The right is back in Chile

President Sebastián Piñera of Chile. Image courtesy of Gobierno de Chile (CC BY 3.0 cl)

Chile’s seventh presidential election since its transition to a democracy in 1990 was decided in a run-off election on December 17, 2017. The incumbent, President Michelle Bachelet — from the center-left ruling coalition Nueva Mayoría — lost against Sebastián Piñera of the right-leaning coalition Chile Vamos (composed of Unión Democrática Independiente [UDI], Renovación Nacional [RN] and other smaller parties). Bachelet´s coalition had previously lost against Piñera in 2010, when he became the first right-wing president in 50 years. Chile’s 2017 election marked the first time that a sitting president of a Latin American country transitioning to democracy has twice handed over power (i.e., has lost) to the same person.

Piñera´s first administration saw, for the first time since Chile’s 1990 transition to democracy, approval rates that dropped to 25 percent. This contrasted with the 80 percent approval rates of his predecessor, Bachelet. This development emerged not only in Chile, but in Latin America as a whole: The decade of the 2010s marked the beginning of protest movements in several countries, and presidents saw approval rates plunging by an average of 20 percent or more, according to a 2017 Latinobarómetro report.

Bachelet had a similar fate during her second term, with approval rates dropping to 30 percent and climbing back up to 46 percent — considerably less than the 80 percent she had at the end of her first term in 2013.

Since 1990, electoral participation had been dropping. In 2012, a new voter law was drafted to curb this slow decline by installing voluntary voting instead or compulsory and automatic registration, instead of voluntary. Unfortunately, the law had the contrary effect of accelerating the drop in voter participation. Bachelet won in 2013 with 62 percent of the vote, but only 42 percent of registered voters went to the polls that year. This meant that Bachelet won a second term by capturing the vote of just 25 percent of registered voters. Between 1990 and 2013, electoral participation dropped by 31 percentage points in Chile, according to a 2016 Latinobarómetro report.

During Bachelet´s second term, a significant corruption scandal involving party and campaign financing led to the enactment of important political reforms that changed the rules of election and party competition,[1] with the intention of reversing voter dissatisfaction with politics:

    1. The binomial electoral system was replaced by a proportional system, with changes in the number of districts in both houses.
    2. The electoral institution (Servel) was made autonomous, with the power to enforce new election laws.
    3. New campaign financing legislation was enacted, with limits on spending.
    4. A 40 percent gender quota was established.
    5. A ban on polls 15 days before Election Day was instituted.


Although competition between coalitions was no longer required in Chilean elections,[2] the new electoral proportionality law benefits coalitions that run together. Therefore, there were some incentives to maintain the old coalitions in order to obtain better election results. This issue dominated the 2017 presidential campaign by putting enormous pressure on parties to compete with one joint presidential candidate and one list of candidates for parliament.

Chile’s political right managed to form a coalition and one parliament list. There were only two candidates: Sebastián Piñera of the coalition Chile Vamos and Jose Antonio Kast, an independent from the extreme right.

In contrast, the political left, which had sustained a steady coalition (Concertación) from 1990 to 2010, had evolved into a new coalition — Nueva Mayoría, which included the Communist Party and other leftist parties. In the end, the left had six presidential candidates but lacked a joint parliament list. Among the six candidates was Alejandro Guillier, a former journalist and independent supported by a Nueva Mayoría coalition backed by Bachelet’s government. Guillier did not have the support of the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (PDC), which ran with its own candidate, Carolina Goic. A new leftist coalition, [3] composed of 13 political movements, chose journalist Beatriz Sánchez as its candidate.

The first round of the election on November 17 was a setback for Piñera, who was expected to obtain 45 percent[4] of the vote but instead obtained 36 percent; it was a victory for the new left anti-establishment Frente Amplio, which obtained 20 percent of the vote for its candidate, Sanchez — only 2 percentage points below the 22 percent obtained by the government candidate, Guillier.

