Chileans are set to head to the polls this Sunday to choose their next president, but experts fear much more than half the electorate will opt not for Michelle Bachelet or Evelyn Matthei, but to stay at home on election day instead. The election’s first round, held Nov. 17, saw the debut of the voluntary voting system in Chilean presidential elections and a turnout of 6.7 million, half-a-million-votes less than were counted in 2010, when voting was still mandatory for those on the electoral role.
“Our rival is not the [Nueva Mayoría] and the Communist Party [PC], our rival is abstention” Lily Perez, Matthei’s spokeswoman, told press Thursday. “We are calling on people to vote.”
November's turnout number was between 49.3% and 56% of the electorate, according to figures provided by the Electoral Service (Servel) and President Sebastián Piñera, respectively.
Following the election, Piñera — whose administration oversaw the transition from mandatory to voluntary voting — lamented the low turnout and called on Chileans to head to the polls in higher numbers on Dec. 15.
“Without a doubt, the higher the turnout, the stronger and more legitimate our democracy,” Piñera said.
However political science professor at the Universidad Diego Portales, Patricio Navia, told The Santiago Times he is convinced the turnout will be even lower this time than it was in the first round.
“Because there are only two candidates on the ballots and not 20 or 30, there are fewer people working to bring voters out and that’s going to negatively affect turnout,” he said. “I think turnout is going to be in the low 40s, it might even be lower than 40”.
With prospects of such low figures on Sunday and the legitimacy of the nation’s democracy at stake, some lawmakers are already considering a return to mandatory voting. In Bachelet’s left-leaning Nueva Mayoría pact, long-standing rivals the Christian Democrats (DC) and the Communist Party (PC) are united in their desire to turn back the clock on the voluntary vote.
“In general, the feeling has been raised in Parliament that it would be good to return to the obligatory vote,” DC Dep. Ricardo Rincón told La Tercera on Monday.
The other core members of the Nueva Mayoría, the Party for Democracy (PPD) and Bachelet’s own Socialist Party (PS) are yet to confirm an official position, though members of both parties — including the presidential frontrunner — have indicated their desire to increase participation by other means.
“In the future we will discuss how we can provide free transport to polling stations, make them more accessible to the elderly and many other areas which have to be corrected,” Bachelet told press Monday.
Both of the two main parties in Matthei’s right-leaning Alianza coalition have explicitly stated their opposition to a return to the mandatory vote.
Meanwhile some argue that low voter turnout is not just due to problems of access, but indicative of a crisis of representation. Navia sees Chile’s low voter turnout is part of a worldwide trend.
“A declining turnout is a phenomenon that is happening everywhere in the world, not just in Chile,” Navia told The Santiago Times. “We also know that when countries are in crisis, people turn out at higher rates. So in the U.S., more people voted in 2008 than in 2012. The fact that we’re going to have a low turnout is both an indication of what’s happening in the rest of the world but it’s also because Chile is not in the middle of a crisis.”
Daniela Tejada, head researcher at Ciudadano Inteligente, an organization promoting transparency and citizen engagement, cites several other factors, including lack of trust in the political class as a reason for abstention.
“One of the reasons is the lack of a campaign accompanying the law of automatic registration and voluntary vote to inform the population of the importance of exercising this right,” she told The Santiago Times. “On the other hand, high electoral abstention is also representative of a lack of trust towards our political institutions.”
Perhaps nowhere is that lack of trust more evident than in the youth vote — a recent study by the Social Development Ministry found 61% of respondents between the ages of 15 and 29 believed social media was a more effective tool for enacting change than voting.
These kind of figures have prompted the U.S. based Rock the Vote organization to campaign in Chile to convince young voters to express their opinions at the ballot box.
Rock the Vote Chile organized a series of events this week to try and combat voter abstention. On Monday, Rock the Vote Chile held a debate between youth director of the Nueva Mayoría pact Camilo Ballesteros and of Deputy Jaime Bellolio of the Alianza coalition. On Tuesday, it put on a concert in La Serena and another on Wednesday at the Hard Rock Café in Santiago.
“Entry to the Hard Rock Café was absolutely free but the young people have to vote:we had a ballot box and simulated votes so that they carry out their exercise of voting,” Esteban Romero, president of Rock the Vote Chile, told The Santiago Times.
“Even if they go and give a blank vote, they should express themselves” Romero insisted.
By Benjamin Druttman – The Santiago Times