What to expect from Chile’s local elections

Since Chile doesn’t have congressional mid-term elections, local elections—held almost three years after the presidential contest—serve to measure the popularity of the ruling coalition.

On October 23rd, Chileans will fulfill the ritual of heading to the polls to vote for their local representatives, renewing all elected posts for each of the country’s 345 municipal governments. Though local elections often work as a popular barometer of government performance and anticipate the next general election the next year (November 2017)—the circumstances surrounding this particular election promise to be less a referendum on the incumbent government or the opposition, and more a sign of discontent toward Chile’s traditional politics and parties.

Since Chile doesn’t have congressional mid-term elections, local elections—held almost three years after the presidential contest—serve to measure the popularity of the ruling coalition. This year’s local balloting process doesn’t look good for the incumbent coalition Nueva Mayoría (New Majority), whose members range from the conservative Christian Democratic Party to the leftist Communist Party. Re-elected in 2013 after her first term in office (2006-2010), President Michelle Bachelet’s approval ratings are at an all-time low.

Bachelet’s second presidency has been marked by a series of much needed, but poorly planned, structural reforms—including major changes in tax, educational, and labor legislation. Though Bachelet was elected on a platform that promised reform, the often heavy-handed and isolated means of developing them and rolling them out have alienated even her closest supporters. In August, a poll established that the president’s approval rating stood at 19 percent while her disapproval rating topped out at 77 percent—the worst ever to be recorded for a president in Chile since the country’s transition to democracy in the early 1990s.

Part of the explanation is the troubled state of the Chilean economy. Historically dependent on copper exports, Chile has suffered from the end of the commodity boom—although nothing in comparison to other countries in the region that combined close-to-full dependence on a single commodity with heavy public spending (hint: Venezuela and to a certain extent Ecuador). Chileans had grown accustomed to copper prices that bordered on $3.5 per pound, but by 2016 those prices have fallen to a monthly average of $2.1. With an annual GDP growth of 1.8 and 2.1 percent in 2014 and 2015 and an IMF projected expansion of barely 1.7 percent for 2017, the country’s economic prospects are gloomy. While critics point toward the government’s reforms as the cause of the country’s economic woes, it would be unfair to hold president Bachelet responsible for everything that’s gone wrong. (The negative trends began before she was elected.) Yet, her government has been unable to provide adequate damage control to the economic slowdown, while the poor design and execution of her key reforms have provoked uncertainty, thus hindering the possibility of boosting growth.

Bachelet has also faced a series of political scandals, many of which involve members of her political coalition and even her family. The president took a direct hit after local media reported that her son and daughter-in-law were embroiled in shady dealings. In the scandal, they allegedly used inside information and property speculation to their benefit, as well as receiving a questionable $10 million loan after they personally met with the owner of Chile’s biggest bank. Though Bachelet was not directly involved in the fraudulent businesses deal and she voluntarily testified as a witness in the case—currently under investigation by local prosecutors—the slow reaction to the scandal and the lack of self-criticism have permanently damaged the president’s most valuable political asset: her credibility among voters.

The combination of a strained economy, poorly planned reforms, and political scandals have taken their toll on both the president and government’s performance. Such a dim scenario would normally translate into a likely loss for the incumbent coalition and a win for the opposition. Yet, in this case the grass is not greener on the other side. The opposition has not been immune to problems of its own making. One of the founding members of the conservative Independent Democratic Union, the main opposition party, is currently under nocturnal house arrest and being investigated for corruption and bribery. This is just one of numerous political scandals that are plaguing the opposition and include tax fraud and irregular financing of political campaigns.

With neither the incumbent coalition nor the opposition in particularly good standing with voters, one hypothesis is that they could turn en masse to non-traditional parties. Yet, many of those political alternatives continue to be small, particularistic and narrowly based parties.

Ultimately, the biggest loser from these series-of-unfortunate events is Chile’s hard-earned democracy. Situated in a scenario were the two main political alternatives are unappealing at best and the other parties lack national standing, voters will likely choose to stay at home on Election Day. (Voting is no longer mandatory in Chile.) The same occurred in the 2012 local elections, when barely 40 percent of voters went to the polls. Though turnout-rates tend to be lower for local elections than the general election, the ghost of a higher abstention rate looms in the horizon. In these elections and likely future ones, politicians will face the difficult task of appealing to voters and regaining their trust.

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