Piñera Wins Chile’s Presidential Election
Posted December 17, 2017 6:51 p.m. EST
Updated December 17, 2017 6:53 p.m. EST
SANTIAGO, Chile — Chileans on Sunday gave former President Sebastián Piñera a new term in office, rejecting his opponent’s call to build on the social and economic changes set in motion by the incumbent, Michelle Bachelet.
Piñera’s victory marks the latest shift to the right in a region that until recently was largely governed by leftist leaders who rose to power promising to build more egalitarian societies.
Piñera, a 68-year-old billionaire who governed Chile from 2010 to 2014 — having been both preceded and succeeded by Bachelet — moved to the right politically as he campaigned for a second term in this deeply polarized nation.
His victory appeared inevitable during the early months of the race. But the contest tightened considerably. After the first round of voting on Nov. 19, Alejandro Guillier, 64, a former journalist and sociologist who vowed to build on Bachelet’s reform agenda, emerged as the second candidate in the runoff.
Chile’s presidential election is the first in a series that may 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.”
Throughout the race, many voters in Chile expressed deep dissatisfaction with the political establishment and described their choice as one between the lesser of two evils.
“We lack a person that sparks enthusiasm in the country,” said Julio Salviat, a university professor and former sports journalist. “We’re voting for the least bad one, not the best. We’re at a crossroads we shouldn’t be in.”
Julio Preusser, 90, an engineer, agreed, but said he had come to see Piñera as the most palatable.
“Guillier lacks a significant political trajectory,” he said. “I don’t know how he got to where he is. Piñera is better prepared. I don’t quite like him, but he’s the least bad.”
Some Chileans expressed concern that Piñera’s policies would benefit wealthy Chileans at the expense of the middle class, which expanded during the Bachelet era, and the poor.
“The middle class is always on the losing end, and with his victory there will be an economic project for those who have resources,” said Verónica Soto, a nurse at a public hospital. “It will absolutely be a pro-business government.”
After performing more poorly than polls suggested he would in the first round, Piñera made overtures to the far right, a small but animated base. José Antonio Kast, a conservative candidate and a champion of the Pinochet dictatorship, got almost 8 percent of the vote.
Piñera promised to halt the same-sex marriage bill Bachelet introduced in August and said he would improve the conditions of military officers serving sentences for crimes against humanity.
He warned that Guillier would empower the “extreme left,” derailing an economy that has been growing slowly and is grappling with the low international price of copper, Chile’s main export.
Yet, the left retains substantial appeal in Chile. Center and leftist candidates captured a total of 42 percent of the vote in November, although some factions felt Bachelet’s reforms didn’t go far enough.
Guillier won 22 percent of the vote during the first round. Beatríz Sánchez, a former journalist who led the leftist Frente Amplio coalition, exceeded expectations, coming a close third with 20 percent of the vote.
“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,” said Roberto Funk, a political scientist at the University of Chile.
The vote appears to mark the end of the political career of Bachelet, a transformative leader who championed women’s rights at home and abroad and set in motion sweeping economic and social reforms.
She will leave office in March as the last woman leading a government in the Americas.
Under Bachelet’s leadership, higher taxes were levied on large corporations to pay for free higher education for low-income students; abortion in some circumstances was legalized; and union rights were strengthened.
And a new electoral system approved during her government loosened the grip on political power that traditional parties enjoyed, opening the door to greater participation by minority parties, women and independents.
Bachelet also set in motion a process to reform the Pinochet-era constitution and the private pension system.
Piñera accused her government of scaring off investors, deepening the public debt and sending Chile’s economy on a downward spiral. He promised to reverse some of these changes and to jump-start the economy by reducing state bureaucracy, offering incentives to investors, lowering taxes on corporate earnings and spending more on infrastructure projects.
His government, however, will face significant hurdles in Congress, where his coalition of parties did not win a majority in the November elections.
As of March, 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.