Understanding the Chilean Presidential Election

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and compare everything to California

People have long compared Chile with California, and for good reason. They are both (relatively) thin, long countries, with every climate imaginable just a few hours away or, to put it simply, where you can ski and surf in the same day. And though I’m especially partial to spicy East Asian food and the occasional (daily) burrito, neither one of which Chile really has in any great supply, its undeniable that the politics between the two areas bears more than a striking resemblance.

That’s right folks, today is Sunday, December 13, 2009: the day of the Chilean presidential election, when millions of Chileans will be streaming to the polls, against their greater apathetic inertia, to cast their vote for the man that will be leading Chile for the next four years. And while the matchup between Chile/California was more similar before Gavin “Golden Boy” Newsom dropped out of the governor’s race, here’s a quick rundown.

The Chilean election has four candidates, three dubbed “major” candidates, and a fourth with a much lower percentage of the vote.

Sebastián Piñera, billionaire businessman and owner of LAN Airlines, Chile’s biggest airline, among other things, is currently leading in the polls. He ran against, and lost to, Michelle Bachelet in 2006 in a close election, and is the first conservative candidate to even have a chance since the county’s return to democracy in 1990. Though his lead has wavered in the high-30s and 40s, he has never polled above 50%, which would mean that Chile will have a second round vote early next year between the top two candidates. Piñera is a shoe-in for the second round.

Eduardo Frei, a senator from the Democratic Christian party, has consistently polled in second place, though today’s election will show us the reliability of these polls. Frei represents the Concertación, a center-left political coalition that formed to oppose the dictator Pinochet and defeat him in the historic 1988 plebiscite that removed him from power. The Concertación has held power since, including current president Bachelet, though their power has waned over the years. Bachelet, despite an unpopular start, has since reached record-high levels of popularity through a series of bonuses for the poor, scholarships and loans to advance education, and aggressive stimulus spending to combat the recession, along with Finance Minister Andrés Velasco, who is also a beloved figure in national politics.

The Chilean people seem to have done a good job separating Bachelet from the rest of the Concertación, which, like Frei, is significantly less popular. Frei was president from 1994-2000, which may be one of the biggest points against him, as many say that he has “already had his chance.” Frei’s best chance, it seems, is to latch onto Bachelet’s coattails and hope that he receives some second-hand affection.

The biggest wildcard in the election, and what could be quite the success story, lies in Marco Enríquez-Ominami, the 36-year-old former Socialist filmmaker. Enríquez-Ominami, or MEO, as the lazy press has nicknamed him, is an interesting case.
His father was founder of the MIRistas, or Revolutionary Left Movement (Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria), and was killed during the coup. He and his family were exiled afterward and he grew up in France, returning to Chile after the dictatorship to work as film producer, including for the political left. His adopted father, Senator Carlos Ominami, is a powerful figure in Chilean politics.

Marco has garnered significant public support since beginning his run for the presidency, rising from an unknown candidate to as much as 20% of the vote, though this remains uncertain. Some polls place him at a dead tie with Frei in the first round, while some put him as much as 10% behind Frei in a solid third-place finish. Though he has something of a leftist air and reputation, his politics are a mix of both sides, and a recent poll showed that voters consider him actually a bit to the right of Frei, though not by much. Polls also show MEO performing a bit better than Frei in an eventual second-round runoff against Piñera, though still losing. Whatever the outcome of today’s election, he certainly has succeeded in building significant political support for a potential future run, especially considering that one of his main critiques this time around was his youth an inexperience, something that will not be as much of a problem in four years. If only he could slow down his rate of speech a bit, he’d be far more understandable, especially to the foreign press.

Jorge Arrate, a leftist politician, is the fourth candidate. Arrate has never had the political support or fundraising power of the other candidates, but has consistently the one of the only candidates to avoid partisan bickering and namecalling and discussed the issues, leading many to declare him a very intelligent man, though not one with a chance of winning. He has, however, gained the support of many who would like to ‘vote their conscience,’ who now see MEO as too much of a political gamer, and his support has risen to roughly 6-7 percent of the vote, up from the 1% he had earlier in the year. Arrate is a hardcore leftist and his campaign signs often depict former president Salvador Allende, the socialist president ousted (and killed) during the 1973 coup.

So there you have it. My prediction? Piñera wins, with 42% of the vote. Frei takes a comfortable second place, with 25%, and MEO takes third with 19%. Arrate will win 8%. The problem with all of the polls is that every one of them has a substantial ‘did not respond’ group, all of which will be voting based on Chile’s obligatory voting law, so honestly I have no idea what to expect.

The comparison to California, by the way, got a bit lost by the wayside. Basically, Jerry Brown = Eduardo Frei, a former governor that nobody is really all that excited about, but people see as ‘experienced.’ MEO = Gavin Newsom, a young upstart with radical ideas, who many people are excited about but generally nervous about. Piñera = Meg Whitman/Steve Poizner, billionaire businesspeople who can finance their campaigns out of pocket.

Politics is, after all, more of an art than a science, so I’m excited to see what happens.

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One Response to Understanding the Chilean Presidential Election

  1. Pingback: And the winner is… | Tall, But Jewish

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