The strong performance by Chile’s left-wing parties in Sunday’s election left conservative presidential frontrunner Sebastian Piñera facing a tight battle to win a December runoff and likely opposition to tax breaks in Congress if elected. Piñera came first with more than 36% of the vote, but his two main leftist rivals made a stronger-than-expected showing, garnering a combined 43% between them.
Thanks to a surprise surge by a new leftist grouping, Frente Amplio (Broad Front), left-of-centre lawmakers will outnumber Piñera’s Chile Vamos (Let’s Go Chile) voting bloc in both houses of Congress, official results showed on Monday. But no voting bloc will have an absolute majority in either house.
That would not bode well for Piñera’s plans to cut the corporate tax rate and slash red tape to woo new investments to Chile, the world’s top copper producer. And a Piñera victory in the Dec. 17 runoff for the presidency was no longer a sure thing, said election forecaster and political scientist Kenneth Bunker.
“It’s all up in the air right now,” Bunker said. “We were just dumbfounded when the results started to come in.”
Piñera, who governed Chile from 2010 to 2014, came in seven percentage points short of forecasts by opinion polls before Sunday’s vote.
His runoff opponent, center-left journalist-turned-Senator Alejandro Guillier, secured two percentage points more than expected. But the main surprise of Sunday’s vote was Frente Amplio candidate Beatriz Sanchez, who garnered twice as many votes as forecast.
“It’s going to be a tight and hard-fought election,” Piñera told foreign media on Monday. “We’re going to appeal to the centre, to the kind of people who want moderation.”
In another bad sign for Piñera, Chileans went to polls in slightly bigger numbers than expected on Sunday. Analysts consider a low turnout to favor the conservative candidate, as his supporters tend to be more likely to vote. Voter turnout in the first-round was nearly 47%, above pollster CEP’s expectations of 44%.
Chile, a country of 17 million people with a US$250 billion economy, has been one of Latin America’s most business-friendly and stable nations since its transition to democracy in 1990. Its economy slowed, however, to an average growth rate of 1.8% during outgoing President Michelle Bachelet’s term, with lower copper prices dragging on government revenue.
Guillier has promised to deepen Bachelet’s policies, from expanded access to free university education to protection for striking unions, without departing from Chile’s free-market economic model.
He has a tricky task ahead to attract the support of Chile’s wide-ranging left-of-centre voters. Winning an endorsement from Sanchez - who has proposed new taxes on the mining industry and the “super rich” - could pull him sharply to the left.
Having slammed Pinera as a “step backward” for Chile, Sanchez, a 46-year-old former radio journalist, could rally her supporters to vote for Guillier, but likely in exchange for policy concessions. But a too-sharp left turn could hurt Guillier’s chances with centrists.
Christian Democrats, for decades the leading Chilean political force, and partners of the ruling coalition since 1990, Sunday was a debacle. Presidential candidate Carolina Goic, and Magallanes Senator, only managed a mere 5.88% of the vote. She resigned as chairperson of the party a few hours after results and called her followers to vote for Guillier, anticipating no conditions for the support.
As left-leaning blocs weighed possible alliances, Piñera received a rapid endorsement from far-right Jose Antonio Kast, who was knocked out of the first round race of eight candidates but won nearly 8% of votes.
“We’re not going to demand anything in return or condition our support” for Piñera, said Kast, who defended deceased Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet during the campaign.