Constitutional Process NATIONAL OPINION

The Weekend that Upended Chilean Politics

Last weekend a watershed election took place. Despite low turnout, those who voted opted for profound change. The result is a deathblow to the political system and a slap in the face of established politics.

They’re still shellshocked. They don’t quite understand what happened. Neither the government, nor the ruling coalition, nor the ex-Concertación left.

The signal from voters was so powerful that it was not even possible to analyze what caused the drop of 10 percentage points in participation, compared to the plebiscite in October.

But low turnout was surely also a way of protesting a political system that showcased all its deficiencies from the social outbreak on Oct. 18, 2019 onwards. It is no coincidence that in the lowest income areas of Santiago barely 15% voted, versus the high turnout in the more affluent sectors.

What Happened?

President Sebastián Piñera came out on Sunday night, finally saying what he should have said and done a long time ago. He said voters had spoken clearly and that it was time to listen to their demands and concerns. Many headaches could have been avoided if this had happened a few months earlier, perhaps during the debate on the pension fund withdrawals, which the government opposed but many relied on for survival. The president looked haggard, just as the ministers standing behind him and who were surely thinking that their days in these positions were numbered.

The defeat of the right was resounding. Not even in the worst-case scenario did its representatives imagine being so well below one-third threshold necessary to block progressive initiatives in the Constitutional Convention. Only one rightwing governor was elected while even rightwing strongholds like Santiago Center, Maipú district, or Viña del Mar swung left.

Also, nobody predicted the blow independents delivered. Election law is so well stacked against them that winning 48 seats in the Constitutional Convention amounts to a miracle. The best example was the People’s List, formed by non-professionals and characters like ‘Aunt Pikachu,’ which was projected to not gain a single seat. It won 22 of the 155.

Things went badly for the parties of the former New Majority and former Concertación leftwing coalitions too.

Once Chile’s largest party, the Christian Democrats barely won a seat in the Convention. It was overtaken by the Approve Dignity list, formed by new left parties of the Broad Front coalition, which gained lots of Constituent seats and won big in the urban districts and the regions.

The elections resurrected the Broad Front. The coalition was marked by divisions but seems to have learned its lesson and enjoys a second chance. And the outstanding results for the Communist Party, beaten and despised by the other traditional parties, show that voters trust the communists more than the elite believes or would like.

Read more:

Chile Rejects Coalition and Former Ruling Class in Surprising Election Result

The Road Ahead

Undoubtedly, the new style in politics will be different to the one of the last 30 years. This logic of two large left and right blocks that prevented the entry of other forces has ended. The more moderate opposition will have to deeply reflect and figure out when it stopped understanding the citizenry and why its candidates did not even win 5%.

On May 18, the deadline to register candidates for the primaries expired, and the truth is that this sector should recognize that its candidates don’t stand a chance. In fact, the polls signal Senate president Yasna Provoste, a Christian Democrat, as the only one who could unite the entire center-left. The problem? Provoste doesn’t want to run and Ximena Rincón will be the Christian Democrat´s candidate.

Gabriel Boric, a Broad Front leader, knows he has more options now than a week ago. And if he gets the signatures required to register as primary candidate, he should run for the Approve Dignity list because the elections shattered any dreams of a grand primary of the entire opposition. What could the former New Majority coalition parties contribute? Almost nothing.

Communist Daniel Jadue, who’s also running for president, could fortify his position. He was reelected with 64% as mayor of Santiago’s Recoleta district, plus the great result delivered by his Broad Front coalition partners. After the weekend, Jadue emerged as clear presidential frontrunner.

The Losers

The opposition party that was battered most is the Humanist Party, represented by firebrand Pamela Jiles. She forged her reputation by pushing the 10% pension fund withdrawals, which also seem to be her only policies. A fierce populist, she boosted her partner as governor of Metropolitan region – and failed miserably. At least populism doesn’t seem to be an unstoppable force.

On the right, Joaquín Lavín, still the mayor of Santiago’s Las Condes district, will have a rocky road ahead. Just weeks ago, he seemed the sure bet for the country’s top job, but now he must become even more pragmatic to win the race and votes from across the political spectrum.

Chile has buried a phase of its politics. In less than 10 years, collusion, illegal financing of politics, and inequality have worn out citizens.

This is the end of an era; the end of the long 30-year transition. A new cycle is coming, in which independents, but also the spirit that fueled the social uprising of Oct. 18, 2019 will be reflected in a new Constitution. Post-Pinochetism is over.

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