Kenneth Bunker

On November 17, 2013, Chile held its sixth presidential election and seventh legislative election since the return of democracy in 1989.

The first four presidential elections were won by a coalition made up of socialists and Christian democrats (Nueva Mayoría). Initially founded as an opposition front to the authoritarian government, Nueva Mayoría evolved into a powerful center-left electoral machine. Under its umbrella, Patricio Aylwin, Eduardo Frei, Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet were each elected to govern for one term.

Things changed with the fifth presidential election—held in 2009—which marked the demise of the coalition. After twenty years of opposition, the right wing Alianza coalition took power by sweeping into the presidency. Two decades after the transition to democracy, Sebastián Piñera became the first right-winger to be democratically elected since Jorge Alessandri in 1958.

Piñera’s first couple years did not go smoothly. One issue had to do with the fact that the coalition which endorsed his candidacy had little to no experience in the executive branch. Most cabinet ministers appointed to the first cabinet were independents or businessmen from the private sector. This was bound to be a liability if political affairs took a downturn, which they eventually did.

In the midst of the massive student protests of 2011-2012 popular opinion held that Piñera’s government simply could not solve pressing political. According to the well-known polling firm Adimark, the great majority of people did not approve of the president or of his cabinet. In fact, during the turmoil, Piñera plummeted to the lowest approval ratings since the transition to democracy.

Government response was swift. In early 2011, Piñera nominated four incumbent Alianza senators to key cabinet posts. This gave his administration an important boost in political dexterity. Among other things, the new cabinet ministers disembarked with the mission to maintain power past the end of the term. A mean to that objective inevitably involved toppling Bachelet’s potential reelection prospective.

After leaving office in 2010, Bachelet had accepted a post at the United Nations as the Executive Director of UN Women. Based out of New York, she was only able to travel to Santiago a few times in her two-and-a-half year tenure at the UN. Nevertheless, Bachelet maintained the high approval ratings she enjoyed at the end of her presidential term even while she was gone. Her popularity approached an unprecedented 70 percent during  her absence.

The government’s electoral strategy suffered its first major setback in the mid-term local elections of 2012. The symbolic win of the center-left coalition paved the way for a safe return of Bachelet from New York. A new and powerful coalition, in comparison to the old and fatigued coalition that lost the 2009 election, would be her vehicle back in to national politics.

In early 2013 Bachelet accepted to compete in the state-funded primaries scheduled for June that year. As an ex president, and the main alternative to Piñera’s unpopular administration, she hardly needed to campaign against her fellow coalition candidates. She won the primary election with an astonishing 73 percent of the vote. On the first day of July she officially accepted the nomination to be Nueva Mayoría’s presidential hopeful.

Beyond Bachelet’s remarkable return, the 2013 presidential election has been unusual for a number of reasons. Most obviously, this year’s contest marks the first time since Chile’s transition to democracy that the incumbent Alianza will be forced to defend the presidency. The election is also unusual because it will be the first time that nine candidates will compete against each other. In previous elections the number of candidates fluctuated between three (in 1989) and six (in 1999). Interestingly, this election represents the first time that voting will be voluntary. In previous elections it was compulsory. Taken together, the number of candidates and the new voting scheme are bound to add uncertainty to the result.

Still, every indication that Bachelet would regain office proved accurate. National polls showed Bachelet a majority of support, with a comfortable margin of 20 percent over her closest contender, Alianza’s Evelyn Matthei. What remained unclear is where whether Bachelet will win in the first or in the second round of voting. That was cleared up this past week—with 47 percent of the vote to Matthei’s 25 percent, Bachelet was unable to clear the necessary threshold to avoid a second round.

One explanation for Bachelet’s commanding lead in the polls can be found not just in her high approval ratings, but also in the public’s dissatisfaction with Piñera. The messy nomination processthat Alianza undertook to nominate their candidate is also to blame. The center right coalition nominated three candidates in less than a year before finally settling with Matthei, who until recently served as Piñera’s Minister of Labor and Social Security.

In the first six months of 2013, the Alianza saw three former cabinet ministers rise as presidential hopefuls: Laurence Golborne, Andrés Allamand and Pablo Longueira. While Golborne was removed early on in the race, Allamand and Longueira battled it out in the June primaries. Shortly after Longueira beat Allamand, he stepped down claiming health issues. Longueira’s party reluctantly nominated Matthei.

Since it is increasingly likely that Bachelet win the presidential battle against Matthei, the focus of the election has shifted from the final results to Bachelet’s presidential agenda after she wins the presidency. Political analysts’ in the country have focused particularly on whether she will be able to accomplish three major reforms that have driven her campaign: tax reform, education reform and constitutional reform.

The sticking point for each of these reforms is found in the constitutional quorums required to pass them. With respect to tax reform, Chilean law requires only a simple majority of the chamber of deputies and the senate. It gets quite a bit more complicated in the other two areas. In order to reform the education system, 4/7 or 3/5 of the chamber of deputies must support the move, and constitutional reform is more difficult still, demanding quorums of 3/5 or 2/3 of the chamber of deputies and senate.

The latter two majorities have never been met. Those that designed the legislative electoral system purposely engineered a confusing and counterintuitive institution in which parties form coalitions, and coalitions tie in Congress. Despite the fact that though one coalition might win a substantial amount of votes, those votes do not translate directly into seats. Thus, the winning coalition’s ability to govern is blocked by an intentional subvention on behalf of the coalition that fails to win a majority

This intentional distortion makes it highly unlikely that any coalition will account for more than 4/7 of the senators and deputies during the next presidential term (2014-2018). This has particularly harsh implications for Bachelet’s agenda, given that keeping her promises depends directly on reaching the extraordinarily high constitutional quorums. The results could be dire, for Bachelet and her ruling coalition.

Bachelet would be well advised to heed the lessons learned by the current government. Piñera’s abysmal support derives from the high expectations of an electorate that was promised substantial benefits under a conservative government. Piñera’s failure to provide solutions to the problems of  middle and lower class Chileans have led once hopeful voters to side with the opposition. This is a situation that is likely to repeat itself, if Bachelet’s coalition does not win the legislative election with a majority large enough to help the president-elect keep her promises.

Kenneth Bunker is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics.