Chile’s Governing Coalition Stumbles In Municipal Elections

May 10, 2013

President Sebastián Piñera’s center-right Alianza coalition stumbled in municipal elections held late last month throughout Chile, dropping tight mayoral races in several conservative strongholds. But while most pundits and political leaders agree the elections were a “defeat” for the Alianza, few are clear on what the results mean for its traditional rival, the still influential but increasingly fractured Concertación coalition.

The Alianza, a political partnership between the far-right Unión Democrata Independiente (UDI) and more moderate Renovación National (RN), suffered its biggest losses in and around Santiago, Chile’s sprawling capital. The city – home to roughly a third of the country’s population – is divided into several dozen independent municipalities, or comunas.

While the governing coalition retained control in upscale comunas like Las Condes and La Dehesa, it suffered a stinging upset in “the mother of all battles,” as the mayoral race in Santiago Centro was dubbed. Partido por la Democracia (PPD) head Carolina Tohá beat incumbent Pablo Zalaquett (UDI) handily – 50% to 43%, despite trailing in the polls, in some cases by as much as 10%. Tohá, a former deputy, also served briefly as cabinet spokesperson under President Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010). Her come-from-behind victory was all the more surprising given that Alianza mayors have run Santiago for the past dozen years.

“Losing Santiago hurts a lot,” Piñera’s then-government spokesperson, Andrés Chadwick, acknowledged in an interview with Canal 13. “There was a lot of expectation that Pablo Zalaquett would be reelected… This was a case where the polls got it wrong.” Chadwick has since been appointed interior minister, replacing Rodrigo Hinzpeter, who is now minister of defense.

Center-left challengers ousted rightist incumbents in the traditionally conservative Santiago comunas of Providencia and Nuñoa as well. Cristian Labbé (UDI), a retired colonel who served dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) as a member of the regime’s secret police, lost the Providencia race (56% to 43%) to a relatively unknown political independent, 59-year-old community organizer Josefa Errázuriz. “Hate, intolerance and lack of respect have won out,” said Labbé, who refused to congratulate his opponent.

“I’m happy,” he later explained in an interview with La Tercera. “I continue to be a retired colonel. Many people use that against me, making it out to be something pejorative. But for me it’s a tremendous honor.”

Nuñoa Mayor Pedro Sabat (RN) lost his reelection bid by a far narrower margin, falling by fewer than 20 votes to Maya Fernandez Allende, a granddaughter of toppled ex-President Salvador Allende (1970-1973). A democratically elected Marxist, Salvador Allende died during a Sept. 11, 1973 coup that paved the way for Pinochet’s 17-year military dictatorship. Like Labbé, Sabat had held his post for 16 years. The RN is currently demanding a recount.

A “punishing” defeat

With losses also in outlying Santiago districts such as Huechuraba, Recoleta and Independencia, as well as in Concepción, Chile’s second largest city, the Alianza saw its total number of mayorships drop from 144 to 121. Opposition parties, in contrast, upped the number of municipalities they control from 147 to 168. Nationwide, the Alianza won roughly 37% of all mayoral votes cast while the opposition, which was divided into two blocks, won a combined 43%.

The Alianza did win mayoral races in some major municipalities, including in the twin coastal cities of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar, and in populous working class Santiago suburbs La Florida and Puente Alto. Overall, however, the results were a “debacle” for the Alianza, said Puente Alto’s outgoing mayor, Manuel José Ossandón, also an RN vice president. “I think the people awarded the center-left,” he told Radio Cooperativa. “Not that [the opposition] deserved it, since they’ve also done a bad job. But more than anything else [the voters] punished us.”

Most observers agree with Ossandón: the elections were a clear blow for the governing coalition, whose chances of retaining the presidency after Piñera’s term expires – in March 2014 – seem to be growing dimmer by the day. This was the Alianza’s first electoral test since winning the presidency in 2010. By all accounts, it flunked the exam.

“I don’t recall ever seeing such a significant setback for a [governing coalition] in its first election,” political scientist Francisco Javier Díaz told the online news site El Mostrador. “If you look back all the way to the radical governments of the 1930s, the governing parties always won the first election that came up.”

And The Winner Is?

What is not yet clear, however, is who the real victors were. As a whole, the Alianza’s left-leaning opponents fared well. The center-left’s problem, however, is that it no longer is a whole – certainly not in the way it was in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the four-party Concertación dominated national politics, winning four straight presidencies (1990-2010).

The once formidable coalition is by no means dead and buried. And it may well regain the presidency in 2014, especially if ex-President Bachelet chooses to run again. Bachelet, who is currently working in New York City as the head of the UN Women, left office in 2010 with an 80% approval rating. But the Concertación does have some serious problems, both in terms of credibility and cohesion. Even as opinion polls continue to shine on Bachelet, they show crumbling popular support for the coalition as a whole. A September survey by the pollster Adimark estimated approval for Concertación at just 19%, significantly lower than Piñera’s also unpopular Alianza (27%).

