Chile just went to the polls — and transformed its legislature

Presidential candidate Sebastián Piñera waves to a crowd while holding a flag at the party headquarters during elections in Santiago, Chile, on Nov. 19. (Cristobal Olivares/Bloomberg)
Presidential candidate Sebastián Piñera waves to a crowd while holding a flag at the party headquarters during elections in Santiago, Chile, on Nov. 19. (Cristobal Olivares/Bloomberg)

On Sunday, for the seventh time since Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship ended, Chileans went to the polls to elect a president and National Congress. Only 46 percent of those eligible to vote actually did so, one of the lowest turnouts in the country’s history.

In the presidential race, no candidate won a full majority, which means there will be a runoff, scheduled for Dec. 17. Although most opinion polls had shown right-wing billionaire and former president Sebastián Piñera with a clear lead of between 42 and 47 percent, the latest results show he received only 36.6 percent of the ballots. The next-place candidate, Sen. Alejandro Guillier, the center-left candidate, received just under 23 percent.

Perhaps more significant than the presidential first round was the transformation of Congress. This was the first time Chile has gone to the polls since major electoral reforms. Voters weighed in on all the members of the legislature’s lower house, and almost half the Senate. What were the results?

Chile transformed its electoral system since the last election

For 28 years, a tailor-made electoral system allowed the two larger coalitions — one on the center right that still hosts some of Pinochet’s old allies, and another on the center left — to rule Congress without admitting smaller parties.

But over the past eight years, Chile has seen significant social and political transformations. In 2011, during Piñera’s government, students protested en masse over the decreasing role of the country in secondary education, and for the introduction of free higher education. More recently, lawmakers on both right and left — including family members of President Michelle Bachelet — were implicated in high-profile corruption cases.

Bachelet reacted by commissioning a report on potential changes to the political system and campaign finance. The Engel report (named after the commission’s chair, former Yale professor Eduardo Engel) suggested a number of changes — many of which Bachelet championed, and which Congress put into law under the pressure of public opinion.

As a result, Bachelet oversaw major electoral reforms, including gender quotas for Congress, an electoral system that aims to translate the political parties’ vote shares into the percentage of seats in Congress, and limits on political donations and campaign spending. The gender quotas legislation requires every party’s candidate list to include at least 40 percent women, a move that was encouraged by international organizations like the U.N. Development Programme.

Did this new electoral system lead to different results?

The new electoral system wouldn’t have affected the presidential election, which is one person, one vote. Piñera won almost 10 points below what the polls predicted. Guillier also won less than predicted, as the center left votes went to two different candidates. As a result, journalist Beatriz Sánchez from the left-wing coalition Frente Amplio got 20.3 percent of the vote — the most garnered by a left-only coalition since Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular in 1970.

But because of the reforms, Congress will look quite different. My research project, Candidaturas Chile — which is an international consortium among Queen Mary, University of London, Universidad Andrés Bello, and Azerta — has collected data on all candidates who ran for Congress this year and in all elections since 1989, including demographic information and political or professional background. This allows us to compare the results of this election with those from previous elections.

Most notable are the changes in Congress’s gender composition. Chile was at the bottom of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in gender balance, with women making up 16 percent of all representatives — only 15 percent in the Senate, and 16.4 percent in the lower house. However, after the new elections under the legal gender quotes, women make up 26 percent of the Senate and 23 percent of the lower house.

Further, the new and more proportional districts have changed the party composition of the Congress. The proportion of MPs that do not belong to the traditional parties jumped from 3 percent to 17 percent. And Frente Amplio, the insurgent left coalition that wasn’t founded until January this year, managed to elect a senator for the first time.

Further, the new Congress will seat a significant number of new faces. Only 55 percent of Senate incumbents running for reelection kept their seats — while in the lower house, only 40.6 percent of incumbents did. The new Congress is also younger. Senators’ average ages decreased from 59 to 56; lower house members’ average ages dropped from 50 to 45. Chileans also elected a senator and a lower house member from the indigenous Mapuche ethnic group, which has not happened since the 1970s.

Politically, the balance of power among political parties changed significantly. The ruling coalition Nueva Mayoría obtained only 56 of the lower house’s 155 seats, while Piñera’s coalition, Chile Vamos, won 73. Neither reached a majority. Frente Amplio, on the other hand, increased its presence from three to 20 lower house members, becoming the pivotal group for the next four years.

What will this election mean for Chile’s political direction?

Bachelet oversaw the passage of a progressive agenda that, among other legislation, put into place free higher education, established same-sex civil unions, and implemented abortion rights. If Piñera wins, he will have a difficult time rolling these back, since his legislative coalition does not have a majority. If Guillier wins, any attempt to push Bachelet’s reforms even further will be resisted by the center-right coalition Chile Vamos, but should be supported by Frente Amplio legislators.

Whoever gets elected president in December, the challenge will be to operate in a Congress that is less experienced, more socially diverse, and much more complex in political terms than previously. Chile will prove a significant test case for proponents of deep electoral reform around the world.

Javier Sajuria is a lecturer in politics in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London.

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