The first televised candidates’ debate took place yesterday, 22 September, ahead of the first round of the presidential election on 21 November. Below we examine the key takeaways:
The polls going into last night’s debate had the leftist Gabriel Boric in first place; Boric is the candidate for the Apruebo Dignidad coalition made up of the Broad Front (FA) and Communist Party (PC). Sebastian Sichel of the center-right governing coalition, which has rebranded itself as Chile Podemos Mas (CP+), has been polling second to Boric. Competing for third place are Yasna Provoste of the center-left coalition now known as New Social Pact (NPS) and the ultra-conservative Jose Antonio Kast (Republican Party). Polls all point to considerable voter indecision.
The debate is unlikely to dramatically shift the current poll dynamic – at least for the top two:
Boric emerged largely unscathed and will probably remain the frontrunner. His rivals failed to land any significant blows against him and the presence in the debate of a more radical fringe leftist, Eduardo Artes (Patriotic Union), may have helped Boric look more moderate.
Sichel played it relatively safe and focused his efforts on the centerground. Sichel has a somewhat detached relationship with the parties that make up the CP+ and must straddle the difficult line between continuity and change. However, the presence of Kast on the ballot could be an advantage because it means that Sichel can court centrist voters and leave his pitch to the Right until the run-off campaign, assuming he makes it through to the 19 December vote. A big test of Sichel’s influence over his own coalition will come next week when another vote allowing people to withdraw more of their savings from the private pension (AFP) system takes place in the lower house; Sichel has instructed CP+ legislators not to back the initiative.
Provoste struggled at times and failed to hurt Boric, who is attracting support form the Socialist Party (PS), which notionally belongs to the Provoste-led center-left coalition. During the debate, Provoste came out in support of the fourth pension withdrawal proposal, which fails to differentiate her from Boric and allows Sichel to paint himself as the responsible anti-populist. Unless she can engineer a sea-change in her campaign, it is possible that the once-dominant center-left coalition withers away with this election, eclipsed by Apruebo Dignidad and the new political currents born in the 2019 unrest and now visible in the constituent assembly.
Kast put in a strong performance and could see the biggest bounce following the debate. The challenge for Kast – as ever – is that there is a limit to how much he can grow given his ultra-conservative views on abortion, family values, and the need for a small state.
What to watch:
The debate over a fourth pension withdrawal will inevitably have an impact on the race, even if the government is trying to settle the issue as soon as possible to avoid electoral pressures swaying CP+ legislators. The issue is not straightforward for Boric either given his flip-flopping. The constituent assembly will also shape the campaign. Specifically, the ongoing debate over the two-thirds majority requirement continues to create noise; note that the PC continues to oppose the rule that all articles must be approved by a two- thirds majority, which could put Boric under pressure.