The clearest winner in Chile’s 2016 municipal elections was abstention, and that is bad news for all parties, left and right.

Municipal elections in Chile are often used as an indicator to measure how well traditional parties will fare in the following years’ parliamentary and presidential elections. During the latest elections ― held on October 23 ― Chileans voted for their alcaldes (mayors) and concejales (council members), varying between six, eight, or ten total local representatives, depending on the size of the population within the municipality.

The high rate of abstention in these elections isn’t surprising given the national polling data showing a steady decline in public confidence in government institutions and parties over the past two decades. According to the latest Servel figures, the 2016 municipal elections reached a 65 percent abstention level — a new historic high. The 35 percent participation rate for 2016’s municipal election is down from 43.2 percent in 2012.

In 2011, modifications to Chile’s electoral system instituted automatic voter inscription and the voluntary vote, following nearly a century ofobligatory voting. Taking these high abstention figures as simply a sign of voter apathy would be a mistake. Similarly, making an argument for a return to compulsory voting in order to increase participation also misses the point. At the center of the problem of abstention is the perceived failure of both the right and the left to implement reforms to create a more inclusive democracy and an equitable development model.

The economic transformation imposed by the military regime after the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende altered the country’s political system. Allende’s model of mass participation and egalitarian politics was replaced with a political style guided by consensus among politicians and by technocratic mediation. The center-left Concertación coalition governed for the majority of the transition to democracy and, to its credit, made important modifications and reforms while maintaining economic growth rates that were among the highest in the hemisphere. Yet the underlying neoliberal development model has gone unchanged, while Chile continues to be listed as the most unequal developed country in the OECD.

Falling confidence in the center-left’s consensus politics, as well as its internal disunity and fragmentation, opened the way in 2010 for the ascendancy of Sebastian Piñera, Chile’s first elected right-wing president. Piñera’s popularity momentarily peaked at 63 percent during the rescue of 33 trapped miners in October 2010, and then dramatically fell to 26 percent after the popular uprisings in August 2011, according to reported surveys. The rise in mass mobilizations, especially the 2011 student protests, reawakened segments of the population that had been affected negatively by the extension of “free market” principles to educationhealth carethe pension system and labor.

In that context, during the 2013 presidential race, the center-left Concertación sought to renovate itself by adopting the demands of popular sectors and by forming a new political platform promising significant reforms. The coalition refashioned itself as the Nueva Mayoria (New Majority), by incorporating many of the leading student actors from 2011 and previously excluded leftist and independent parties, such as the Communist Party. In order to understand the high abstention rate and current unpopularity of this new coalition it’s necessary to examine further the economic and political developments of Michelle Bachelet’s second term.

Bachelet was re-elected with 62 percent of the vote. Of the 56 reform measures she promised within the first 100 days in office, 41 were instituted. A series of scandals and a slowing economic growth rate forced Bachelet to scale back the ambitions of her reform projects. Chilean annual GDP growth had averaged 5 percent between 1990 and 2014, but there are signs that the economy has been slowing. With annual growth expected at 1.9 percent in 2016 (down from 2.1 percent in 2015), the fall in demand and price of copper could be partly to blame.

A number of high-profile corruption investigations have also compromised Bachelet’s reform agenda. The uncovering of a web of illegal campaign contributions by business interests tarnished the public perception of Chile’s political class. The “Pentagate” case, as it is known,is smaller in scale than Brazil’s “car wash” scandal; however it has been equally disastrous in damaging the image of nearly all major Chilean political parties. While Bachelet has not been personally implicated in these scandals, her son and daughter-in-law have faced investigations over a $10 million loan they received to finance a speculative land purchase.

The lack of confidence in Chile’s democratic model was reflected in the latest Latinobarometro survey, an annual study that observes the development of democracy in Latin America. Second only to Brazilians’, Chileans’ confidence in democracy dropped the most dramatically in the region: 11 percentage points since 2015. As of late 2016, public approval of Chile’s legislature is below 10 percent, while Bachelet’s rating has plummeted from a high of 56 percent in April 2014 to a record low of 18 percent in September 2016 (which rose slightly to 24 percent in late October as reported by Adimark surveys).

Criticism of Bachelet’s second term has been vocal from both the right and the left. While conservatives argue that many of her reform projects are too ambitious, the left considers them insufficient. Take education reform: the tax reform passed in 2014 sought to finance the extension of free tuition to the most economically vulnerable sector of students by raising taxes on corporate and capital income. The right argued that this would drive foreign investment out of Chile, while the student movement criticized the reform project for not tackling the fundamental issue of ending the profit motive in Chile’s education system. For the left, Bachelet’s re-election was predicated on the hope of progressively restructuring Chile’s institutions; many think she simply has not done enough.

