Chile’s voters head to the polls Sunday in local elections that could serve as a barometer for what’s to come in next year’s presidential race. President Michelle Bachelet has low—if not improving—approval ratings, and 14.1 million Chileans are eligible to vote in what counts as the first national election since she won her reelection bid in 2013. What do the polls say about where Bachelet’s New Majority coalition stands, the strength of the Chile Vamos opposition coalition, and the levels of voter disillusion amid corruption scandals and an electoral registry mishap?
AS/COA Online takes a look at the key issues marking the October 23 elections.
1. What’s up for grabs?
Chile is divided into 345 communes, which count as the smallest administrative subdivisions in the country and are similar to counties in the United States. Each commune will elect one mayor and, depending on population, six, eight, or ten councilmembers to four-year terms. The communes are grouped into 54 provinces. While the Santiago commune, containing the capital’s downtown area and located in the province of the same name, is largely considered the most important, the Maipú commune, also in the Santiago province, has the largest ballot, with 108 councilmember candidates running for 10 seats.
Nationwide there are 2,240 councilmember seats and 345 mayoral seats up for election.
2. How many people are expected to vote?
Experts are predicting record levels of abstention for Sunday’s municipal elections, with estimates for turnout hovering between 35 and 40 percent. Some 27 percent of Chileans said they would “definitely not vote,” as of an October 12 survey from national public opinion firm Cadem, although that’s up from 18 percent in March.
Low turnout has been an issue since Chile altered its rules regarding compulsory voting in 2012. Before then, Chileans chose to register and were obligated to vote once they did. Now, Chileans are automatically registered, but voting is voluntary.
Cadem’s October survey found that young and low-income voters are the least likely to vote, with expected turnout of 36 and 33 percent, respectively. A University of Talca survey of immigrants in five of Santiago’s communes found that only 34 percent of those eligible to vote planned to do so. Cadem’s survey also found that, of the minority of respondents who indicated they would definitely vote, the most—30 percent—anticipated voting for an independent candidate, followed by 23 percent for New Majority, and 20 percent for Chile Vamos.
Experts and polls cite dissatisfaction with the political system, disillusionment with political parties amid ongoing corruption scandals, and recent errors in the national registry as potential causes for low turnout.
While Cadem’s latest survey indicated Bachelet’s approval rating stood at 23 percent, up from a low of 18 percent since her reelection, the majority of Chileans remain pessimistic: 72 percent believe the government is steering the country in the wrong direction. Disapproval of new government tax, labor, and education reforms stands at or above 59 percent.
Disenchantment is particularly high among young populations. A recent study at the University of Chile found that an overwhelming majority of people between 18 and 29 have “little to no confidence” in politics, and 93, 90, and 83 percent lack faith in the parliament, political parties, and the government, respectively.
3. What’s happening in Santiago?
While the expectation is that Sunday’s vote will serve an across-the-board blow to New Majority, which consists of four major center-left parties, insider polls indicate the commune of Santiago is expected to have a tight mayoral race. Considered a predictor of how presidential elections will go, as well as a stepping stone for aspiring politicians to the presidency, two frontrunners are in Santiago’s election spotlight: current mayor, Carolina Tohá of the center-left Party for Democracy (PPD)—part of the New Majority coalition—and councilman Felipe Alessandri of the National Renewal (RN) party, which is in the center-right Chile Vamos coalition.
Tohá is the daughter of socialist politician and minister to Salvador Allende, Jose Tohá, who was brutally tortured and eventually died after the 1973 coup that put General Augusto Pinochet in power. She won the 2012 election with 67 percent of the vote, but suffered from her links to a corruption case surrounding the Sociedad Química y Minera of Chile (SQM), also known as Soquimich, which stands accused of diverting funds to politicians. Recent investigations into the SQM case have shown payments to groups connected to the PPD in 2011 and 2012, when Tohá was party leader. Chile’s Public Ministry has called for a formal investigation of David Flores, who worked on Tohá’s campaign for party leader, in conjunction with the case.
Alessandri has accused Tohá of receiving support from the government, complaints that he has filed as “electoral intervention” with the comptroller.
Alessandri enjoys the backing of three former mayors of Santiago—Pablo Zalaquett, Raúl Alcaíno, and Joaquín Lavín—as well as support from ex-President Sebastián Piñera, the likely Chile Vamos candidate in next year’s presidential race.
A separate October poll by Cadem found that 36 percent of Chileans believed Piñera would be the next president—the most of any other possible candidate. Piñera has accompanied Alessandri on campaign trips throughout Santiago, and the duo even filmed a clip of themselves singing in their carpool.
4. What’s the Civil Registry scandal about?
A final factor plaguing the upcoming elections is an error in the Civil Registry that altered the electoral address of some 463,000 voters without them having requested it. Those affected, some 3.3 percent of all voters, will have to vote at different polling places than the ones previously assigned to them, and some in different communes entirely. Originally discovered over the summer, the full impact of the address changes was just revealed this month and has generated further concerns about low turnout.
An investigation is currently underway as to what caused the error, with questions of criminal negligence and fraud being explored. In response, Congress proposed an emergency “short law” that would allow those affected by the address changes to vote at their usual polling sites, but the proposal did not pass amid concerns that it was too hastily drafted and would lead to double voting.
Alessandri is among several candidates who have spoken out against the address changes, saying that it could impact election results, likening the disorder was akin to something one would find in a “banana republic.” Other politicians have even called for the election’s postponement. Bachelet expressed disappointment that the short law was not pushed through, but encouraged Chileans to head to the polls on Sunday. She traced the errors with the Civil Registry to 2012, when Piñera was president, and assured Chileans that the Interior Ministry would ensure people had the proper facilities at which to vote come Sunday.