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Explainer: Chile's Top Election Issues and Candidates

presidential candidates in chile

L to R: Sebastián Piñera, Beatriz Sánchez, Alejandro Guillier.

August 23, 2017

Chileans vote to elect Michelle Bachelet's successor on November 19, with a runoff a month later. Get the facts:
What are Chilean voters focused on ahead of the November presidential vote? The economy, pension reform & education

The deadline to register candidates for Chile’s general election officially was August 21, leaving eight contenders running for a first-round presidential vote on November 19. In the race for the top seat, ex-President Sebastián Piñera has a wide lead in the polls, but he’s likely to face one of two former journalists in a December 17 runoff. Chilean voters will also elect 23 senators, 155 deputies, and 278 regional council members.

Here’s what you need to know about the top issues dominating the campaign and President Michelle Bachelet’s potential successors.


The economy

Creating new wealth, rather than fighting inequality, is Chileans’ top concern this election cycle, says political scientist Patricio Navia. Chile registered its lowest rate of economic growth since 2009 this year, expanding just 0.5 percent in the first half of 2017. It’s a significant low for the world’s top copper producer, whose economy grew an average 4 percent annually from 2000 to 2016. And while official government statistics show that Chile has cut the number of people living in poverty from 20 percent in 2000 to 12 percent in 2015, a recent independent study by Chilean organization Fundación Sol places the current poverty rate closer to 27 percent.


The current government pledged to reform the pension system before Bachelet leaves office in March 2018. In August, the president submitted a bill to Congress that would require companies to contribute to employees’ pensions. Today, working Chileans must contribute 10 percent of their salaries to an individual pension fund of their choosing, which leaves retirees receiving $139 a month in benefits, or half of Chile’s monthly minimum wage. Bachelet proposes to require employers to contribute 5 percent, with 60 percent of those funds going to individuals’ accounts and the remainder to a collective fund that would help boost current retirees’ pensions. The reform would also replace private pension administrators, known as AFPs, with a public agency. But while Chileans have long disparaged AFPs, one poll shows only 32 percent of the public is in favor of the reform, while the majority thinks it won’t fix the current system. This lack of support, and the fact that Bachelet is short on time, means it’s likely that pension reform will be an issue that rolls over into the next administration.


With mass student protests in 2006, then again in 2011, and as recently as this spring, education continues to be a major issue. A series of reforms in 2015 attempted to address the inequalities linked to the school voucher system created under Augusto Pinochet in the early 1980s and considered to be one of the most expensive and privatized education systems in the world. But even though Bachelet’s reforms now allow the poorest 60 percent of the population to attend college for free, opponents say the measure doesn’t go far not enough.




Leading Candidates

Sebastián Piñera

Topping the polls by a comfortable margin is Sebastián Piñera, 67, representing the Let’s Go Chile (Chile Vamos) coalition. He’s the only presidential candidate with a right-leaning platform, and he’s also maintained a lead in the polls among Chile’s divided left. His time as president from 2010 to 2014 has also been Chile’s only conservative term in the post-Pinochet era, and one that saw the country’s economy grow an average 4.7 percent a year. This experience, a doctorate in economics from Harvard University, and stints at the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank add weight to the former president’s platform centered on revving up the economy. Piñera pledges to double Chile’s growth rate and add a million jobs to the economy. He also has plans for $20 billion in infrastructure projects through 2026. On the other hand, critics question some aspects of Piñera’s business background. Piñera is worth an estimated $2.7 billion, and some of his past dealings are under the microscope for voters weary of corruption.

On pension reform, Piñera has a proposed a different version of Bachelet’s bill. He would require companies to contribute 4 percent instead of 5 to individual pension funds, alongside a general tax hike to boost the basic pension level. On the education front, Piñera is familiar with university students’ calls for getting rid of the profit motive in the education system, particularly protestors’ demands to eliminate the Crédito Aval del Estado (CAE), which helps students finance their studies through banks but at high interest rates. As such, he proposes free education for the lower-earning half of households and helping the remaining 50 percent finance their studies via scholarships and loans directly from the government rather than CAE.

