World News

Chile Votes in Bitterly Divisive Presidential Election

Posted December 17, 2017 1:33 p.m. EST

SANTIAGO, Chile — Voters across Chile began casting ballots in a tight presidential runoff Sunday morning, choosing between a center-left candidate and a billionaire former president, and deciding whether to reverse years of economic and political overhauls.

The election pits Alejandro Guillier, 64, a journalist and sociologist of the center-left coalition New Majority, against former President Sebastián Piñera, 68, of the rightist Chile Vamos. Guillier favors continuing the changes put in place by the current president, Michelle Bachelet, while Piñera hopes to roll them back.

The two candidates were neck and neck in recent opinion polls, a somewhat surprising turn of events given the results of the first round of the election, on Nov. 19. Piñera obtained 36 percent of votes that day, compared with 22 percent for Guillier; 20 percent for Beatriz Sánchez, of the leftist coalition Frente Amplio that was founded early this year; and 8 percent for José Antonio Kast, a far-right champion of the Pinochet dictatorship.

The top two contenders in the first round, where turnout was below 50 percent, were eligible for the runoff. They have spent the past few weeks trying to reach out to voters on extreme ends of the political spectrum, in addition to voters closer to the center.

Chile’s presidential election is the first in a series that will alter the political trajectory of Latin America. Voters in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay will elect presidents in 2018.

“Chile is helping kick off a year of important elections throughout the region, and many of the divides seen there will be repeated in their own way in the races to come,” said Shannon K. O’Neil, a Latin America expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Today’s election pits not just the left versus right for the presidency, but also reflects a lighter version of the insider-outsider drama that is developing in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil.”

Although Guillier did not include all of Frente Amplio’s demands in his platform, many of the coalition’s top leaders have said they would vote for him to prevent a conservative, pro-business Piñera presidency that would roll back what they see as social gains over the past few years.

Under Bachelet’s leadership, taxes on large corporations were raised to finance free higher education for low-income students; abortion in some circumstances was legalized; union rights were strengthened; and a new electoral system allowed minority parties and independent politicians greater representation in Congress.

Bachelet also set in motion overhauls to replace the Pinochet-era constitution and change the private pension system.

“Bachelet unlocked the constraints put in place during dictatorship and the years of transition,” said Roxana Pey, a spokeswoman and coordinator for Guillier. “Her reforms have made Chile more democratic and fair, and have inaugurated a new political period in our country, in which people have more rights and participation in decision-making. Guillier will continue this legacy.”

But much of this, according to the Piñera camp, has scared off investors and sent Chile’s economy on a downward spiral. Piñera has called the government “irresponsible and incompetent” for multiplying the public debt, and he has promised to reverse some of these changes and to jump-start the economy by reducing state bureaucracy, offering incentives to investors, reducing taxes on corporate earnings and spending more on infrastructure projects.

But Piñera has also hardened his line to cater to the far-right followers of Kast. He has vowed to halt the same-sex marriage bill Bachelet introduced, and he wants to improve conditions for military officers imprisoned for crimes against humanity.

He has described a future Guillier presidency as one dominated by the “extreme left” that would further derail a slow-growing economy, already hampered by the low international price of copper, Chile’s main export.

Many view the fact that center and leftist candidates captured a total of 42 percent of the vote in November as a stamp of approval for Bachelet’s policies and a sign they should be continued. But Roberto Funk, a political scientist at the University of Chile, cautioned that might not be the case.

“Guillier only got 22 percent,” he said, “and the Frente Amplio votes were not in support of Bachelet’s reforms, but rather in protest of the New Majority and how it has handled them.”

Critics on the left consider Bachelet’s overhauls too modest or ill designed, while the right, including business leaders, say they ruined the economy. The president has also been accused of lacking strength and leadership, criticism her supporters regard as sexist.

Bachelet is leaving office with relatively low approval rates, a far cry from the 80 percent she enjoyed after ending her first term in 2010, when she handed the presidential sash to Piñera.

Whoever wins the election Sunday will have a difficult time passing legislation to advance their policies, as neither coalition will have a majority in Congress. The November election — which also renewed the lower house of Parliament and half the Senate — changed Chile’s political landscape. For the first time since the country’s return to democracy in 1990, with the appearance of the Frente Amplio, politics will not be dominated by the same two coalitions, and the composition of Congress will be younger, more female and politically diverse.

The election also meant the demise of the centrist Christian Democrats, once one of Chile’s largest parties, which lost considerable seats in Congress and whose presidential candidate obtained less than 6 percent of the vote.

The country owes its new political makeup to changes Bachelet pressed, including gender parity in parties’ lists of candidates, a more representative electoral system and tighter controls on campaign finance.

But it is also a sign of traditional parties and politicians losing credibility as a result of recent corruption cases that have revealed illegal campaign financing, bribery, influence-peddling and illicit ties between big business and politics.