2013 Chile pre-election report: Bachelet will likely win, but watch the legislative results

Published in The Monkey Cage

The upcoming 2013 Chilean presidential election will be the sixth since the return of democracy in 1989. The first four elections (1989, 1993, 1999 and 2005) were won by the Concertación coalition, made up by center-left Christian Democrats and Socialists. The last election (2009) was won by the Alianza coalition, made up by two right-wing parties. At the time of the next election, the Concertación will have governed a combined 20 years while the incumbent Alianza will have governed four years. As in all previous elections, the Concertación and the Alianza will have the highest odds of electing the president.

The incumbent Alianza coalition, led by former senator and entrepreneur Sebastián Piñera, approaches the election with an extremely low chance of remaining in power. Piñera’s presidential approval ratings are the lowest any president has had since the transition to democracy. Figure 1 shows that Piñera’s popularity is significantly lower than any of the four preceding presidents’ ratings. The massive protests that lasted nearly two straight years (from 2011 to 2012) — demanding a new Constitution, among other things — have been signaled as the major factor behind his unpopularity.

Figure: Kenneth Bunker/The Monkey Cage

The main adversity that the Alianza faces, however, is the extremely low vote intention that it obtains in pre-election polls. Part of the reason is the dramatic process that the coalition undertook to nominate its candidate. In November 2012, former cabinet minister Laurence Golborne was nominated as the coalition hopeful. Yet, six months into his campaign, party members decided to discard his candidacy. In June 2013, his successor, Pablo Longueira, won the coalition’s primary election against Andrés Allamand, but resigned two weeks in. In July 2013, the third and final nomination went to Evelyn Matthei.

When compared to the Concertación candidate, ex-president Michelle Bachelet, Matthei is hardly competitive. In the most recent poll released to the media conducted by the prestigious think tank CEP, Bachelet topples Matthei by 44 percent to 12 percent. Bachelet’s lead is said to be a result of the high approval ratings that she obtained towards the end of her administration. But it is clearly a factor of the low approval ratings for Piñera and the dramatic nomination process his coalition went through to nominate its candidate. Figure 2 shows Bachelet’s margin of favoritism in all of the polls conducted since 2011.

Figure: Kenneth Bunker/The Monkey Cage

At this point, everything seems to indicate that Bachelet will be returned to the presidency. The large and consistent lead she has enjoyed in pre-election polls makes it reasonable to assume that if she does not win in the first round (in which an absolute majority of the vote is required), she will win in the runoff. It is precisely for that reason that the spotlight of the upcoming election will not be the result of the presidential election. In contrast to previous elections, the spotlight will be on the result of the concurrent legislative election, in which half of the senators (20) and all of the congressmen (120) are to be elected.

The legislative election is important for Bachelet’s presidential agenda. The highlight of her candidacy has been the promise to change the current Constitution (put in place by the military dictatorship, 1973-1990). To follow through, however, she must garner a legislative majority large enough to meet the extraordinarily high quorum required in Congress to pass that type of legislation. Bachelet needs at least two-thirds, three-fifths or four-sevenths (depending on the magnitude of the reform) of both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies to conduct constitutional reform.

The problem is that while Bachelet’s legislative list may reach any of the given thresholds in the percentage of votes cast the in the election, the current electoral system does not translate voter preferences into an equal percentage of seats. The binomial electoral system (coined because of its two-seat across-the-board proportional representation arrangement for both Senate and lower chamber elections) only allows the most popular list in each district to take both seats available if it doubles the vote of the second most popular list. This has only happened five times in races for the Senate (of 132 possible) and 47 times in races for the lower chamber (of 360 possible).

For Bachelet to obtain a significant majority, her coalition needs to double the second most-voted list in four to seven senatorial districts and in nine to 20 lower chamber districts (depending on the quorum). Though the electoral force of the Alianza is at its lowest popularity levels since 1989 and Bachelet’s popularity is likely to generate a coattail effect and optimize the result of her legislative list, it is still an unlikely result. Even considering the new voluntary voting scheme (adopted in 2012), which works against unpopular incumbents, evidence stemming from previous elections indicates that the electoral system will work against overly large majorities.

The forthcoming presidential and legislative election will naturally frame the next government. But they will do more than just decide who will be the future president: The concurrent election will go a long way in forecasting the governability of the country during the next four-year term. If Bachelet is elected to the presidency with the legislative majority to undertake constitutional reform, voters will feel paid back insofar as changes are implemented. However, if Bachelet is elected without any of the aforementioned majorities, it is likely that she will face turmoil similar to the one Piñera has endured in the past three years.

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