Twitter: @sebastianpinera

Alejandro Guillier

Second in the polls is Alejandro Guillier, 64, a former journalist and TV anchor running as an independent with the backing of the ruling coalition, New Majority (Nueva Mayoría). Guillier is new to politics, starting as senator of Antofagasta in 2014, the only member of the Radical Social Democratic Party (Partido Radical Socialdemócrata) to hold a seat in the upper house of Congress. His progressive agenda includes a move to diversify Chile’s economy from its dependence on copper, while increasing regional integration and trade by building a megaport. He also wants to boost spending on health and education.

Guillier’s challenge involves finding a balance between distinguishing himself from the current administration—which was running 25 percent approval to 61 percent disapproval ratings in late August—and advancing Bachelet’s reforms. While he has come out in support of Bachelet’s current pension reform, he promises to take a step further toward a public education system that’s free and of quality, with a particular focus on filling Chile’s labor force gap of 600,000 skilled technicians. He also proposes finding a solution to the $8.4 billion in student debt that would involve paying some portion of it with government resources.

Twitter: @guillier

Beatriz Sánchez

Also a former journalist, Beatriz Sánchez is the candidate of a second left-wing coalition in Chile, Broad Front (Frente Amplio). While she has only managed to overtake Guillier in Cadem’s polls once thus far, in mid-July, the pollster’s first survey on a second-round vote suggested Sánchez could prove the more competitive opponent against Piñera in the runoff.

Hailing from Viña del Mar, a coastal city some 80 miles west of Santiago, Sánchez prides herself on coming from outside of Chile’s capital. The candidate most likely supported by urban youth and the student movement, her agenda, titled “A Promise for a Feminist Government of the Twenty-First Century,” aims to incorporate women’s issues into all aspects of society, from education about the feminist movement in schools to expanding abortion rights to including unremunerated jobs such as child and elderly care into pension reform. She also promises to reform the pension system to get rid of the unpopular AFPs. On education, Sánchez says she’ll remove the profit motive of the tuition and loan systems, pledging to consider relevant parties in the reform-making process, including the students themselves. Sánchez’s platform also includes expansions of and protection for gender identity rights.

Twitter: @labeasanchez

Other contenders

The remaining candidates all have 5 percent support or less in national polls. Among them is Carolina Goic, 44, of the center-left Christian Democratic Party (Partido Demócrata Cristiano), one of the parties of the ruling New Majority alliance. Her candidacy marks the first time the party has separated from the alliance and presented its own candidate in a general election since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990. In fact, her supporters’ ideas diverge so much from the New Majority’s Guillier that some Christian Democrats may opt for supporting the right-wing candidate Piñera in a second-round vote.

Per Cadem, she’s in a dead heat with José Antonio Kast, 51, the second independent running for president. Now a first-term deputy in Congress’ lower house, Kast began his career in politics in 1997 as a councilman of the city of Buin.

Marco Enríquez-Ominami, 44, is the candidate of the center-left Progressive Party (Partido Progresista), which he founded in 2010 after losing his bid for president in the 2009 election as an independent. At the time, he ran against Piñera, though he finished third with 20 percent of the vote in the first round, thereby failing to move on to the runoff. Enríquez-Ominami’s roots in Chilean politics run deep: his father, Miguel Enríquez, led a leftist movement before he was killed during Pinochet’s regime.

Finally, two other candidates will be on the ballot, though they’ve been left out of Cadem’s and GfK Adimark’s polls: Eduardo Artés and Alejandro Navarro. Artés, 65, is a professor and the candidate of the Communist Party of Chile (Partido Comunista de Chile). Navarro, 58, is a senator representing the Biobío region. He is the candidate of the new, small leftist party he helped found in 2016, Country (País), after parting ways with the New Majority coalition.

Carolina Goic
Twitter: @carolinagoic

José Antonio Kast
Twitter: @joseantoniokast

Marco Enríquez Ominami
Twitter: @marcoporchile

Eduardo Artés
Twitter: @eduardo_artes

Alejandro Navarro
Twitter: @senadornavarro

Podcast with political scientist Patricio Navia: Chilean Voters "Are Not Looking for Pure, Perfect Politicians"

(Top image: Flickr users Chile Ayuda a Chile, Fotos TVN, and Chilean Chamber of Deputies)