The frontrunner for Chile’s presidency, billionaire businessman Sebastian Piñera, faces an array of left-wing parties in this year’s elections but he can expect help from one quarter - low turnout.
Recent opinion polls give Piñera, a conservative former president, a commanding lead over his seven mostly left-of-center rivals for the Nov. 19 first round but predict he is unlikely to take the more than 50% needed to avoid a run-off.
While a unified left might muster the votes to defeat Piñera in the second round, weak turnout fed by disenchantment with politics and interparty bickering would pave the way for a Piñera win. However the non Piñera side believes that promoting voter turnout can be decisive to beat the conservative candidate.
“It’s likely that many left-wing voters are not going to vote in the second round because their candidate will have been eliminated, and with this drop, Piñera vote share catapults,” said analyst Kenneth Bunker, of Tresquintos.
“Piñera is going to win if fewer people vote.”
Investors strongly favor Piñera and bet he would better manage labor and education reforms implemented by current center-left President Michelle Bachelet, in power since 2014. Chile is one of the few countries in the region that does not have mandatory voting.
Turnout in the elections following Chile’s transition from compulsory to voluntary voting in 2012 has dipped as low as 42%, near the bottom of developed countries, according to statistics from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
Many Chileans are disenchanted with politics following campaign finance scandals that have tainted parties of both the right and left. Unlike citizens of Brazil, Peru, Argentina and Uruguay, they have the right to abstain without repercussions.
A recent CEP poll, conducted in September and October, found that only 43% of Chileans are likely to vote in the coming election. The poll showed Piñera would beat his two closest contenders, the center-left Alejandro Guillier and leftist Beatriz Sanchez, in a Dec. 17 runoff.
Coalitions of Chile’s center-left parties for decades dominated politics but have fractured in the face of disagreements over Bachelet’s economic and social reforms.
The CEP poll found that only 11% of voters sympathize with Bachelet’s Nueva Mayoria coalition and nearly 60% of Chileans did not identify with any of the major political parties.
Piñera’s campaign has sought to capitalize on growing discontent and division among the left by appealing to centrist Christian Democratic voters, historically the largest bloc within Bachelet’s coalition. Pinera recently called former President Patricio Aylwin, a Christian Democrat credited with smoothing Chile’s transition to democracy in the 1990s, an “example to follow.”
Candidates on the left have sought to counteract Piñera's advances by attempting to rally new voters. “We need a program that makes sense for everyone. If voter participation increases, we win,” insists center-left frontrunner Guillier, a former journalist and legislator.
In late October, Bachelet’s administration launched a get-out-the-vote campaign of television and radio advertisements, calling the election “an important moment for our democracy.”