mins)
  • The line-up of nine candidates competing for the 21 November presidential election is now complete.
  • The radical left and center-right have the best chance of reaching the December run-off amid the ongoing struggles of the center-left.

A fragmented line-up

The top tier of candidates with the most realistic chances of making it through to a run-off vote to be held on 19 December are:

  • Gabriel Boric of the radical left Apruebo Dignidad coalition, who unexpectedly defeated the Communist Party (PC)’s Daniel Jadue in their July primary. Boric hails from the Broad Front (FA), which finished in a strong third place in 2017.
  • Sebastian Sichel of the center-right Chile Vamos (CV) coalition, which has rebranded itself as Chile Podemos Mas (CPM or CP+). Sichel started out on the center-left and most recently was a popular minister under President Sebastian Pinera.
  • Yasna Provoste of the center-left coalition, which has undergone yet another name change and is now to be known as New Social Pact (NPS).

The second tier consists of:

  • The ultra-conservative Jose Antonio Kast (Republicans), who came fourth with 7.93% in 2017.
  • Marco Enriquez-Ominami (ME-O) of the Progressive Party (PRO), which was part of the center-left coalition until a few days ago. ME-O was only able to register at the last minute after a ban against him running for public office was lifted. ME-O’s high-water mark was in 2009 when he won 20% of the vote. His subsequent candidacies have brought diminishing returns.

The third tier comprises four candidates, including the populist economist Franco Parisi, who came fourth in the 2013 presidential vote. The most significant of these largely marginal candidates could be:

Polls

At this relatively early stage of the race, levels of indecision are high – 29% according to an early August Cadem poll. Beyond this voter indecision, the broad picture shows Boric and Sichel both polling in the mid-to-high twenties, followed by Provoste just into double digits, followed by Kast a short distance behind her. Now that the line-up is settled, polls should start registering what impact ME-O and Ancalao could have.

At this stage, Boric and Sichel appear to have the strongest chances of making it through to the run-off. This would be a historic outcome since the center- left coalition in its various incarnations has made it to the run-off in every election since the end of dictatorship in 1990. It is also possible that the vote fragments across four or so candidates in the first round, creating a couple of “kingmaker” candidates (e.g., Provoste and Kast) whose support becomes crucial for the two run-off contenders.

Boric

The Boric camp is confident that the October 2020 constitutional referendum and May 2021 constituent assembly vote reflect a deep public appetite for a complete change in the status quo, which Boric best represents. Boric has been buoyed by the center-left’s troubles. In the primary in which Provoste was confirmed as candidate, participation was a fraction of the 1.7mn turnout for the Apruebo Dignidad primary pitting Boric against Jadue. That suggests many traditional Socialist Party (PS) voters have abandoned the center-left space in favor of Boric. Provoste, who hails not from the PS but from the Christian Democrats (DC), could struggle to win them back. ME-O’s candidacy further threatens to eat into the center-left electorate, as does the fact that the center-right – in the shape of Sichel – is running with its most centrist possible candidate.

Boric’s biggest threat could come from the LDP, which refuses to work with any existing parties, including the FA and PC (which together make up Apruebo Dignidad). However, the LDP is beset by factionalism and disorganization; its constituent assembly bloc has dropped from 26 in July to 19 currently after resignations caused by various arguments. The group’s presidential nomination process was chaotic and divisive. However, after obtaining 16% of the vote in the constituent assembly elections, the LDP’s appeal to anti-establishment sentiment should not be underestimated. Neither should the strength of that sentiment in the electorate.

Sichel

Sichel faces his own risk of being outflanked, though in his case from the right in the shape of Kast, who can appeal to right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) voters, especially those who see Sichel as something of an interloper. However, the Kast factor could be an advantage for Sichel in the run-up to the first-round vote because it means that Sichel does not have to risk undermining his pitch to the centerground by pandering to the right. If Sichel can reach the run-off, he can reasonably assume that right-leaning voters who opted for Kast in the first round would subsequently fall behind him to keep out Boric (or Provoste in a much less likely scenario).

Sichel must also contend with the fact that he is seen as Pinera’s preferred candidate, which is much more of a liability than a strength, not just given Pinera’s low approval ratings, but in the context of a clear regional anti- incumbency trend. Thus, Sichel needs to channel public desire for profound change, make the case that aspects of Chile’s system have worked, and win the votes of those who fear a shift to leftist radicalism – all at the same time. Admittedly, Sichel’s somewhat detached position vis-a-vis the CPM (ex-CV) combined with his relative youth are pluses, but the challenge is significant.

The next three months

Aside from the campaign itself, several factors could influence public opinion and the candidates’ strategies. The pandemic is largely under control, but any new variant that leads to a rise in caseloads could alter the public mood. In Congress, a controversial fourth proposal to allow people to tap their retirement savings is under discussion. Finally, debates in the constituent assembly – and how the presidential candidates react to them – could also shape the race.

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