The dismal poll numbers have helped exacerbate intra-coalition divisions that began to appear even before Piñera’s victory three years ago. Increasingly, Concertación members are gravitating into two rival camps, with the more centrist Partido Socialista (PS) and Partido Demócrata Cristiano (DC) on one side, and the “progressive” PPD and Partido Radical (PRSD) – which are keen to improve relations with the Partido Comunista (PC) and other left-wing fringe groups – on the other (NotiSur, May 4, 2012).

The split was particularly evident in last month’s municipal elections, when the center-left ran as two separate blocks: the Concertación Democrática, made up of the PS, DC and some independents; and Un Chile Justo, a coalition between the PC, PRSD, PPD and other independents. Together the two blocks “won” the election, earning a combined 43% of all mayoral votes and nearly 50% of city council votes. The Alianza drew 37% and 33% respectively. Separately, however, the two opposition groups actually fared worse than the governing coalition. Concertación Democrática won 30% of mayoral votes and 28% of city council votes, while Un Chile Justo finished with 13% and 22%.

Chile’s political winds appear to be shifting left. But unless the Concertación can better manage its differences, there is no guarantee it will be able to capitalize. Only time will tell, for example, if Carolina Tohá’s surprising victory in Santiago signals a comeback for the Concertación, or whether it emboldens the PPD and Un Chile Justo to keep forging a new left-wing block.

A “real alternative”?

Josefa Errázuriz’s win over Cristian Labbé in Providencia raises similar questions. Errázuriz, a sociologist and former UN worker, received Concertación backing, but ran very much as an independent. Her campaign also enjoyed a real boost from coordinator Giorgio Jackson, a university student who rose to prominence during last year’s student uprising.

According to Carlos Correa, head of a consulting group called Asuntos Públicos de Imaginacción Consultores, the Providencia race was “an epic fight in which the Concertación did not have a leadership role.” Errázuriz’s victory “is proof,” he told El Mostrador, “that the social movements don’t need [the Concertacion] to win. In the Concertación they thought they could embody change, but this goes to show that’s not the case.”

In all likelihood, the still-percolating education reform movement influenced mayoral races in Providencia and elsewhere race long before campaigning even began. At its peak in mid 2011, the student-led education reform movement involved massive street demonstrations that dominated headlines and enjoyed widespread popular support. Right-wing mayors like Labbé, Zalquett and Sabat, nevertheless, backed efforts to crack down on the protests, putting them directly at odds with popular opinion. The left’s emblematic victories in Providencia, Nunoa and Santiago, in other words, may have had as much to do with the incumbents’ records vis-à-vis the student protests as they did with the particular political platforms of the winning candidates.

The movement’s influence was even more evident in Estación Central, a working class comuna located just west of Santiago Centro. There, the students came very close to putting one of their own in office. Movement leader Camilo Ballesteros, representing the PC, came within a hair’s breadth (47.14% versus 48.55%) of unseating the right-wing incumbent, Rodrigo Delgado (UDI).

“The told us that we young people couldn’t bring about change. They told us we’d get 15% of the votes. Today I’d say that the numbers speak for themselves,” Ballesteros told reporters. “We showed that the youth can make history. We showed that we’re a real alterative for bringing about change in this country.”

The Other 61%

And yet of all the numbers that stood out from last month’s elections, perhaps the most striking for Chile’s political pundits was the rate of abstention: 61%, a record high. Overall, some 800,000 fewer people participated in this year’s elections than in the past round of municipal contests, in 2008.

Some analysts had predicted the opposite would be true. Prior to this election, participation was limited to registered voters, who were then required by law to cast their ballots. Registered voters who failed to show up on election day were fined. In an effort to encourage more young people to vote, lawmakers recently dumped the registration requirement. As a result, the number of people eligible to vote for last month’s elections shot up from about 8 million in 2008 to roughly 13.4 million.

But the new laws also made voting voluntary for the first time. In the end, millions of Chileans exercised their newfound right not to vote. At first glance, the electorate seems to be leaning left – at least according to the 39% of eligible voters who participated in the municipal elections. The sample, however, is admittedly small. Without any way of knowing what the other 61% of the electorate thinks, the opposition would do well to keeps its enthusiasm in check.

“There’s a big segment of the population that didn’t vote, that watched this process from afar,” said PRSD head José Antonio Gómez, a senator and possible presidential candidate. “We can’t get too excited. Sure, the people who did vote gave us a majority. But we don’t know how the people who didn’t vote feel.”

(This article originally appeared November, 2012 in LADB)


One comment

  1. Thank you for the clear summary

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