Bachelet wins, but reforms on standby

Prepared for LSE IDEAS Blog

On November 17 2013, Chile held its sixth presidential election since the return of democracy in 1989. Since none of the nine presidential candidates received an absolute majority of the vote, the two top contenders will face off in a second round. On December 15, former president Michelle Bachelet will meet former cabinet minister Evelyn Matthei in a runoff election. Bachelet will represent the centre-left wing coalition’s attempt to regain control of government, and Matthei will represent the centre-right wing coalition’s bid to retain control of government.

Bachelet will likely win in the runoff. She obtained 47 percent in the first round, edging the absolute majority of the vote. Matthei is not expected to be a threat. She obtained 25 percent in the first round, matching the lowest support for a right-wing presidential hopeful in two decades. Although most of the polls overestimated the vote share for Bachelet in the first round, historical voting patterns point to a clean-cut victory in the second round. While hope persists in Matthei’s campaign base, doubling the percentage of votes seems like an impossible task (see here).

Because of Bachelet’s widespread favouritism, the larger part of the three month campaign gravitated around her presidential agenda. Mainstream media devoted the greater part of its political coverage to dissecting her government program. They specifically focused on her three most prominent promises and the possibility she could come through. They scrutinised her tax reform, educational reform and constitutional reform as well as questioned the likelihood that she would meet the legislative for each of them to pass through congress (see here).

During the three month campaign, media speculated on the level of success Bachelet’s future government could reach. The premise was that her success would hinge on her legislative majority. The key to a successful administration would come from the legislative election. To pass the tax reform she would need a simple majority of the 120-member chamber of deputies and the 38-member senate. To pass the educational reform she would need 4/7 of both chambers, and to undertake constitutional reform she would need 2/3 of both chambers.

The result of the legislative election quickly settled speculations. The Nueva Mayoría obtained 67 seats in the chamber of deputies and 21 seats in the senate. If Bachelet is elected in the second round, and her fellow coalition members elected to congress are disciplined, she will have enough votes to pass the tax reform but not enough votes to pass the educational reform or the constitutional reform (see here). In the light of these results, at best, Bachelet could only keep one of the three promises she pledged in her presidential program.

While the composition of the legislature will not allow Bachelet to unilaterally pass legislation in areas that require quorums higher than 4/7, she can still try and negotiate with other legislators (see here). Especially when it comes to the educational reform, where she is two votes shy of the 69 deputies and 22 senators required. The cohort that will be inaugurated concurrent to the next President will have four independent deputies and one independent senator. Bachelet best bet is to attempt to negotiate with them.

If Bachelet is elected to the presidency in the second round, and is successfully able to negotiate with the independents in congress, she will be able to undertake two of the three reforms she promised during her campaign. This is a likely scenario, given that two of the four independent deputies are student leaders of the 2010-2013 protests and are likely to fall in line with any reform to the educational system (see here). The independent senator may also decide to negotiate with Bachelet, if the conditions are favourable enough.

The worst possible outcome for Bachelet is if she cannot successfully partner with the independents, and has to resort to Alianza legislators. In this case, the odds she will be able to pass educational reform fall dramatically. Since legislative politics are substantially entrenched, it is unlikely right wing legislators will support left wing structural transformations of that nature. In this case, Bachelet would have to settle with the tax reform and suspend the educational reform – a gloomy scenario, given that most Chileans support both.

For now, Bachelet will be focused on securing a win in the second round – even though most of the game seems to have played out (see here). Because of the high prospective of Bachelet of winning in the runoff, and the result of the legislative election, the remainder of her campaign will be more focused on internal negotiations than traditional campaigning. The days to come will be about Bachelet and her negotiation with the independents. They will be about Bachelet and her attempt to secure at least two of her three campaign promises.

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