SANTIAGO – Since the first democratic election following the end of dictatorship in 1988, voter turnout in Chile has been steadily dropping. Yet, starting with the pivotal plebiscite vote in April, 2020 is set to be a year of elections. The Electoral Service is encouraging increased campaigning to raise awareness and get the population to vote.
Starting with the referendum on Apr. 26, Chileans might have four opportunities to vote this year. Following the plebiscite, municipal primary elections will be held in June, and the elections for mayors, councilors, and governors are scheduled for October. And if, as polls predict, the “Apruebo” (approve) vote wins in April, another vote on the constitution will take place later in the year. Yet, average Chilean voters are also notoriously apathetic.
The Challenge to Democracy
The 1988 plebiscite vote sparked an 85% turnout, suggesting voters believed in the power of their vote to get rid of the dictatorship. Since then, however, turnout has been steadily falling, barely reaching 46% in the 2017 presidential elections.
In 2013, half a million citizens less cast a vote than in 1999, even though the number of eligible voters grew in line with the population. This represents a problem since only a rather small percentage brings a government to power.
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Low voter turnout in a society that shows interest in social matters through public protests, can be explained with disenchantment. Lower-class and rural citizens feel alienated by Chile’s rich political leaders; President Piñera is one of the country’s richest persons. This disenchantment also affects younger generations, which have a chance to become middle class. A CEP poll in 2016 found that almost 60% of Chileans – mostly young adults – do not identify with any party. It is increasingly clear that students who have been on the forefront of the protests since October, see other methods as more effective in achieving political change; 54% of secondary school students are more likely to engage in illegal methods of expressing their opinion than in institutional methods, such as voting.
The main problem with such low turnout is that those who don’t vote have the most to lose. Students, LGBTQ+, and indigenous communities are among those who feel the most alienated, while these groups have also been the most active in the protests. Yet, voting has no real alternative.
Electoral Service Servel suggested more airtime on radio and television should be used to educate citizens about the electoral process and to encourage them to vote. Servel chief Patricio Santamaría said the watchdog will “ensure the exercise of direct democracy to which it has been called” and make the process transparent so voters can understand how their vote counts.
The intensity of the protests and consistently high public support for them suggest citizens are motivated and interested in the country’s politics. As the Apruebo- and Rechazo campaigns heat up, the most important aspect in determining who wins will be who gets voters into the booths.
Editor-In-Chief Boris van der Spek is the founder of Chile Today. He worked in Colombia, Surinam and the Netherlands as reporter and works with international media during major events, like the social crisis, the elections and the Pope’s visit.