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Chile, Bachelet and the Ostensible ‘Lurch to the Left’

Bottom Line: How far left will Bachelet take Chile? Not as far as it might seem in the face of continual political stalemate.

Michelle BacheletAnalysis: Analysts across the political spectrum have been opining for months on what the results of Chile’s 17 November general elections would say about the country’s political future. Michelle Bachelet (New Majority Coalition/Socialist Party), who served as a center-left president from 2006-2010, was up against the conservative Evelyn Matthei (Alliance/Independent Democratic Union), who was consistently polling 10-20 points behind Ms. Bachelet.

Two questions, however, remained. First, how big would Bachelet’s win be? She needed 51% of the vote to avoid a 15 December runoff. Here, Bachelet lost out narrowly; she secured only 47% of the vote to Matthei’s 25%. This has been the norm since Chile’s return to democracy, save for the election of President Patricio Aylwin in 1989. But for Bachelet, whose approval ratings skyrocketed after she left the office to the widely unpopular Sebastian Pinera (National Renewal/Coalition for Change), it was a bittersweet victory.

The second question surrounding the election was how hard to the left Bachelet would tack following her election, which would primarily be determined by her coalition’s legislative showing. Chilean political parties in search of a convincing electoral mandate must overcome the country’s binomial system, which allots equal representation to the top two party lists in each of the legislative chambers’ two-seat electoral districts unless the first party list’s majority doubles that of the second. The system has been roundly criticized by scholars of democracy who regard it as undemocratic and conducive only toward the production of political stalemates. Thus, Bachelet’s ambitious leftward promises of tax, education, and even constitutional reforms depended entirely on her coalition’s get-out-the-vote effort.

In this regard, too, the New Majority fell just short of the margins needed for a compelling victory. The coalition increased its Senate numbers from 20 to 21 out of 38 total seats against the Alliance’s 16 seats, which did not change. The New Majority picked up more seats in the House, increasing from 57 to 67 out of 120 to the opposition’s six-seat decrease from 55 to 49. Unfortunately for Bachelet, the Constitution requires differential majorities for the passage of legislation pertaining to certain issues. While New Majority can pass its proposed corporate tax hike from 20 to 25%, the coalition will need to find one additional vote each in the House and Senate for education reforms, along with four more deputies and two senators for modifications of the binomial electoral regime. The three independent deputies and lone independent senator, Carlos Bianchi, can look forward to quite a bit of attention in the coming months.

Recommendation: All told, expectations of a “lurch to the left” seem to have been largely thwarted by New Majority’s less-than-stellar legislative win. Moreover, the predictions of some right-leaning commentators that Chile was facing the threat of a new “Bolivarian revolution,” already a rather silly and alarmist prospect in the most business-friendly country in Latin America, have been snuffed out. Instead, the country finds itself where it has for the last two electoral cycles, albeit a bit more leftish than in the past. Although conservatives can sleep soundly, much-needed reforms to the country’s binomial system, which perpetuates the political stalemate with which Chileans must once again grapple, are likely to be deferred once again.

This week’s Latin America intel notes are provided by Southern Pulse, exclusively for Oil & Energy Insider.

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