Compared to 2013, voter participation dropped in 2017 to an all-time low for a parliamentary election in the first round (49 percent in 2013 vs. 46 percent in 2017). Up to that point, there was no indication that an increase in voter participation would take place. With only 30 days to the runoff, the campaign turned into a race to win the votes of the other candidates. Also, for the first time since the beginning of the democratic transition period, Chile was facing an election with no polls due to the new 15-day ban. This was not unimportant because, since 1988, polls had given leaders and politicians good predictions of election outcomes.

In December, Piñera won the runoff with a completely unexpected rise in voter participation: 49.1 percent of the total electorate, up from 42 percent in 2013. Piñera won 200,000 more votes than in his first election in 2009. Nevertheless, in all, he was elected by 26 percent of eligible voters — a distinctly different result from Chile’s first democratic election in 1989, when Patricio Aylwin won with 47 percent of total eligible voters. This contrast between an all-time low in participation in the first round of the election in November 2017 (46 percent), and an all-time high in the second round in December 2017 (49 percent) is an indicator of the volatility electorates can produce. Both results remain unexplained.

Piñera took office on March 11, 2018. His decision to appoint members of the hard right to key posts has puzzled many. The question is, what will be the character of this government? Will it adopt an open and friendly approach, oriented toward the center and bringing unity, or will it adopt the character of so many of his appointees, who are hard-line conservatives? It remains to be seen.

One clue could be the fate of Chile’s gender identity bill, which allows transgender individuals to change their gender in official documents. The bill became a priority during Bachelet’s last week in office, after a movie from Chile about a transgender woman won the 2018 Oscar for the best foreign film (“Una mujer fantástica,” or “A Fantastic Woman”). Today, with the conservative Piñera as president, the bill has lost its urgency, and it is unclear when it will pass.

Not since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet has Chile been ruled by the traditional right, traditional in the sense that it is politically oriented toward conservative policies — in Pinochet’s case, conservative economic policies. In his first term as president, Piñera did not pursue changes to the policies implemented by the center-left coalitions before him. In fact, his mandate was considered a continuation of the four previous government administrations. This time, however, the right is fiercely opposed to Bachelet´s reforms to tax and other laws intended to balance power between companies and the public, and between workers and entrepreneurs. The election was won in 2017 not by Piñera, but by a tight coalition of right-wing parties that symbolize much more than the traditional economic policies of Pinochet´s government. The winning political coalition represents an ideological, value-centered group that is defending a type of society in which abortion, gay marriage, etc., are not favored. Those among us who lived during Pinochet’s regime only experienced his traditional, right-wing economic policies; they have yet to learn what it means to be ruled by a traditional right that favors a society of “traditional values” in other areas, such as social/cultural issues.

The right has regrouped and presented an ideological alternative. They won the election primarily because of the fragmentation of the left. The good news is that electoral competition has increased voter participation.

If the left does not regroup and develop an effective strategy going forward, the right will continue to win electoral and political victories, especially in the next local elections in 2020. For the first time in 54 years, Chile is facing a true conservative right led by a billionaire who wants to go down in history books as the best president Chile has ever had.


[1] This was the first set of laws that addressed the problems related to the institutionalization of politics after 1960 when political parties were established by law. Until 2014, no attempt had been made to further develop the political system. See Huneeus Cristobal, Antonio Díaz and Marta Lagos, “Los dos Chile,” Editorial Catalonia, 2014.

[2] Under the binomial electoral law, it was compulsory to build coalitions in order to obtain a seat in parliament.

[3] Frente Amplio, a new coalition formed by numerous minority groups and parties, originated with former members of the Socialist Party, PPD, other leftist parties of Concertación, and the new parties of younger student leaders (Revolución Democrática).

[4] Polls that anticipated 45 percent of the vote for Piñera failed; they were also unable to anticipate the success of the new left coalition (Frente Amplio), which obtained 20 percent of the vote.

Marta Lagos is a nonresident fellow for the Latin America Initiative at the Baker Institute. She is the founding director of the Latinobarómetro Corporation, a market and opinion research company that she founded in 1994 with U.K.-based organization MORI.