Four years after leaving office as a deeply unpopular leader, Sebastian Piñera is a strong favourite to win Chile’s presidential election on Sunday – though he’s unlikely to avoid a run-off. A flagging economy and other stumbles by the centre-left government of Michelle Bachelet appear to have warmed voters’ memories of Piñera, a billionaire businessman who was plagued by massive protests over inequality and education rights but oversaw consistent economic growth, averaging 5.3 percent yearly, during his term from 2010 to 2014. His election would confirm a shift toward conservative- leaning leaders across Latin America in recent years.
The last comprehensive opinion poll of an uneventful election campaign, in late October, gave Piñera, 67, a 34.5 percent share of the vote in resource-rich Chile, traditionally one of the region’s strongest economies. However, such a tally would leave him well short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off on December 17.
Journalist and Senator Alejandro Guillier, running for the outgoing centre-left coalition, is his closest challenger, but in the same poll, he stood at just 15.4 percent. Another survey by CEP between September and October put Piñera on 44 percent, with Guillier on 20 percent, with six other candidates splitting 20 percent and about 16 percent saying they would abstain or cast blank ballots.
“Piñera is benefitting from strong demand for change, evidenced in President Michelle Bachelet’s low approval ratings, while Guillier is conveying a message of continuity from the current administration. In addition, the centre-left is fragmented between six candidates,” said Maria Luisa Puig of market analysts Eurasia.
Copper slump Bachelet was Chile’s most popular president during her first term, but ended her second as the least popular. She has focused the latter half of her second term on a series of social reforms in the traditionally conservative country, decriminalising abortion in certain cases and introducing a bill to legalise same-sex marriage. But Bachelet, 66, has seen her support wane due to sluggish economic growth and a series of corruption scandals, including one involving her eldest son and her daughter-in-law. In particular, the world’s top copper producer has been hit by lower international prices and demand for the metal that is the backbone of its economy.
Chile recorded its weakest growth in seven years in 2016 at 1.6 percent. Long considered to be most stable and prosperous of Latin American nations, the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, (ECLAC), has forecast growth of 1.5 percent in 2017 and 2.8 percent in 2018.
Piñera has promised to launch an aggressive investment plan to combat the slowdown. The Harvard-educated entrepreneur, with a fortune estimated at US$2.7 billion, is proposing to cut taxes on business to promote growth. The market favourite, the former president also says he would cut corporate taxes to increase investments.
Piñera also looks likely to be aided by splits in the centre-left coalition, many of whose members feel that Bachelet wavered in her promises of profound social changes in labour and education.
The former president will win “because the governments of the left weren’t able to follow on their promises and keep up to the high expectations that they had set up,” said Marcelo Mella, dean of humanities at Chile’s University of Santiago. “People don’t really like Piñera, but they see it as a marriage by convenience. They think Piñera can generate economic growth and employment, thus even if they don’t like him, they seem determined to re-elect him as president in the run-off,” said political scientist and former Buenos Aires Herald columnist Patricio Navia. “People like Bachelet better on the personal level, but they think Piñera makes a better president.”
Whatever the result, the nation’s politically active student population is sure to remain vocal. Students, for example, have demonstrated regularly against Bachelet’s education reform bill which they say does not go far enough in overhauling an expensive and unequal education system that dates back to dictatorship of general Augusto Pinochet. Most experts agree that inequalities are rife in the nation, particularly in education. Guillier, a 64-year-old journalist, has vowed to continue Bachelet’s plan to increase corporate taxes to partly pay for an education overhaul, improvements to the pension and healthcare system and the development of alternative sources of energy to lower investment costs. He has also followed Bachelet’s lead, calling for the rewriting of the Constitution to recognise in law the nation’s indigenous communities and to codify workers’ rights on collective bargaining and strike action.
In general, however, the campaign has failed to animate the electorate, though, partly as a result of a recent electoral law banning campaign adverts in the streets, and drastically limiting campaign spending, which has dampened voter enthusiasm. “This election leaves me cold if I compare it to other times.
There is little atmosphere, people are preoccupied with other things and so we did not see the same effervescence that we normally see in an election,” retired professor Marcos Davila said, as he broke off from reading his newspaper on a Santiago street. Experts predict that Sunday’s turnout could be as low as 40 percent, making it one of the lowest on record.
“Turnout will be key for the electoral outcome, with Piñera potentially winning the election outright if turnout is very low given that his base of support is more likely to vote,” said Eurasia’s Puig. “By the same token, higher than expected turnout from young leftist voters could make the second round much more competitive than recent polls show.”
The elections will also choose 155 members of the Lower House of Congress, with 23 seats are up for grabs Senate. However, analysts said it was unlikely Piñera’s centre-right coalition Chile Vamos will win a majority. That would mean he would have to negotiate with other parties to advance his business-friendly legislative programme, making it less likely his election would lead to a total U-turn from the Bachelet administration.