The primaries produced some surprises. Not just related to participation but also to the candidates. This is the continuity of social change dynamics that gathered force in October 2019.
First things first. Forecasts projected low turnout for the primaries, at most two million votes. One reason for that prediction was expected exhaustion after several electoral processes in succession, many rescheduled due to the pandemic. Other reasons were low participation in the recent second round of governors’ elections and a history of low primary participation.
But ever since the plebiscite of November 2020, in which the change to the Constitution was approved by 80% with a turnout of over 50%, Chileans have left the elite astonished. Not only because the primary vote far exceeded expectations, but because the result shattered all forecasts from the pollsters and most analysts.
Considering that the center-left – Christian Democratic Party, Socialist Party, Party for Democracy and Radical Party – did not participate in the primaries, the truth is that the right vote has collapsed during the last two years. It did badly in the plebiscite, in the mayoral, councilor and conventional constitution elections. In fact, the Broad Front-Communist Party list obtained more votes than the right combined. Gabriel Boric and Daniel Jadue obtained more votes individually than Sebastián Sichel, who won as an independent running for Chile Vamos coalition.
Signs that the pollsters’ favorites, Jadue and Joaquín Lavín of Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party, may have a hard time to maintain their leadership in reality emerged recently, although both had been leading in all polls for over a year. Did the polls fail? Of course, especially the one from Cadem, which is publicly most exposed but methodologically flawed.
Still, the question remains why both candidates led for such a long time but ultimately lost.
Campaigning on social networks was crucial during the last leg of the race. I also believe that the televised debates contributed to this turnaround, which was unthinkable a month ago.
Joaquín Lavín, running for the third time for the top job, was busy distancing himself from his party, which is home to many dictatorship nostalgics.
Breaking with party paradigm, he supported the mass mobilizations that started in October 2019, and the pension fund withdrawals which aimed at the heart of the dictatorship-imposed economic system. His party tolerated Lavín’s maneuvers because he was seen as the best option to succeed Sebastián Piñera. This freedom also allowed him to connect with a pandemic-stricken population.
But in the debates, he sharpened his conservative and religious profile. Perhaps he wanted to target his toughest constituency, or it was simple honesty, but his opposition to marriage equality proved fatal.
His other three competitors were much less dogmatic, moving away from the right of yesteryear. Lavín appeared in the debates as a lonely conservative, out of step with the modern country that has emerged. After the debates, Lavín slumped and Sichel rose.
The independent cultivates a liberal image. He’s a former Christian Democrat and showed flexibility, sympathy and especially an understanding of the country.
Jadue was confident and is a professional public performer but unable to break with party dogmatism. During the debates he became testy with journalists and even broke a non-aggression pact with Boric.
The Broad Front candidate, in turn, was calm and charismatic, but firm in his arguments. Voters evidently empathized with him.
A New Cycle
But beyond the mistakes of the poll frontrunners, it’s clear a political cycle has ended. Independent of his high-level political and business community support, Sichel reprimanded the traditional right, that of the elite cherishing traditions, for being out of step with the new reality.
Boric, for his part, showed that signing the transversal pact of November 2019 was the right choice. He was the only one in the Broad Front-Communist Party coalition who supported the agreement which prevented societal collapse and paved the way for the constitutional plebiscite. Boric also filled the void the disconnected Socialist Party leadership had left.
The triumph of both candidates reinforces the social dynamics set in motion in October 2019, doing away with the post-dictatorship elite consensus. Both are part of a new cycle that seems to be changing leadership and the rules of the political game.
They are young, detached from traditional parties while being aware of the importance to remain connected with the public through social media and image management.
The Electoral Scenario
What’s next? A negotiation process begins to define the alliances and proposals for the presidential elections. The traditional parties will have to deeply reflect and try to adapt to social change – or become extinct.
The right will be divided between Sichel and José Antonio Kast, an outspoken pinochetista who will try to capture UDI party’s most conservative voters. On the left, candidates with more or less equal profiles will compete for the same voters.
Just four months before the presidential elections and for the first time in 32 years it is entirely unclear who could emerge victorious.
Germán Silva Cuadra is an expert in corporate communications and a regular commentator on Chilean politics. His latest book is ‘No te reconozco Chile. Cómo entender al país que noqueó a la elite.’ Germán tweets under @gsilvacuadra.