Chile drops mandatory vote – and a few incumbent mayors

Chileans replaced pro-government mayors in many of its biggest municipalities yesterday in an election that saw only a fraction of eligible voters cast ballots.

Eliseo Fernandez/Reuters
A child gestures as people cast their vote at a public school during municipal elections in Valparaiso city, about 75 miles northwest of Santiago, October 28. Chilean voters elected mayors and councilmen across 15 political regions on Sunday.

Chileans replaced pro-government mayors in many of its most important municipalities yesterday, in the country's first election without mandatory voting. It marked a reverse for the administration of President Sebastian Piñera, who three years ago became the first elected conservative president in Chile in decades.

The incumbent mayors of several boroughs of the capital, Santiago, were rejected by voters in an election marked by historically low turnout. Santiago center, as well as the nearby boroughs of Providencia, Ñuñoa, and Recoleta, all shifted from mayors aligned with President Piñera to outsiders ranging from an independent to a communist.

"If you look at opinion polls and the issues of policy, Chileans are sort of center-left," says Robert Funk, a professor of public affairs at the University of Chile. The vote was a “rejection of the government,” he says, while stressing that the issues at stake were generally local, rather than national.

For more than a year, the government has had approval ratings of 25 to 30 percent, says Funk, “and that’s what they got.” He says this election shows that Piñera's victory three years ago was more a rejection of the moribund left than a wholehearted embrace of conservative beliefs.

'Test' of voluntary voting

The election was widely seen as the first test of Chile's move away from voluntary registration and mandatory voting. Under the old system, voters could be fined more than $200 for failing to show up – a rule that caused many lower-income and younger voters to refuse to register. The voting rolls used yesterday included all eligible voters, through automatic registration, but voters were left to decide whether to show up. Many didn't.

Among the country's 13.4 million names on the election rolls, only 5.5 million people voted.

Most of the abstentions were likely from people who just didn't care much about the election, Funk says. "In this new system, the people who vote are the hard line of both sides."

Piñera put the new voting system in place a year ago, at which time government spokesman Andrés Chadwick said the municipal elections would be a chance to see which side it favored. After last night's results were released, Mr. Chadwick said the abstention rate was "very high. No one expected it."

"Many mayors were elected with the support of less than half the eligible voters, and that significantly reduces their legitimacy," says Francisco Jimenez, chief of public opinion studies at Santiago polling company Adimark/GFK.

Some abstentions were from people incorrectly included as potential voters, such as former President Salvador Allende, who died during a coup d’état in 1973, as well as the names of the people kidnapped by the military dictatorship that followed the coup. The presence of such names on voting lists caused some commentators to complain of possible irregularities with the vote, but in the end, the election process went off without complaints of fraud. It was "clean, transparent, and exemplary," Piñera said.

Drawing conclusions

Beyond errors in the voter rolls, the history of former President Allende's elected socialist revolution and the coup led by General Augusto Pinochet remained very much present in this election.

Carolina Tohá, the new mayor of central Santiago, is the daughter of Allende's vice president, José Tohá. And Allende's granddaughter, Maya Fernández, won a tight race to become mayor of the Ñuñoa borough. Meanwhile Providencia Mayor Cristián Labbé, a former member of Pinochet's inner circle, was defeated.

Analysts warned against drawing conclusions about what this vote could mean for the next presidential election a year from now. As in any local election, the results in the most important jurisdictions may have less to do with major political shifts or even systemic changes than with local politics. Rampant high-rise development and a heavy-handed police response to student demonstrations may have cost some mayors their jobs, Funk says.

One lesson the parties might take from this race is that they need to offer voters a reason to support them, rather than simply publicizing candidate names. Almost all campaign materials showed only candidates' names and faces, without even mentioning their party affiliation, much less their political beliefs, Funk says.

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