The 2016 municipal elections were marked by controversy. Servel, which is tasked with overseeing the election and voter registry, instituted limits on the ability of candidates to reach out to voters. Air time for candidates was restricted and financial penalties were put in place to limit the use of campaign propaganda in certain public spaces. Servel’s restrictions, according to some critics, are partly to blame for the lower rates of participation. Then, less than a week before the election, Servel mistakenly reassigned half a million voters to the wrong localities. The government attempted to fix the error while Servel blamed the civil registry. However, days before the election, thousands of voters were still registered in municipalities where they didn’t reside, potentially affecting some of the most contested races. Evidently, reforms designed to improve the electoral system have flaws in both their design and implementation.


Two of the key races used to forecast presidential election outcomes are the cities of Santiago and Providencia, where the right-wing Chile Vamoscoalition won against a fragmented list of left-wing candidates. The victory of Evelyn Matthei, who lost the presidential bid in 2013, and of Felipe Alessandri, is seen by some as a positive sign for former president Sebastian Piñera ― who’s poised to be one of the leading contenders in the 2017 presidential elections.

Though Reuters and The Wall Street Journal are quick to characterize the election outcome as a decisive victory for the right, a closer look at the numbers shows that the two major right-wing parties experienced the largest proportional net losses in voters compared to the municipal elections just four years ago. The UDI, which was at the center of the Pentagate scandal, lost 15 percent of their voter base, while Pinera’s Renovación Nacional (RN) party lost 12 percent. In fact, every major party in the two coalitions, with the exception of the Communist Party, had a net loss in votes based on a comparison of Servel figures from 2012 and 2016. Bachelet’s Socialist Party lost over 160,000 votes (8 percent), the Christian Democratic Party lost over 350,000 votes (11 percent), and former president Ricardo Lagos’ Party for Democracy lost 90,000 votes (6 percent). Independent candidates as a whole were the only other bloc to gain significant support, going from 11 percent to 17 percent of the vote in 2016 as compared to 2012.

The right-wing coalition Chile Vamosnow holds 144 alcaldes (39 percent) while New Majority has 141 (38 percent). For concejales, Chile Vamos has 41 percent of the total council members and New Majority has 47 percent. Given the fact that there was a 65 percent abstention rate and no nominally outstanding win for the right, it’s quite difficult to resolutely declare a victory for either coalition bloc. More importantly, the net loss of actual votes for both the traditional left and right parties should be a cause of concern.

The most surprising outcome of the October 23 vote was Jorge Sharp’s victory in the port city of Valparaiso. A citizens’ primary nominated the then largely unknown figure (outside of university politics and activist circles) by a slim 38 votes, in an effort to break the duopoly of the establishment coalitions. In the three-way race Sharp, a 31-year-old lawyer, beat the right-wing incumbent, and a New Majority-backed candidate with over 50 percent of the votes.

Sharp’s candidacy was backed by a strong grassroots citizens’ movement organized under the name Pacto Urbano de La Matriz. His victory even led The Guardian to declare the fomenting of a “quiet revolution” by Chile’s independents. The other two remarkable gains came from the political blocs respectively led by Gabriel Boric and Giorgio Jackson, two former student activists and ― according to CADEM ― among the most positively assessed members of congress. Jackson’s mostly youth-led political movement, Revolución Democrática, nominated for the first time local candidates and won five concejalrepresentatives with over 60,000 votes. Similarly Boric’s Movimiento Autonomista, a voting bloc that Sharp also belongs to, won over 68,000 votes and 11 representatives. Sharp’s first year in Valparaiso will be closely watched as these independents begin forming a broad front to support candidates in 2017.

History may judge Bachelet’s greatest legacy to be electoral reform legislation passed in early 2016. The law eliminates the binomial model ― an electoral system inherited from the military years that entrenched the party duopoly ― and replaces it with a proportional representation model to be unveiled during the 2017 presidential and congressional elections. New restrictions on campaign finance will also eliminate corporate contributions. The modifications, although they didn’t apply to the 2016 municipal elections, will likely provide an additional boost to independent candidacies.

With these results in mind, the 2017 race is not assured for either coalition. The latest polls asking voters about the upcoming elections illustrate meager interest in all candidates currently positioning themselves to run. Piñera continues to be the leading candidate, but is polling with just 20 percent of the electorate. Alejandro Guillier, an independent “antiestablishment” candidate, has seen the greatest jump in poll numbers in just one month, from 5 percent to 15 percent. If either of the two traditional coalitions ultimately seeks to restore confidence in the democratic system, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for them to pay closer attention to the few political movements still able to energize disenchanted sectors of the population to organize and actually vote.